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Last week Helene Theros, Co-Founder of Laiik – a DC-born and based footwear brand focused on thoughtfully designed, handcrafted leather sandals made in Greece – was a featured guest in our SUMMER RULES series; she told us about what she’s doing to stay safe and sane this summer, which is no small feat when you’re running a small business in the midst of a pandemic, especially when you launch your annual concept store on top of it all.

Located at 1900 Q Street NW, the IRL iteration of Laiik is designed to evoke the breezy feel of Aegean streets, a rare respite from the ubiquitous cloud of Covid-19 doom. (You should definitely pay them a visit, if not for the high-quality footwear then for the escapism.)

We got caught up over the phone last Friday to talk about the unique challenges of the past few months and how Laiik is adapting to cope:

So I know you guys do this pop-up annually; how has this year affected your timeline with being able to open, and your supply?

We usually open at the end of March, early April, and presumably we’d have had our new sandals in for the season by then as well. But everything kind of shut down in the middle of production in Italy, where we source our leathers, and in Greece, where our sandals are made. We actually just got them today, surprisingly. (I thought they were going to come on Monday.) And we opened our new pop-up two weeks ago.

That’s huge! And when did you sort of start to see the writing on the wall in terms of how serious this was going to be? Not necessarily with regards to how affected the US would be, but more in the sense of Italy and Greece shutting down, which obviously took a toll on production.

End of February, I’d say; it was starting in Italy, and I usually go to Lineappelle, a big fair for leather and other items. I remember thinking it wasn’t a good idea to go to a conference where people from all over the world would be coming together. A week after that, it started to explode in Italy. When they shut down northern Italy, I was like, “Okay, maybe they won’t shut down where the tanneries are,” because those are in central Italy. But we started to talk about what we’d do if we didn’t get our leathers in on time, thinking about whether to find tanneries in Greece that we could at least do a small run with if we needed to. Then in early March, Greece also shut down; they wanted to get ahead of it. By early March we knew we wouldn’t be getting our sandals in on time. We just didn’t really know how long it would last, and I don’t think anybody really understood.

And you’d already secured a space in DC; how lenient has your landlord been during this time?

The landlord has been really great and has worked with us during this time. We were supposed to open in March but didn’t manage to open until end of June, and he’s been really flexible with us. As a small startup, we don’t have a lot of capital. At the same time, as a small business it can be easier to pivot as we don’t have a lot of running costs. But we were very lucky to have such an agreeable landlord.

Right. And now that you’re open, what was the process like getting everything ready? Was that a challenge with everything that was going on?

So we were lucky, especially with the bags by Almira; she’s a Greek designer, and they’re made in Greece, but she was more prepared than we were and received her orders before everything shut down. She was ahead of the game. I think we expected to be open and able to sell her products more, but she’s based in New York and was also going through lockdown, so I think everybody’s been understanding with that. But there are other things we’ve been wanting to bring into the shop that we haven’t been able to; I usually go to Greece in March or April when my brother opens here, just to source some different Greek designers and things that people would find cool that you can’t get here, and we weren’t able to do that this year. The other thing that we’re pivoting is that we’re trying to stay open year-round, and we’re introducing some closed-toed shoes. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, but we moved up the timeline because we lost so much of the summer season. While we’re waiting to see what happens with everything (I’m sure there’ll be another shutdown at some point), we’re planning to stay open longer. This could give us time to bring in more products from Greece, which would be nice. We’d also be open to featuring local designers, we’re just waiting to see how things develop.

That’s great! And have you noticed any boosted interest in your products at the moment? I feel like a lot of people are extra conscious of wanting to support socially responsible and sustainable brands right now.

We’ve always appealed to people who want to be more sustainable, a bit more slow fashion, but I think people also want to support local businesses right now. Part of that is the slow fashion and not over-consumption, finding a quality product that will last longer, but I think it is very much to do with people wanting to buy local. And also, I think people are just excited to see a new shop open; they’re like, “It’s an interesting time to open!” and I’m like, “I know!”

Totally. Now, what about the other designers you’re featuring alongside your stuff? Has there been any issue with getting shipments in or anything?

So we were lucky, especially with the bags by Almira; she’s a Greek designer, and they’re made in Greece, but she was way more prepared than we were. She was lucky that she placed her orders in February, before everything shut down. She was ahead of the game. I think we expected to be open and able to sell her products more, but she’s based in New York and was also going through lockdown, so I think everybody’s been understanding with that. But there are other things we’ve been wanting to bring into the shop that we haven’t been able to; I usually go to Greece in March or April when my brother opens here, just to source some different Greek designers and things that people would find cool that you can’t get here, and we weren’t able to do that this year. The other thing that we’re pivoting is that we’re trying to stay open year-round, and we’re introducing some closed-toed shoes. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, but we decided that we’ve lost so much of the summer season that we can’t have a dead winter as well. We’re waiting to see what happens with everything (I’m sure there’ll be another shutdown at some point), but we’re planning to stay open longer, which should help us to be able to bring in more products from Greece, which would be nice. We’d also be open to featuring local designers, we’re just waiting to see how things can change.

