It’s Earth Day, and we all know fashion has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. So it was exciting to learn that a new shoe company, AERA, is built around the tenant of being 110% sustainable. How is that? For one, they are vegan, and since I have a vegan daughter and know how hard it is to find a good-looking vegan shoe, AERA shoes are at once modern and classic. I have the Audrey slingback–a perfect wear-with-everything flat. To understand the rest of the brand’s ethos, the woman behind the brand, Tina Bhojwani, explains it below. Tina is not new to fashion, she was the President North America at Dolce & Gabbana and SVP Global Business Development at Theory, and I have no doubt her deep understanding of the business side of fashion, paired with the aesthetic of shoe designer Jean-Michel Cazabat (who designs and is an AERA co-founder) will change how we think about designer shoes. Going forward we all need to be thoughtful about what we bring into our lives, and it’s good to know that something this chic fits the bill.
What was your career path up to launching AERA? I’ve always loved fashion like even as a young girl. I studied finance and marketing in university and I almost took a job upon graduating at Lehman brothers an analyst program, but wasn’t quite convinced and continued interviewing. Luckily I met an alumni from my university who was working with Donna Karan in the beauty division when the fragrances were done in-house. She said, “You should give your resume to the VP of the international division because I know they’re looking for people at DKNY.” So I did and got a job there.
After a few years in New York, I was tasked with the responsibility to open a company office in London. I was in my late twenties and in hindsight it was a big responsibility, but it was an amazing experience–I was traveling all over Europe and the Middle East. Then after two years of being in London I wanted to move back to New York. I met the founder of Theory, Andrew Rosen. The brand was only in the U S. I said, “I love what you’re doing. I think your concept is great”; having had this international experience, I said, “I think your brand should be everywhere.” And he said, “You can start tomorrow.”
I stayed with him for 14 years and my main focus was on global expansion of the brand and business development. We started really slowly and ultimately set up offices and had partnerships throughout the world. We became a global company and I also helped with Helmut Lang when our parent company acquired that, and then worked with him also on some of his other investments, usually on business development or global strategy. It was great. But after 14 years I really wanted to do something different. I wanted another challenge and I received an offer to run Dolce & Gabbana North America. I did that for two years, but ultimately it was not where I saw myself long-term. So I took a leap of faith and decided to go out on my own, which was honestly a little bit scary, but also it felt right.
I set up a consulting company and consulted for Kendra Scott, Yves Salomon in Paris and Augustinus Bader. But the first consulting I did was for a company called CO out in LA, which Andrew was an investor. And ironically, while I was out there, I put a picture on Instagram. A former Georgetown classmate who was living in Athens on holiday in LA saw it, messaged me, and we met for dinner. At dinner he explained that he had set up a fund called Humble Holdings, which solely invested in socially and environmentally responsible companies.
He was explaining all of this to me and I chimed in and said, “You know my industry is one of the most disruptive,” and got into some of the facts around the fashion industry. And I said, “It would be great to do something that could change some of this.” And at the end of the dinner he said, “We should do something together.”
Back in New York, tryingon shoes at Bergdorf Goodman I bumped into my other partner, designer Jean-Michel Cazabat, who had done a project at Theory. Two days later we were having a drink and I was telling him what I was doing and he said he was tired of the industry and didn’t really believe in the traditional way things were going. He also talked about his daughter, who back then was three years old and he said, he was concerned about how we were leaving the planet for the next generation. And ultimately he said, “What about vegan shoes?” And I said, “Only if they don’t look like they’re vegan.”
I introduced, Alvertos (of Humble Holdings) to Jean-Michel. Luckily Alvertos was coming to New York, I knew he had a wedding to go to and I knew his shoe size. Jean-Michel made him a pair of vegan shoes that he wore to the wedding and loved. Then Alberto asked me to come up with a business plan. That is how it all began.
You talk about your company is 110% sustainable. What does that mean? We started our business by using the most sustainable materials out there to achieve the look we wanted, and we consciously chose to source and produce in Italy. Italy for two reasons: one, for the social sustainability piece, knowing that everyone we’re working with throughout the supply chain and in our factories earn living wages and work under good conditions, but also, we were keeping this artisanal craft alive.
And then the 110% sustainable. We scientifically measured all of our impacts as a company and offset those impacts by 110%; we wanted to create a different business model that not only caused no harm to the environment, but the one that paid back. That was the extra 10%. We worked with the global certification agency called SCS global services that helped us scientifically measure our impacts and come up with meaningful offset. This then also allowed us to get the certification. So we’re carbon negative, freshwater negative, and all of this is transparently displayed on our website.
Another things we’ve talked about, that I think is so important going forward for fashion companies, is the idea of creating seasonless collections, so nothing is ever “last year”. This is something you do at Aera.
The idea of seasons feels really dated to me. Given the global nature of business and the fact that we all travel (not to mention the crazy weather patterns), I don’t think that consumers should be limited to certain styles at certain times of the year. We felt like it was great to sort of have a full selection, not too broad, but one that covered different moments and that you could wear in different types of climates. We also wanted to create timeless silhouettes. Our goal was to have shoes that would be relevant for more than a season or two and not too specific, but also still fashionable.
What do you love most about doing this? I think it ties in two passions. I’ve always loved fashion and I feel like it’s imperative that we find a better way of doing things.
With the current pandemic, it seems that people will hopefully be more thoughtful about their fashion purchases going forward. How do you the see the current situation affecting your business? There can be a silver lining at the end of this pandemic and that a new value system, one that encompasses a heightened sense of respect for each other as well as for our environment will emerge. And, hopefully with that will come a reassessment of our human needs whereby ethical, mission driven companies like ours will gain resonance.
