In the bustling world of footwear, some stand out for their creativity and commitment to sustainability and ethical practices. One such founder is Vanessa Arroyo is a Chicago-based footwear specialist and the proud founder of SERES Footwear. In an exclusive interview, Arroyo opens up about her journey from being a fashion student at Columbia College Chicago to launching her brand that beautifully intertwines her Mexican-American heritage with her passion for sustainable fashion.
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Arroyo’s story is one of resilience, creativity, and a deep-rooted respect for her cultural roots. After spending years in the New York City fashion scene, she felt a pull towards exploring the role her Mexican heritage played in fashion. This led her to launch SERES in 2023, a brand that is a testament to ethical and sustainable labour practices. The name ‘SERES’, which translates to ‘beings’ in Spanish, reflects Arroyo’s dedication to acknowledging every participant involved in making her footwear possible.
This interview provides a fascinating insight into Arroyo’s journey, inspirations, and the ethos behind SERES Footwear. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in sustainable fashion, entrepreneurship, or simply learning about how one woman’s passion and heritage can give birth to a brand that stands for so much more than just shoes. Dive in to discover more about Vanessa Arroyo’s journey and the remarkable story of SERES Footwear.
1. Vanessa, can you tell us about your journey from being a footwear specialist at the Chicago School of Shoemaking to becoming the founder of SERES Footwear?
I became a friend of the Chicago School of Shoemaking back in 2016 while I was still living in NYC. At the time, I was a footwear design assistant and thought it was very interesting that a place like CSOS existed in my home city. We formed a relationship and I started to lead classes there in 2020. When I think back to 2016, I would have never imagined the journey that I was about to embark on. That was the same year I traveled to Leon, Guanajuato for the first time and started to work with the shoemaking community in Mexico. During that time, I unknowingly laid the foundation for SERES Footwear. I had been designing and making my own shoes for a few years, it only made sense to eventually bring them to market. 2023 was the year it finally happened.
2. How has your Mexican-American heritage influenced your approach to shoe design and the ethos of SERES Footwear?
I reflected on all of the things that I would change in the fashion industry, and knew that my personal ethos could materialize through the creation of my own company. I had the idea of creating a contemporary Made In Mexico shoe brand. Throughout my career, I worked for brands that were primarily manufactured in Europe; SERES changed that narrative. When I moved to Mexico, I had several epiphanies and began to understand more about my family’s decision to immigrate to the USA. I experienced grief but I also felt profound joy during that time, I wanted to celebrate my family, ancestors, their homeland and traditions. Slowly, my ideas started to manifest. In Spanish, traditional shoemakers are zapateros, and they work in talleres. Talleres are similar to ateliers. It is an honor for SERES to work with zapateros to create fashion-forward shoes and take up space in an industry that is known for exclusivity.
3. You spent significant time in Mexico learning about the footwear industry. Can you share some of the most valuable lessons you learned during that period?
There is a deep connection to the land that happens when I’m working in Mexico. For example, we may have plans but Nature does too, and sometimes our workday doesn’t turn out as planned. If Earth decides to bestow us with rain, the shoemakers may not be able to complete certain tasks because moisture and humidity significantly affect leather. Things don’t always go as planned. The lesson here is to get comfortable in knowing nothing, the future is uncertain… be curious.
4. SERES Footwear is known for its sustainable practices. Can you elaborate on how you ensure sustainability in your production process?
We eliminate synthetic materials wherever possible. That’s why we make leather shoes. I’m very much concerned with environmental issues and sustainability in the fashion industry is a complex topic. We source leather from local ranchers and use a ‘mixed’ tanning process. When an animal is sacrificed, the correct thing to do is use all of its parts. The tanning process we use eliminates toxic chemicals from our leather that are commonly found, unfortunately. We use vegetable based tannins which leave organic tones and textures in our final product. Cattle are living creatures and like every other living being, they grow. They carry offspring, feed their calves, and undergo many changes that cause their skin to stretch and leave marks. People really need to understand that coating these ‘imperfections’ with chemicals in an attempt to hide a blemish is not the correct thing to do.
SERES Footwear is officially part of the Chicago Fair Trade. We ensure that our shoemakers make more than a livable wage and have good working conditions. This was very important in the creation of the brand. We also have circular packaging and our transportation partners offset carbon emissions through forestry work in Ejido de Santiago Coltzingo, Puebla. I’m personally involved in all facets of R&D and it’s my responsibility to advocate for sustainability.
5. What inspired the name ‘SERES’, and how does it reflect the brand’s mission and values?
“Seres” is the Spanish word for beings, and we are dedicated to putting the spotlight on all of the participants that make our footwear possible – including artisans, land, and animals. Our footwear goes through a journey of their own, a ritual if you will, before making their way onto its wearer. It’s interesting that the shoes start as raw materials and eventually make their way back to gracing the ground.
6. You’ve mentioned that your parents were always into fashion. How did their influence shape your career path in the footwear industry?
My dad taught me how to sew and he learned his skills from his mother; both of my grandmothers were seamstresses in Mexico. My grandfather worked at a luggage factory in Chicago when he immigrated to the USA and I loved going to work with him. This kind of stuff was in my DNA. Both of my parents were born in Mexico and my household was eclectic – it was a great time in Latino culture, I was raised on house music, and of course, fashion went hand-in-hand with it. I really do feel lucky. My parents loved dressing me so much they saved boxes of my clothes and shoes – it makes for a great archive. I think that’s why I love New York City so much, you see how music has always influenced fashion in the streets.
7. What role did your time in New York City’s fashion world play in your decision to start SERES Footwear?
New York City remains one of my favorite places in the world. It really inspired me to do great things, even if it meant leaving. It was the place where I landed my first footwear job and haven’t looked back since. The energy is unmatched and you can definitely see some of it reflected in SERES.
8. Finally, what advice would you give to other aspiring footwear designers, especially those hoping to start their own business in the fashion industry?
Maintain a balanced nervous system because half of the journey is mental.