The Business of Quality: Bells & Becks on Functional Art

“I love shoes” says Tamar Miller, founder of Bells & Becks, who had been unhappy with the state of footwear both in business and in design. Why would people undervalue themselves and their shoes? One reason: quality. No one is willing to pay for quality nowadays.

American consumers are used to buying fast, wearing long, and burning out before the end of 6 months. A survey reporting that the average American man owns 12 pairs of shoes, while the average American woman owns a whopping 27 pairs. That would make the national average about 19 pairs per person. The lifespan of a shoe lives roughly 48 days (with constant daily use). That’s crazy. But Bells & Becks—an artfully curated collection with distinctive design that delivers the unexpected, breaks through the sea of sameness. The designs are tastefully bold—the kind that stand out in the very best way. The company ethos reflects a feminine point of view and refinement; minimalism with touches. The team at B&B interpret classic silhouettes in a unique, modern way with an occasional nod to trend that’s completely wearable but distinctive and appropriate.

We got a moment with Miller about the launch of her brand, Bells & Becks, and its new Spring 2019 Collection of Italian handcrafted shoes created by the former 25-year Head of Merchandising for Gap Inc. and Macy’s. Just so you know, we want all the whole collection.

// bellsandbecks.com; feature photography by Anthony Rogers.


Q

Tell us the genesis of the brand—the who, what, where from your point of view.

A

I’ve worked in corporate retail most of my working life, and I developed a deep knowledge of the shoe category – what women want, what works, and what doesn’t. Over the years, I started to see a pattern emerge – the same product everywhere, and a huge downgrade in quality as retailers focused more and more on price and promotion. Finding something that was special and delivered on quality seemed nearly impossible in the US. 

There was another factor at play for me. With the advent of athleisure and the massive tidal wave pushing retailers to focus on Millennials, I was also seeing a pattern of what I considered to be “gender neutral” footwear saturating the market. Finding wearable shoes that were chic was really hard, and most of the shoes that delivered on femininity were only available at the designer level. I started to feel a strong pull to solve this problem.

The Luna, photography by Anthony Rogers.

The Luna, photography by Anthony Rogers.

The original concept for Bells & Becks came to me on a business trip to Italy where I attended The Micam, the largest shoe show in the world. I was on the hunt for something different. I so clearly remember the moment I walked into the first pavilion. Everywhere I looked, there were these incredible shoes – I had discovered product I’d never seen in the U.S… What became clear on that trip was that these amazing boutique factories simply couldn’t support the mass-market distribution that dominated in the US. There was this entire world of unique quality product that simply wasn’t available here. The light definitely went off around bringing to the US market distinctive product from Italy that delivered on incredible quality while also addressing the need for chic, feminine, and wearable footwear.

Bells & Becks was born from these experiences. I saw the void in the marketplace for luxury footwear that is distinctive, chic, and yet wearable for the modern women with a busy lifestyle that wants to look and feel put together. Bells & Becks is a footwear collection that delivers on quality, versatility, and modern femininity – a rare combination today. Of course, it helps that I am a woman making shoes for women, and I’m selling direct to consumer so that the prices are much more accessible for designer quality footwear. 



Q

You're a founder who came from a world of working in teams, how was the next step of going from hundreds to one?

A

It’s true. I spent an entire career working in teams, and I’m really good at it. I enjoy the collaboration, and I very much believe that a diverse set of smart opinions and healthy tension lead to great outcomes. I admit that working on my own was a bit of a shock. Not only can it be a very lonely process, but for me, it was scary to not have someone to bounce ideas off of, anything from the very largest and important product decisions so the smallest and most mundane, what should I do for lunch today?

But a totally unexpected thing happened once I started Bells & Becks. I forced myself to network in a way that I’ve never done before, and before I knew it, I’d connected with this incredible group of smart, talented female founders all looking to collaborate and support one another on their journey. I went from working in teams to working with this incredible cadre of women. I’ve become part of a sisterhood of female entrepreneurs, many of whom have cut their teeth in corporate settings and have now pivoted to do things differently to drive innovation in the retail space. I’ve benefitted so much from the culture of collaboration that exists with other like-minded founders that are willing to partner, share ideas, and support each other. Bells & Becks is definitely further along because of this culture of collaboration and support, and it has made this journey so much more gratifying for me personally.


