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Natural Instincts

Neely Woodson Powell, CEO/founder of Charleston Shoe Company, serves up the lifestyle brand’s enticing ‘cobblestones to cocktails’ aesthetic.

Neely Woodson Powell, CEO/founder of Charleston Shoe Company

SOME PEOPLE JUST have a natural entrepreneurial instinct. Neely Woodson Powell is one of them. As Charleston Shoe Company (CSC) lore goes: 28 years ago, Woodson Powell was traveling in central Mexico and came across a cobbler who made stylish yet comfortable shoes. Rather than become a customer, she thought big and entered into an agreement to sell the shoes wholesale. Flash forward to today, and CSC is a retail/wholesale casual lifestyle brand offering an extensive array of shoes, apparel, and accessories sold in 25 flagships and more than 200 wholesale accounts nationwide. Along the way, Woodson Powell added footwear design skills by attending Savannah College of Art & Design. She is a rare triple threat: retailer, wholesaler, and designer.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a leap, considering the entrepreneurial pedigree of Woodson Powell’s parents. Her father developed the Little Palm Island resort in the Florida Keys and her mother founded the furniture company, Worlds Away. In fact, Woodson Powell began selling wholesale by piggybacking in her mother’s booths at furniture trade shows. She also made the rounds early on, à la Nike and Dansko, by selling shoes out of the trunk of her car. It’s that can-do spirit that Woodson Powell says lies at the center of CSC.

“My incredible family drive my entrepreneurial spirit, along with my team and their ideas,” Woodson Powell says, noting that trait has been a key asset in working with retailers. “I can relate to their entrepreneurial spirit and what it takes to open that first store! The first 12 years of my business, I only did wholesale. I love being a part of their story, and hopefully our shoes bring a fun, unique element to their stores.”

CSC’s catchy “cobblestones to cocktails” tag line captures its breezy aesthetic. It’s the type of versatile casual shoes women wear on vacation, even if they are not strolling the streets of some cute beachside resort Feeling and looking like you are works just the same. “Our shoes are timeless, ageless, and versatile,” Woodson Powell offers. “Day to night, you can throw them on with a pair of jeans, walk miles on your vacations, and wear them straight into dinner and dancing.”

One of CSC’s signature design aspects is natural materials, like jute and cork, but are made of more durable rubber. In addition, the uppers are often elastic, allowing almost all styles to be machine washable. “Our shoes are also bunion-friendly, as the elastic will snug right around any problem areas,” Woodson Powell says, adding, “We make shoes that combine function and fashion for all-day wear for all ages.”

For Fall/Winter ’24, CSC is introducing new textures, cozy looks, warm neutrals, and a new signature stripe. That comes on the heels of this spring’s vintage-themed collection that spans the ’70s, florals, bright colors, Slim Aarons photography, and old Hollywood. “It’s easy comfort and timeless with a hint of whimsical glamour,” Woodson Powell says, noting the collections are made by approximately 80 cobblers in Mexico. In particular, she cites the Porter and Thea slides as receiving a strong reaction from retailers. And CSC’s new Berries color, a mix of lilac and indigo, is a hit. As for her personal favorite, it’s the return of the Cannon multi-stripe sandal. “We’ve brought it back from over 12 years ago,” she says. “It’s a stripe design made up of primary colors that embodies the South of France in a shoe. This shoe makes me happy!”

The overall vibe of CSC is indeed one of happiness. From the founder on down, there is a joyous nature surrounding the shoes, stores, wholesale partnerships, and relationships with customers. It’s like on big happy family, which is a point of pride for Woodson Powell. “I’m proud of our team and the careers we’ve built,” she says. “Seeing our corporate employees and store managers come together to laugh, learn, and love at our company retreat is truly inspiring. In addition, giving shoes to people in need…All of this brings us great ‘Shoe Joy,’ which is a phrase we’ve coined for our philanthropic division.”

Beach ready: Most Charleston Shoe Company shoes are machine washable.

It’s onward and upward for CSC, according to Woodson Powell. “There are a lot of untapped markets where I believe we could have great success,” she says. “The opportunity is endless for comfortable, stylish shoes.”

CSC operates as a “lean entrepreneurial, founder-driven team.” Why stick with that ethos nearly 30 years later? Having a small team also allows us to have insight into what every department is doing. Collaboration is incredibly important. Our jobs are typically a blend of a little bit of everything. We all have days where we work in the warehouse, we model on photo shoots, we drive our vans, and we work in stores. No job is too big or too small! Our “Shoe Family” feel is what sets us apart from other footwear brands.

What sort of advantages might being a woman-led company provide? When I first started in this business, there were all these male shoe dogs, which I found interesting in that very few women were designing shoes for women. I believe you need that connection and to truly be your own customer. I wear our shoes every day, all day, and I’m always listening to my female employees and customers. We all have a keen understanding of what women need.

Who is the CSC woman? She is the boss woman. Podiatrists, teachers, hairdressers, and hundreds of other professionals are some of our biggest fans. She’s the mom on the go, running a million errands. She’s everything in between. She’s multi-generational. As such, we continue to evolve our line, specifically of late by adding closed-toe options to cater to any and all of our customers’ needs. Above all, our customers are looking for comfort and stability that is adorable and fun!

What shoe must every woman have in her closet? Our classic Monterey sandal, the original Cobblestones to Cocktails shoe that has stood the test of time for over 25 years. Its lug sole gets you from running errands to dancing into the night!

Stretchy uppers and lightweight constructions are design traits.

What is your current wholesale distribution strategy? We’ve started to target select areas of the country where we’ve seen a lot of success historically and concentrations of where our loyal customers live. We want to bring shoes to these women. In our stores, we often meet customers who are on vacation, and they recommend stores in their area that leads to new accounts. We also ask our customers where they would want to see our shoes.

As an wholesaler, a retailer, and a designer, do you lean on one skillset most in managing CSC? I lean on hard work, hustle, and creativity. I also lean on feedback from my employees, reps, retailers, and customers.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? Make sure you have a great CFO, and an even better lawyer.

Any designers you admire in particular? Christian Louboutin. The only time I sacrifice comfort is for his classic pump. I love the red sole for its originality, and his smart, timeless style.

What is your first shoe-related memory? I was around six, shopping with my grandmother at a Stride Rite store, for my first red shoes. I begged to wear them out of the store! I was so proud and ecstatic!

What do you love most about designing? Watching my customers try them on for the first time! It never gets old hearing them say, “Wow, they’re insanely comfortable.” In some cases, it’s a realization that they can wear cute shoes again. I also love working with colors! When I can replace a black shoe with a colorful alternative, it makes me so excited.

What do you love most about this industry? I love the relationships I’ve built over the years with my many loyal customers and wholesale accounts. Our friendships are long and memorable. I also love the frenzy of trunk shows—busy days in stores with shoes flying all around! Nothing beats the chaos of selling shoes.

The March 2024 Issue

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