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December 13, 2017
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Flora Grey Shoes (Image courtesy of Liebling. Photograph by Shaxaf Haber.)

Lior Livne and Karni Reshef are the duo behind Liebling, a brand of handmade shoes designed and produced in Tel Aviv, Israel. Now in its fourth year, the brand frequently sells out of its stock and is a darling of the Israeli style press. Simultaneously whimsical and grounded, with an old world yet unmistakably modern aesthetic, the shoes are sought out by a notably varied clientele, speaking to their unique form and refreshing functionality.  

The brand's very existence can be understood within the context of Israel's recent shoemaking renaissance seeing a number of young designers selling small, handmade lines from studios and through local boutiques. But the journey from design inspiration to saleable product is rife with pitfalls and picky details, and making it through to the establishment of a boutique is an achievement few have managed. So, how did Liebling do it?

Karni Reshef and Lior Livne.
(Image courtesy of Liebling.
Photograph by Daniel Tchetchik.)

Rachel Wagner speaks with Liebling co-founder and co-designer Lior Livne. The interview has been edited for brevity and translated from Hebrew.

How did you and [business and designer partner] Karni [Reshef] meet and begin collaborating?

Karni and I happened to grow up in the same small village in Northern Israel and were in the same class in high school, but that's not really connected. We met anew [years later] in Tel Aviv, and then again, by pure chance, at Achilles [a now defunct shoe design school]. After finishing the course, I rented a studio. The studio stood empty some of the time and I suggested to Karni that we split the studio to cut costs. Over time, we discovered that we work well together and decided to join forces.

What were the initial challenges you faced as fledgling shoe designers?

The beginning was difficult in every possible way. Manufacturers didn't take us seriously and it was very hard to get the work started. Manufacturing is very expensive and when you don't have customers or experience and you don't know what to expect in terms of sales, that initial financial investment is very, very stressful.

Mary Brown Shoes (Image courtesy of Liebling.
Photograph by Shaxaf Haber.)

Tell me about Liebling's growth as a business: your customers, sales, etc.

Everything has developed dramatically since we began. The leap, percentage wise, is large. By the hundreds of percentage points in the first year or two, and by the dozens in the years that followed, but we are still growing at a steep incline comparatively. When we opened the shop we were thrilled about each and every customer that came in. The major advantage we had from the start was the location of our shop in a very central neighborhood in the city, but not on a main street. This allowed us to rent the store relatively cheaply, but benefit from the fact that anyone who wanted to come to the shop could do so very easily. The average customer who comes in during the day is doing so intentionally; she already knows what she'll find in our shop and what our price range is, which means the conversion rate of visitors to sales is high compared to the average store located 150 metres from us on Dizengoff [the area's main shopping artery].

How has your collaborative relationship as designers and business partners evolved over the years?

In the beginning, we both did everything. When the number of tasks increased, we had no choice, and today there is a little more splitting of jobs, but still we do a lot of it together. The greatest difficulty by far, of course, is designing together. But we have learned to listen and be open to one another, which is what allows it [the collaborative designing] to happen.

How would you describe the brand's design aesthetic?

It's a bit difficult for me to define us in terms of design because the decision on style and the product was never a strategic decision at any stage. It simply happened in a certain way because that's what we were interested in doing.

You could define our style as urban-romantic. Women's shoes that combine elegance with an urban roughness or ruggedness.

We aren't especially interested in fashion trends and forecasts. By and large, all the fashion talk sort of bores me. Of course we are exposed to what goes on around us, but it happens naturally, not because we think that a certain look or colour will sell better. There are enough chains that do that well and we have no desire, nor the capability, to compete with them in this department. It is more important that the language and character of our brand remain clear, rather than reinventing ourselves with every collection. Our language evolves and expands from season to season, but it is a process of adding layers, rather than the switches and changes that are customary and traditional in the fashion world.

Gal Blue (Image courtesy of Liebling.
Photograph by Shaxaf Haber.)

I understand that you design from your central Tel Aviv studio and shop, but where do you manufacture?

We manufacture in Israel. There is more than one factory left but not too many more that that. [The Israeli shoe manufacturing industry, huge for most of the second half of the 20th century, was all but obliterated by the 90's.] In a sense, it was the total implosion of the old industry, sad and dramatic though it was, that made it possible for the new wave of designers to being working. In the beginning, the factories treated designers derisively. But within a few years, the few factories that agreed to work with us were the ones that were still active.

Producing locally isn't simple, mostly due to the relatively high costs, the limited number of professional shoemakers (they are a rapidly aging population), and the difficulty in getting interesting and varied materials.

We import leather from Italy and South America. Not long ago we would go on buying trips to Turkey, but after the deterioration of relations between our two countries, we didn't much feel like it anymore.

Buying 'local' is certainly on trend these days. Do you think this interests your customers?

In Israel there is a long history of awareness of buying "locally manufactured," or buying "blue and white" [the colours of the Israeli flag]. People like that, but I think it's more of a way to legitimise a purchase rather than a conscious ideology. This trend hasn't really caught on yet in Israel like it has in other places. But yes, people do like that they [the shoes] are designed and manufactured locally. They like to meet us when they come to buy.

And for those who can't turn up on your doorstep to buy in person? How does the rest of the world get their hands on Leiblings?

The purchasing process is very simple at the moment. There are prices next to the models [on the Liebling website], and the customer just sends us an email with the details. We send back a link for payment. Once we get payment confirmation, we ship the shoes. If an exchange is needed, just send them back and we exchange them. Very simple.


Liebling shoes: http://www.liebling-shoes.com/

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