Fort Worth startup shoe company promotes leather and other natural products as good for your health – and for the environment.
You may not consider that cheap pair of shoes you bought to be a threat to your health. And you may think that because they are promoted as “vegan” that you are somehow protecting the environment and making a social responsibility statement at the same time.
Think again. Ivet Taneva and Serene Fletcher – partners in the Fort Worth-based shoe company Rebel With Cause – beg to differ.
There’s a trend, says Taneva, who moved to the United States from her native Bulgaria to attend Texas Christian University and study international economics and business, toward what she calls fake material.
She’s talking about “vegan leather” or suede-like material from China and Asia. It’s cheap. It looks great. It wears out quickly and never decomposes in landfills. And then there are the chemicals in the material.
“A shoe rubs against your skin, your skin is absorbent and you don’t really realize what you’re wearing is actually affecting your endocrine system for instance, which has been proven and banned in Europe,” she said.
Rebel With Cause launched in September 2016 with a limited number of styles in shoes and handbags.
Fletcher, 41, is director of government affairs for Ride Television Network Inc. She previously owned Fletcher Productions, later called F2 Media. Taneva, 31, is global health, safety and environment compliance manager at Alcon.
They share a TCU connection. Fletcher’s youngest sister was Taneva’s roommate at the college. “So she kind of became part of our family,” Fletcher said.
Taneva came to the United States for college when she was 17, following her brother, who came to El Paso as an exchange student and later graduated from TCU with a triple major and now works in hedge funds in New York.
Fletcher and Taneva had talked about the shoe business in 2015, but Fletcher was busy with F2 Media and couldn’t focus on helping with it. Taneva pressed ahead anyway.
Taneva is from Sofia, Bulgaria. And she’s deeply interested in good quality leather products. On one trip back to Europe, she found some boots that she particularly liked and decided to contact the manufacturer.
“It turned out that we had a personal connection because my grandmother had worked at his factory” in Bulgaria, she said.
In fact, Ivanka Petrova had helped start the company. “My grandmother had over 40 years of experience in shoemaking with different factories in her time,” Taneva said. “She partnered in the ’90’s with this young kid who was in his late 20’s. And they started a factory and that’s the main factory and facility that I ended up picking a shoe from and contacting, which is kind of crazy.”
Taneva visited the factory in Dobrich, Bulgaria, in the mountains northwest of Varna on the Black Sea coast, a city that became a port when the Greeks founded a colony there in 585 BCE.
“They have great standards and manufacturing,” she said. “But also they have great products, great leather materials, and they also focus on sustainability, which is my background.”
The manufacturing uses natural leathers and dyes and some of the soles of the shoes are made of natural rubber, which is uncommon in today’s market-scale production scene, Taneva said. “You can’t do that anymore. It’s a very Old-World shoemaking, and a very, very good price and high quality.”
She launched the product line in 2015 on her own and the next year circled back to Fletcher, who by that time had sold F2 Media to Ride TV and had started to work for that company. “That allowed me to kind of think about doing something different,” Fletcher said. “Never would I have thought I would be involved in a fashion company.”
Taneva was planning a trip to Bulgaria and invited Fletcher to go “see the factory, see the product, feel it, smell it, and see if it’s something you’d be interested in getting involved with,” Fletcher said.
Turned out it was, and the women¬ – along with an undisclosed silent investor – are now partners in Rebel With Cause.
“I get to meet grandma, I get to eat her cooking, which was amazing. I get to go to the village where the shoes are manufactured and it’s beautiful. It’s up in the mountains, flowers everywhere, sheep walking around. It’s like out of a movie,” Fletcher said.
“I was also very impressed that the two models of boots that she had started with – only two models – had sold out every time she had done an online event. And so from there it was a matter of looking at the business plan and that’s really what hooked me.” Fletcher said.
For now, the company only sells online (rebelwithcausetx.com), wholesale and at events. A major step was forming a relationship with Zulily (zulily.com), which recently merged with QVC to become the go-to site for fashion online.
“One thing you don’t go to Amazon for is fashion,” Fletcher said. “We have a partnership with [Zulily] and it allows us to never sit on inventory. We can sell at a wholesale and retail level, and whatever doesn’t sell from the previous season, we can offload on Zulily.”
How is making shoes of high-quality leather a sustainable process?
