20 People to Watch - Julie Brown: The sustainable designer

The business-savvy, eco-friendly shoemaker walks the walk

As more independent markets pop up in Atlanta, and people connect more with makers, the demand for handcrafted, local products is growing. Homegrown products made with high-quality materials and eco-friendly processes are all part of the sustainable point of view that drives Julie Bee’s Shoes. Atlanta-based designer Julie Brown founded Julie Bee’s in 2012 to provide shoes that don’t sacrifice style for comfort or the environment.

“I wanted a pair of American-made shoes so I tried to wear American-made brands while being very conscious of the materials,” Brown says. “There weren’t a whole lot of options out there. So I started doing some research. I started putting together Julie Bee’s and a team.”

Brown took an unusual path to fashion. She hails from Washington, D.C., where she used to work at the Department of Homeland Security and did some consulting. The Kentucky native earned her MBA in Boston at the Hult International Business School. About three years ago, Brown arrived in Atlanta hoping to work in sustainability. Unable to find a comfortable heel to wear to work, she created Julie Bee’s and began designing her own lines.

“It’s a very classic shoe,” Brown says. “They are great to wear to work and transition into the evening very easily. I’m very big into texture so we brought different textures into the leather that we use.” She creates those textures with remnants of vintage fabric and reclaimed leather, giving new life to discarded pieces.

In 2013, Brown successfully raised more than $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign for her spring line. The line included the Nashville flats, in neutral colors with metallic accents, made with eco-friendly calfskin and patent leather, as well as the suede-and-calfskin New Yorker heels. Each design is named after the city that inspired it, including the Atlanta ballet flat.

The company, which has its factory in California, is changing its shopping experience in 2015 to encourage customer engagement. A new site will allow the spring line to be released in batches, about three to four shoes every two to three weeks. The customers will be able to pre-order their shoes beforehand as well.

“We are very excited about what we are offering,” Brown says. “We’ll be seeing a lot of fun colors like raspberry and blueberry and other fun colors. We are planning to have pop-up shops all over the country as well. You’ll see everything from a strappy sandal to an evening heel.”

Brown’s ongoing commitment to sustainability and focus on her fashion-forward clientele’s style sets her apart from faceless corporations. Whereas learning on the job isn’t easy, Brown has managed to do it with success these last few years.

“I’m always talking to people in the fashion industry who I can talk to and rely upon for a number of issues,” she says. “I have folders and folders of ideas to go through with my creative director for upcoming lines. Even watching my company grow, I always feel like there’s going to be more to achieve.”