Q

If you could choose the brand advocate of your dreams, who is repping your shoes?

A

Bells & Becks shoes are designed with the modern woman in mind. I am deliberately targeting a woman that is powerful, capable, and beyond busy in her role as power-player and mother. She wants to look both chic and feminine, but also requires comfort and versatility in her wardrobe. I just finished reading Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming”. Here’s a brilliant, strong, and powerful woman with her own sense of style and femininity. She’s a mom and a role model to so many. She literally embodies the woman I’m targeting in every way… Any chance you can make an intro???  


The Anna , photography by Anthony Rogers.

The Anna, photography by Anthony Rogers.


Q

Tell us about the design, can you give us the TLDR (too long didn’t read) about how the designs came to be?

A

For me, shoes are functional art. They must fit well, but they also stand alone as a beautiful object. The functional part is a key driver for my designs. Everything that I do is “wearable” which translates to flats and mid-heels – shoes that are made for real-life. In terms of the aesthetic, I’m obsessed with a contemporary feminine point of view in footwear (and I suppose in life too). I love clean lines that enhance, in shapes that feminize by creating a sleekness on the foot. Bells and Becks shoes are bucking the pared-down, gender-neutral aesthetic trend in favor of a feminine look with a contemporary, “less is more” point of view, but at the same time, my shoes will always have a distinctive element – whether it’s textured leather, a feminine bright color, or a round, leather covered heel that adds a “pop”. It’s these design details that make the shoe “luxury” and add the specialness that can’t be found elsewhere. 

Q

What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome? And what was the takeaway from it?

A

Hands down the biggest challenge in building Bells & Becks was executing on the original product vision. Finding factory partners that had the right product capabilities, aesthetic, and quality was a tough challenge. Once I found the factories I was hoping to work with, convincing them to partner with an unknown brand run by a first-time, solo female entrepreneur was hard. With my business plan in hand, clarity of vision, and my experience to guide me, I persevered and eventually convinced several great factories to take a chance and partner with me to launch the business. Some worked out and some didn’t, but I learned and moved the business forward and I came away with renewed confidence in my ability to figure things out and get it done. 


Q

Describe the brand in one sentence.

A

Luxury Italian shoes that are chic, feminine, and always wearable for real life.


Portrait of founder Tamar Miller, photograph courtesy of Bells & Becks.

Portrait of founder Tamar Miller, photograph courtesy of Bells & Becks.


Q

What's a misconception of the shoe world that most people wouldn't realize or notice?

A

I’m not sure that most people realize the basic fact that quality equals comfort. Good, quality shoes are really comfortable. If the construction is made properly, and the shoes are made from high quality componentry (leather linings, leather sole), the shoes will fit and breathe, and they will also last much longer. So much of the product in the US is cheaply produced with synthetic componentry. These shoes never last, and they’re usually incredibly uncomfortable. It’s worth investing in great quality footwear because they make you feel good, and in the case of Bells & Becks of shoes, they also make you look good. 


Q

What are positive affirmations you tell yourself if you ever doubt yourself or the process?

A

I definitely have good days and bad days. On the good days, I feel so much excitement for the future and believe with total certainty that I’m building something great. The shoes are incredible, and I’m seeing such a positive response to what I’m doing. But for all that positivity, there are so many hurdles that have been thrown my way, both expected and unexpected. On the bad days, what’s gotten me through is the complete and total knowledge that I’m capable of figuring things out. I’ve done a lot in my career and have always found success by relying on my instincts and my decision-making abilities. I’m not perfect, nowhere near it. But I sometimes have to remind myself that I know how to live in the gray and deal with imperfections and mistakes and believe in my ability to fix those mistakes. For me, as long as there’s forward momentum, I feel like I’m making progress, and that gets me through. 


Anthony is the founder of Bob Cut Mag and the director of business development. Anthony writes on LGBT, people, and gender issues but catch him also writing about other shenanigans he finds himself in. Want to partner with Bob Cut? Email him at anthony@bobcutmag.cm


Need More Bay Area?