When you launched AERA, what came easiest for you in the beginning with your background and then what was the hardest part or something that surprised you? Gosh, easiest, I think it would be the three of us together. Because we had different skill sets and experiences, we could really make this happen quickly. We started the company at the end of November of 2018 and we had shoes and a website by June of 2019. So we moved pretty quickly in terms of creating a business plan and then figuring out what the shoes were and what the materials were.
And, I don’t know if this is the easiest part, but it something that I think I cherish very much, which is throughout the process, you see how much support you get from mentors and friends in the industry. It’s hard with just three people to start something. So what I appreciated was I could go to my former boss, Andrew Rosen or I could go to friends in the industry and I could share with them what we were doing and get advice and pivot if needed.
What do you think was the hardest thing? What was and I think still continues to be is to wear all these different hats and to figure out priorities.When you work for big companies, you have all these resources that you don’t even necessarily appreciate at the time. It’s also motivating all the people that we do work with, be it our supplier because we were tiny starting out and saying “Listen, this is going to turn into something.” Or our factory who were a little frustrated at first because they’d never worked with these materials before.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I think I embrace change. I think I’m not stuck in my ways. I think we started out with a business plan that is very far from where we are today and I think that just the ability to pivot and understand where and when to pivot is something has helped me so far.
Role models: My main role model would be my mother. She’s taught me a lot and I think the biggest lessons are, that I see in her and have learned from her, are unwavering faith and constant gratitude. I think she’s taught me the benefits of both and they really served me well all of my life. These are things you don’t learn in school.
Best career advice you’ve received and, or would share with someone: Be passionate about what you do and then work very hard once you find what you’re passionate about.
To date what do you think has been your biggest success? Launching a company with a mission that I’m proud of. And the fact that I could use my experience and create something which I hope will be not only an important brand, but also an important voice for our industry. We have to do things differently and rethink the models that we’ve been relying on for so many years.
I feel like fashion has a long way to go and people still kind of have their heads in the sand. I’d love your take on this. We do have a long way to go, because we are the second most damaging industry towards our planet today. But at the same time I feel like fashion is such an influential industry, if we can garner enough support around these types of causes–social and environmental, and educate people, then we can even go on to impact other industries. I think what it is right now that’s critical to me is people coming together and supporting initiatives that will help us in where we’re going.
What has been a failure or sort of like a dud that you’ve experienced and what did you learn from it? I don’t know if there’s one thing per se, but for me, what I’ve learned over the years is that whenever I didn’t trust my gut, I was let down. I think that sometimes, deep down we know, and then we don’t follow that feeling and more often than not, when I’ve gone down that road I’ve had a problem.
What motivates you? Honestly, making a difference. Helping the greater good.
Three words that describe you: I would say I’m an empathetic person. I am realistic and tenacious.
Three words that describe AERA: Forward thinking, transparent, ethical.
Life goals: Life goals sort of goes back to what you had asked me before with what motivates me, and it’s to make a meaningful difference through my work and I’m thankful I work in an industry I love. If I can use that and somehow leave the world better than it is today, that’s a life goal.
Daily goals: To always be mindful, to keep a sense of humor and to keep things in perspective, I guess to see the forest from the trees, as opposed to the opposite. I think sometimes we get so bogged down in our day to day and we let little things overwhelm us but ultimately come back to the big picture.
Favorite books that have inspired you or motivated you: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Do you have any daily rituals: Lately what I’ve been trying to do, even if just for a few minutes, is meditate.
How do you unplug? Long walks, jogging, yoga.
Favorite charity: I’ve been a part of World Vision International for many, many years, sponsoring a child in India. Our company works with one now which is interesting. It’s called Plastic Bank, an environmental organization that keeps plastic out of the oceans and stops plastic from going into the oceans by employing people at the poverty level in third world countries. And it makes plastic a currency and I think that’s an amazing organization. Then I have one more too because a very good friend of mine is going through a rare form of liver cancer and has a charity it’s Project Live. The most rare forms of cancer are the ones that obviously get the least attention and therefore the least funding. So when it hits home with someone close to you, you try to support.
Do you collect anything? Books and vintage Indian jewelry from the start of the century–some I bought in India, but a lot has been handed down to me through my mom.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret? Buying my first apartment in the Village in 2005.
Favorite small indulgence: Gianduiotto dark chocolate from the North of Italy, from Piedmont.
Album currently on repeat: I love the Beatles. I’ve got their greatest hits and I have that on constantly.
A scent that brings back memories: Getting off a plane in Mumbai. As a young child we’d go every year, because my grandmother was there and it’s a very distinct scent.
What does it smell like? I don’t know, but it’s just that scent of landing in India. It’s not a bad scent or anything like that. It’s just very, very distinct. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it’s the same every time.
Lucky charm: I have a picture of a guru, Guru Nanak, which was given to me by my mother. Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism and was born in the mid 1400s or so. He denounced the caste system idea and he taught that like everyone should be equal regardless of caste or gender. I think, for a lot of reasons, he was a very interesting person and somehow I carry that with me all the time.
Favorite hour of the day: I think it’s first thing in the morning when I have a cup of coffee, whether I’m home, and it’s workdays or if I’m on a holiday somewhere, it’s just, it’s a great moment. It’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect a little bit and it’s something I do every day.
What do you hope the new normal brings? This quarantine on a global level will make us truly appreciate our health, human connections and freedoms much more than ever before. Also, it will hopefully inspire conscious consumerism and a sense of gratitude for all that we do have.
Follow AERA: Instagram.