Right. And I know last year you kind of took the show on the road to a couple of other cities; did all of this interrupt any plans you had to be mobile?

Yeah, we had plans to be in New York, and Texas, actually. We’re not traveling at all this summer, or not in the foreseeable future, at least. I don’t think it’s possible. Even just places like Richmond or Philadelphia that are fairly close to us are off the table for now.

Such a bummer. Now, throughout all of this you’ve been working with family, and I know you guys have been very clear on the fact that you’re not a family business since there are other people involved, but do you think it’s been helpful to have that relationship in this very uncertain time?

I think it’s been helpful. Me and my brother (and my sister, who’s a bit less involved) grew up very close, because we were always moving around; our father was a Foreign Service Officer, so we were always moving around together and kind of had to be friends with each other. We get along, and it does help to be able to share that stress. (Even if we stress each other out more sometimes.) Just to be on the same page and not be too shy, or “business-y” and professional, at a time when things have gone haywire. Working with family has been good in that regard. And we have other people we work with as well, like our designer and our director in Greece; we’re a small group, so we communicate very well with each other. I think it’s been stressful for us in terms of being able to continue to pay them, you know? We’ve been able to do that, but there are times where it’s been like, “When can we open? What’s going to happen?” and I’m glad we’re able to do that together. To do that alone, that burden would have been too much.

Absolutely. And I think unfortunately a lot of people are having to have those conversations and shoulder those burdens right now, because there’s just so much uncertainty. But it does seem like there have been a lot of successful pivots so far, so that’s good at least. Not that they’re all hugely lucrative, but enough to keep the boat afloat.

Right. It’s not going to be a great season, you know? It’s not going to be a great year in terms of sales, but it’s about surviving it. If we do that and can make do for next year, then that’s a success.

Totally. Also, quickly going back to something you mentioned a minute ago, about how you grew up traveling all the time, does it feel extra weird for you to be grounded in one place right now? I mean, it’s weird for everybody, but I imagine it’s compounded for someone who’s so used to moving around.

Yeah, it’s very claustrophobic! It is weird that you can’t just hop on a plane. Not that I was doing it that much in recent years, but the option was always there. And I think it’s been tough for me in particular, because I’ve been splitting my time between London and DC; my husband is in London, my sister is there, and I’m in DC for business and work. I think that’s tough. When you’re saying goodbye to your husband, you’re realizing you can’t just easily hop on a plane, and it’s like, “Should I be writing letters?” 

That’s so hard, oh my god! 

Yeah, it’s tough. The world doesn’t feel as small as it used to.

Right. Well, it’s hard to predict anything at this point, but is there anything that you were hoping for in terms of the brand’s evolution that you were thinking about even before all this lockdown stuff happened that you still envision as being viable, even in this shaky arena? I know you touched on a few things already, but is there anything else?

That’s a good question. I touched on it already, but I think what’s interesting is that this has accelerated some of our timelines with introducing new styles beyond the sandals, like introducing a closed-toed shoe or a boot because we had to if we wanted to remain viable for this year; it’s something that we wanted to do, but then we had the time during lockdown to actually take a look and say, “This is something we can do.” Obviously we’re going to be very cautious, really use it as a test. We do small orders anyway, but we want to dip our toe into it. (No pun intended.) I think that was something that got pushed up, which I’m excited about. Beyond that, we wanted to be in more places, which is obviously not happening. We wanted to check out the Southwest and the West Coast in terms of figuring out if it would be a good market for us. I think the other thing we really want to look at more is an international presence in the sense of shipping and having more of a presence in Greece, for example. Because all of our shoes are made in Greece, but we ship them all over here. We want to have a Greece and maybe a European presence, so we’re pursuing that a little more this year, seeing what our options are and what could be viable.

Yeah, I think for as many bad things this pandemic has caused, I think weirdly there has been a silver lining in being able to think and refocus.

Exactly. At the beginning of the lockdown I was stressed, but I wasn’t as stressed as I could have been. I thought I had an opportunity to slow down and see where we were going with the business, so I think it gave us that time to do it. That’s been the silver lining.

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The Dupont Concept Store is located at 1900 Q Street NW and is currently open from 11-4pm Tuesday to Friday, and 10-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays, with outdoor try-ons available when weather permits. You can also book a personal appointment by calling 202-660-1326, or emailing  [email protected]. See more at laiik.com and on Instagram at @lovelaiik.

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