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#6: Liam Fahy - Footwear consultant and digital PR expert, London, UK

Deeply curious, crude, insightful, dark and very funny. Liam always brings a new perspective, sometimes on things I prefer not knowing anything about. But this shoe designer / internet entrepreneur, who grew up in Zimbabwe, but I got to know after moving to London, is constantly on the lookout for future trends. I caught up with this sleep-deprived father of two, who took our Zoom call in his tiny home office in South London containing a pair of high heeled shoes covered in LED lights.

Since meeting Liam, I’ve never really understood his division of labour. So I started by trying to iron out how he divides his time between his different projects. Turns out it’s relatively straightforward.

“I’ve been a footwear consultant for years and years, but a couple of years ago I started doing digital PR for small brands, so I spend about 50% of my time on each.”

When Covid-19 reached Europe it immediately impacted the footwear industry. Veneto in Italy, the centre of the world’s high-end footwear production, was one of the worst hit regions in the country and the shutdown was immediate. The impact on his PR business, which mainly services 300-400 smaller brand, was less immediate.

“We work with some restaurants, jewellery companies and yogurt brands for example. When the lockdown happened in the UK and the US, I’d say two thirds of those companies emailed overnight and said that’s it for us. So you had companies that completely stopped doing business. At the same time people who could sell their products online saw an opportunity, so they put their money into that. They want to create as much hype and interest as possible now so they’re ready when the lockdown ends, which is a smart idea.”

The concept of a shoe consultant might not be immediately clear for everyone, so I asked what this means in practice. Liam explained that he generally gets involved if a brand needs a new footwear line or product, or if a brand wants to move into the shoe market.

“Sometimes we do small things, like advice on the creative direction for a certain market. But we do everything from brand and market research, down to customer research and pricing. We can then look at the best manufacturing options based on the price, brand image and target market. We can also help figure out what the best product would be for a particular market and demographic. We also do the actual shoe design and 3D prototype development. Then it’s everything from wear testing to PR and introducing it to the market.”

Liam recently worked with a brand in India that has an existing store network but want to create a separate luxury brand. But how does a company in India looking to get into luxury footwear know that Liam is their go-to man?

“Once I get a client, I tend to keep them. It’s probably through the web, word of mouth or that I’ve worked with them in one brand and they’ve moved on to another brand. A lot of my mates are highly specialized and only do trainers or women’s heels for example, so they’ll get in touch asking for help if they need to do something else. The footwear world is really small, which is good sometimes and weird other times.”

Liam’s move into digital PR grew out of his attempts to promote his own high-end shoe brand, Liam Fahy. His competition: major international players such as LVMH, with a 1 million pound a day marketing budget. Liam was keen to understand how he could build a brand in a different way.

“We didn’t have any cash, our daily marketing budget was 3 bucks or something. I watched Moneyball and it made me wonder what I could do with a couple of quid. So I got really into digital advertising and started to see the power of clicks. It was about finding shortcuts to boosting our brand awareness digitally.”

Liam saw huge opportunities in digital PR, which unlike traditional PR, didn’t depend on established media contacts. It was also an opportunity to save money since the cost of creating a pair of new high-end shoes for a magazine shoot -- the traditional way to build a brand and promote new products -- could be up to 600 pounds.

“They wear them once, ruin the soles so we can’t sell them, and send them back. But there is no guarantee the magazine will feature the product. I thought, 600 quid for a chance to be featured in a magazine where it’s hard to measure the impact or know how many people see it? It didn’t seem like the best use of money, so we knocked that on the head and went mainly digital.”

Liam realised the approach he took for his own brand could also work for others with limited marketing budgets. And he had an important edge to his competition; an understanding of fashion industry and their language.

“Many people in fashion don’t understand branding. And the high-end fashion people are a bit snobby. They don’t feel like traditional PR companies understand them. But we knew all those small signifiers and their brands since we were in the industry. We’d know these things they thought only they knew; these obscure magazines and little independent stores. They felt we spoke their language.”

The PR business was set up with the aim of automating as much of it as possible, as the algorithm learns and identifies people with similar interests or a high probability of a conversion. Kind of like a dating algorithm. With a limited promotional budget, the business has mainly grown through free trials that existing clients offer their friends.

“I wouldn't say it grew exponentially, but every month we got bigger and bigger. It went from fashion to jewellery and then PR companies started to use us and add their brands. The PR people would leave and go somewhere else and want to continue to use us. We generally look for the platform with the most bang for the buck. Someone once said that social media has the lifespan of a hamster, and it’s kind of true. I just got on to Dribble, which is an invite only platform for designers. Who knows what’s going to be around the corner, all bets are off I think.”

I was keen to understand Liam’s thoughts on the impact Covid-19 might have on the high-end footwear industry, which often rely on global supply chains and a time-consuming process from prototyping to having a shoe in a store.

“It takes about a month to make a prototype. Once you’ve confirmed a design you need to make the outsole, uppers and stuff like that. Then you take the shoe to fashion weeks, or to the buyer market, which takes one to two months. When you have orders collated it takes another six months to produce them. We’re all designing for spring/summer 2021 now, I think it’s just going to be a weird hole.”

The fashion industry’s environmental impact is becoming an increasingly hot topic. Sustainability is a tricky concept for an industry where the fashion cycles have become shorter and shorter. Some think Covid-19 might force a change and Liam says many producers do take these issues seriously. He also points out that sustainability is not only about the production process, but also about creating styles with longevity.

“We don’t want to design something just for the sake of having another product. It’s a waste of space and resources to have something last for three or six months before you replace it. We always advise clients to design something that’s a bit classic and doesn’t have an expiry date. This also means that you can cross-merchandise with the previous season if you have issues with a manufacturer or you have leathers that don’t come out exactly like you want.”

With a bit more time than usual, Liam is developing and expanding his skills through online courses and considering the possibility of expanding his design consultancy to other areas.

“It's quite common for a designer to do something for a few years and then realise they want to get into something else, but it doesn't really fit the linear English career trajectory where you become a footwear designer and then stay as a footwear designer your whole career. So while I have time, why not see if I can expand my consultancy business in to different areas? I’m really interested in packaging and shoes are really packaging for feet you know, haha.”

Even though business has slowed, with two young children at home he only has so much time at the moment.

“I’m awake about 17 hours a day, and 95% of that is kids. If I’m very lucky I can get 1,5 - 2 hours of work done in one day. I’ve got lots more work to do but I find myself having half a screen with my work and half a screen with Peppa Pig or something like that, and a naked baby on my lap.”

You can follow Liam on all major social platforms: @LiamFahyLondon

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