This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Julie Kuo is a second-generation Asian-American and cofounder of the Los Angeles-based, female-founded sustainable footwear brand, Avre, alongside her sister, Connie. Both of the Kuo sisters learned the ins and outs of the shoe business early on, growing up in their family’s footwear company, East Lion Corp., which produces the Qupid line of accessibly-priced fashion looks. They witnessed first-hand the sacrifices and battles their parents had to encounter to grow their company into the multi-million dollar business it is today.
With their own brand, which launched earlier this year, the Kuos are also championing multiple social causes, striving to make their voices heard when it comes to women’s empowerment. Even the brand’s nam Avre—an acronym for “authentic, versatile, responsible, empowered”—embodies the brand’s platforms.
Fortune recently spoke with Julie and Connie Kuo to learn more about their business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: What inspired the launch of Avre? Who is your target audience?
Julie: The desire in wanting to support woman from all walks of life and to be able to do this in a sustainable way all while being able to give back to our community was what inspired my sister and I to launch Avre. The very footing of each Avre shoe is to recognize and celebrate every woman’s step. Our family has been in the footwear industry for over 35 years and we understand women’s passion and love for footwear.
Understanding how certain manufacturing practices were damaging to our planet, and learning about recycled threads both Connie and I realized there was an opportunity to show the world they could have beautiful shoes that was also good for mother earth. We partnered with Repreve, one of the world’s leading certifiable recycled fibers. All of our shoes are specifically made with these threads made of recycled PET (Polyethylene terephthalat) water bottles and in doing so we not only reduce waste filling up our landfills, but emit fewer greenhouse gases and conserve water and energy in the process.
Our target audience is empowered women who want to take a proactive approach of living and knowing that the choices they makes as consumers can affect the world in a positive way. Being mindful and aware and making the changes in life for a sustainable future to help protect the earth for many generations to come makes all the difference.
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, so it must be daunting to launch a company of any kind, let alone an apparel or footwear brand, right now. What has it been like opening a direct-to-consumer business during a pandemic?
Julie: We are a business-to-consumer footwear business, and having to operate and run during a pandemic has definitely had its challenges. The normal way of marketing and creating brand visibility has been very challenging for us as a new brand as one of our major ways of introducing the brand was through social events.
With social gatherings not being allowed as well as people limiting contact in order to stay safe, some of the activities we had planned to build brand visibility had to be postponed. We’ve had to rely heavily on social media and organic growth with audiences falling in love with the message and our designs once they’ve received the shoes.
What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and develop the initial collection?
Connie: We’ve been very fortunate with our supply partners in having a great relationship that has stemmed from years of working together from East Lion. We have always been pioneers in wanting to bring in new innovative ways to explore footwear. It is what led us to Avre, and that mindset was established long ago with our supply partners.
Therefore, the transition to push our supply partners to open their minds to try newer technologies, methods, and practices has been a much easier process than others. Don’t get me wrong—we still deal with hesitation and push back. But we’ve established our goal since the beginning, and having that clear and direct communication has helped us to continue push Avre forward.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Avre? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
Julie: Funding for Avre is all self-funded by my sister and I.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Avre in the market?
Connie: We want to create Avre into a lifestyle brand in which we can incorporate not only footwear and fashion, but other products that have to do with health. We would expand this line to be inclusive of everyone in the family—mom, dad, and child. We would also love to incorporate and support more social programs that align with who Avre is.
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