It's been a long, hard trek, from crude cardboard bottoms and ribbon tops, to top of the line glitzy evening shoes, but Arsho Baghsarian has enjoyed every single moment of the walk.
And the rewards have been far and beyond what the gentle, soft spoken shoe designer had dreamed of: induction into the Hall of Fame of the leading U.S. leather industry publication, Footwear News, and with New York's Fashion Institute of Technology clamoring for her archives. During her steady upward climb, Arsho stopped over at all parts of the world showcasing her creations and earning accolades from top fashion figures. She was still in her 20's when she received the New York Fashion Designer Celanese Award for best student design.
Her initiation into a long, productive career designing shoes began auspiciously enough at an early age. "Since my mother was a fashion designer, I was surrounded by French Fashion magazines, and fashion and designers became familiar objects to me and I was in love with Alta Moda (the world of high fashion)," she tells me.
As a teen, she loved playing around with cardboard shoes which she wore for fun, laying he groundwork for what would become a lifelong passion. She was born to Armenian parents in the historic Turkish town of Amasya near the Black Sea, but soon found herself in New York where her interest in designing shoes gained her entry into the prestigious Pratt Institute.
The shoes she designed have ranged in price from $150 to well over $2,000. One pair even managed to attain the astronomical figure of $1 million at an Academy Award (Oscar) function raising funds for charity.
Arsho has had the good fortune to be married to another artist, the photographer Avedis, whose support and critical appreciation has been influential in helping her give her ideas final shape. "What makes my shoes special, is my particular vision," which she describes as fashion plus function. "And that means they are fun but they also fit well," she points out.
The experience she gained working as a colorist for textile companies while in college honed her keen intuition about color and her expertise in the choice of special materials. Arsho supervised every aspect of the creation of a shoe: after designing on paper, she would pick colors and ornaments such as bows and buckles, correct the patterns and detail the sample line to be shown to retailers.
The shoes are sold not only in US department stores, but all over the world.
Arsho does not see any reason for concern over competition or any possible dire effects the turmoil in the world economy might have on shoe sale patterns. "Even in the current situation, shoes are one of the hottest selling items, particularly fashion shoes," she says. And she has been making imported shoes almost for "my entire career of 45 years," she declares.
She recalls that she made the first cheap fashion shoes in mainland China in 1980. At that particular junction in time, raw materials were difficult to come by in that part of the world and had to be imported from other countries like Spain and Italy. "Today, Chinese shoe imports account for 85 percent of U.S. shoe sales and I am sure it is the same for the rest of the world," she says.
Even though the Hall of Fame induction has spelled closure to her long and industrious career, she can now look forward to a happy but not idle retirement: "I now design jewelry and collage shoe cards for fun," she says.
Arsho started her career as a sportswear designer in New York's garment district. She has also designed handbags, belts, scarves, and other small fashion accessories, besides every item of women's shoes imaginable: boots, rubber rain boots, fur winter boots, sandals, thongs, espadrilles, evening shoes. And for the past 45 years, she has made it a point to wear nothing but her own shoes so that she could test the fit and comfort. The shoes she has, she can't part with: "the are all my children," she laughs.
When she first started designing for Christian Dior in 1963, the shoes were manufactured in the U.S. Later the manufacturing phase moved to Puerto Rico, Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Bulgaria. In the process, she picked up Spanish and Italian, augmenting her arsenal of foreign languages.
Samples of her work (culled from over 40 boxes of sketches, shoes and materials) are now enshrined at the Fashion Institute of Technology, an inspiration for aspiring designers, marking a fitting tribute to the vision that drove Arsho Baghsarian, a vision her husband Avedis shared with her in his own creations in photography and later sculpture.