First, so long as people in the world eat meat, there will be animal hides available. Second, making products that last over time reduces waste.
“PVC is cheap, resin is very cheap, to source, and it’s in our everyday lives. Everywhere,” Taneva said. “I really wanted to make a brand that uses natural materials and leather is a natural material. It’s a natural output of production of meat, so we have to do something with the [cow] hide, unless we all become vegetarians.”
The chemicals in artificial leather products can leach into the human body through the feet and so can the chemicals in the dyes used on leather, Taneva said.
“That, you absorb on a daily basis,” she said.
“My background is in product compliance and regulatory sustainability in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry,” Taneva said. “Europe is ahead of the game in banning certain chemicals in all products, including food and household products, fashion, medical devices, you name it. The U.S. does not have an equivalent regulation, as of yet, that bans certain harmful chemicals that are in everyday products.”
Rebel With Cause shoe leather comes from European sources. “European craftsmanship is usually regulated by those regulations, so we trust that our partners have that integrity with their dyes and products,” she said. “I mentioned vegan leather, which every time someone mentions that to me, I kind of get passionate because vegan leather is PVC.”
If you throw away a shoe made of manmade materials, it never decomposes, she said.
It’s American fast fashion, Fletcher says. Buy cheap shoes online, wear them out in a short time, throw them away and buy more.
“We go back to the way shoes used to be made … that Old World craftsmanship, and sell the boots at an affordable price.” They will last for a “very long time. And it was money well spent.”
Taneva and Fletcher “are very focused on building a brand that’s sustainable and ethical, and also reaching out to our local community and participating in charity events where we can, with our products,” Taneva said.
They contribute to a number of national charities, and locally to Wine, Women, and Shoes benefitting Communities in Schools; The Parenting Center; Cancer Care Services, and the Texas Center for Arts + Academics. The company officially launched in October 2016 and has donated more than $10,000 to charity from sales at local and national events.
The company also is cooperating with Fort Worth-based Plaid for Women in its Oct. 6-8 #NOMEANGIRLS National Conference in Dallas with a month-long promotion Sept. 22-Oct. 15 offering a 10 percent discount on products on the Rebel With Cause website (use #nomeangirls promotion code at checkout). An additional 10 percent goes to Plaid for Women.
Taneva designs the shoes – the initial design is only part of it since the design has to be incorporated in templates at the factory. She and two others – one in London and another in Bulgaria – design the handbags.
“But I’m the one who decides on the product line, the designs, the color scheme, what’s in for this year, what’s out, and things like that,” she said.
Fletcher says that with modern technology Taneva can have a design session via Skype – when it’s morning in Fort Worth it’s late afternoon in Bulgaria – to create a product with other designers halfway across the world. “And we can have that product shipped to us in three weeks,” she said.
“We started last year with about 1,000 units, which is kind of very low, and we’re expecting to double that before the fall,” Taneva said. Rebel With Cause started with 10 basic models – the fringe boots have been top-sellers – and now has 50 models.
Fletcher and Taneva say customers love the boots in suede and fringe because real suede forms to your foot. Not so with synthetic materials, where the foot has to form to the shoe. “That’s why your feet are bloated all the time,” Taneva said.
They know their target market and it is not mall rats.
“I think that there’s this fast-paced fast fashion that still exists for a different age group, the youngest generation,” Taneva said. “But for our target market, I think the shopping behaviors have shifted a lot, especially with professional women ages 35-45 really wanting a product that makes a difference.”
So why the name?
Fletcher and Taneva tried a name that combined their last names. “They sounded like diarrhea medication,” Taneva said. She’s been accused of being a rebel herself, and she’s a fan of the James Dean classic movie Rebel Without a Cause. She was determined to make the concept work: “I’m just gonna prove this. I’m gonna prove this works, so I’ll be the rebel with cause this time.”
There’s a nod to her national heritage in the logo – a stylized lion, Bulgaria’s national symbol.
The women are working on a new product line they aren’t ready to discuss just yet that will be available through their online partner and “sold in a format that they have never done before, so it’ll be pretty exciting,” Fletcher said. “And then secondly, we also have plans for a boutique here in Fort Worth.”
Just what, they aren’t saying. But it is a fair guess that it will be something with flair – and an edge of attitude.