Nina Z has become a cult figure in the shoe world since she got her start in 2008. Her reintroduction of the iconic Swedish clog to the metropolitan market has filled a void in the often blinged out world of fashion. With an emphasis on natural products and sustainability, Nina Ziefert, the woman behind the covetable creations, is a constant presence at the Brooklyn Flea where she began with one simple pair of sandals and has now expanded to over 20 models to a line, which also includes boots.
With a love of vintage and handbag partnership also on the horizon, it is Nina’s travels, her upbringing in Stockholm, Sweden, her life in Brooklyn and a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Marketing and Communications from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York that form the foundation of her work. Each pair of shoes is handmade in Sweden by fifth generation shoemakers using traditional methods and only natural materials such as European birch and alder wood and the soles are recycled rubber.
Prior to founding her label, Ziefvert was the Curator of the Corridor Gallery, a division of the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation in Brooklyn. Her work as a stylist with the likes of world renowned artists, singers and actresses such as Mickalene Thomas, Solange Knowles and Jessica Chastain add yet another dimension to her immense talent and knack for the imaginative. Portable visited Ziefert in her Prospect Park home studio to discuss with her the logistics of the clog business.
Portable: Why start a clog line?
Nina Ziefert: It happened very organically. It was born out of a void. In my younger years and my professional career I was in fashion and I started working in the arts still with a foot in the fashion world whether it be styling or collecting vintage and then I was always wearing the clog sandals, the braided ones but I couldn’t find them anywhere, only vintage ones in Sweden and my friends were always like please pick up a pair for me when you go there and then one day I thought, ‘you know what, I can’t find them here, everybody wants them, let me see if I could actually find someone that would be interested in making them for me. Then I did research for awhile, I looked in Mexico, I looked here (the U.S.), because I thought Sweden would be silly with the shipping but there’s really no other place where they still do the clog according to the classic hand craftsmanship. So I found these brothers in the south of Sweden and they were open to working and developing models with me, not just stay with the traditional clog, because I wanted to be able to build a brand. Then I had one model that summer, 2009, and then in 2011 I quit my regular job as the director of an art gallery and now there’s 20 models.
P: Why do you think people have taken a sudden interest in clogs again over the past few years?
Nina Ziefert: I think that there’s a cycle in all fashion trends and I think that clogs were away long enough and I think that it’s also combined with a consumer interest in more classic styles, more handmade items and more basic materials. The whole ‘brand name’ phase with exposed Louis Vuitton and Gucci was tired and people were totally pimped out in it so I think it just got back to people wanting to have something that was more solid and sustainable. There’s just something about natural materials, it’s coming from earth, it’s pretty dope, it’s a piece of art!
P: How does your background in art lend itself to the design of your clogs?
Nina Ziefert: To me the fact that it’s actually formed by natural materials, if you think about it, it’s a piece of wood and a lot of sculptors use wood. Then the way that they are put together for me, it’s very artistic. I haven’t done a clog sculpture yet but I would definitely love to explore that, I don’t know what avenues exactly though.
P: Why do you think running the label out of Brooklyn works so well?
Nina Ziefert: Because I think that the Brooklyn girl is my ideal customer. She is very fashion forward and trendy but she’s not a slave to trends so she can still create her own fashion statements, so she mixes and matches and she can wear sandals and socks and she can wear boots in the summer because she doesn’t really give a fuck if it’s not appropriate and I think that she’s also aware of global warming and issues like that, so it’s important for her to wear something that’s more sustainable. Also, most girls in Brooklyn got style.
P: You recently went to South Africa, how was that?
Nina Ziefert: For two reasons, firstly for business and also my boyfriend who I run the business with is from Botswana. I had read about a woman called Miss Milli B in W Magazine, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to meet her,’ and I did while I was there and now she’s probably going to launch the clogs there. Then they also have two really big flea markets over there that were modelled on the Brooklyn Flea so I had been talking to the guy who runs that for a long time too. The ideal situation would be to spend winter (which is their summer) in South Africa and summers here.
P: What was the fashion like in South Africa and how does it inspire what you do?
Nina Ziefert: It’s always inspiring with the colors and the patterns and I think that what inspired me was that a lot of the fashion in South Africa is from South Africa and it doesn’t have to be so big, so global but it still has a market and I think that’s inspiring that you don’t have to think I’ve got to go to New York or Paris. It’s a good sustainable market and they’re happy with their craft and it’s not about how much you can sell but more about what it is that you’re selling, which I like.
P: You are a staple of the Brooklyn Flea markets, how did you get involved?
Nina Ziefert: The markets for me were the first place except for my friends store in Williamsburg which is no longer there, where I brought the shoes. It is home for the clogs, it is home for me and at the same time that the Flea grew, so did the brand. It’s been an amazing platform to me to interact with customers and to get feedback and I think that a big part of what the brand is today is my continuous presence and the market and meeting new people. No retailer could beat it.
P: How do you plan to keep evolving and modernizing the clog?
Nina Ziefert: My theory and idea for the brand is that it is still so new that up to this point I’ve kind of developed a classic collection, so I just kept adding on because there was still a void in that collection, but I think that void is pretty much met now so I think I am going to have a classic collection and then every season I’m going to add one or two new styles and then maybe remake an old model in a seasonal color and I think that I’m just going to be organically inspired by what I think is needed or what I feel like I personally would like to wear which is how some of the new collection was created. Along the way I’m sure some of the classics will be taken away but I don’t really have a set agenda, it’s going to be whatever is needed and asked for.
P: You styled Solange Knowles for the Limited Edition Opening Ceremony cover of her album, what was it like working with her?
Nina Ziefert: It was a really incredible opportunity and it was amazing for me because it was based upon an artist that I have worked with for many years, Mickalene Thomas and I was able to keep building on that. Normally as a stylist you are asked to style personas, and it was cool to bring this to life through a real person and I can’t wait to see the finished product. It was also inspiring the way that she is into all patterns and the African prints so it really felt like it was the right time for me before I was going to South Africa. I had also worked for such a long time with Mickalene, who also has collaborated with Solange, so because we are both inspired by her and her work, we obviously worked well together.
P: You also styled Jessica Chastain of Zero Dark Thirty for the cover of W Magazine, how was that considering the hype surrounding her at the moment?
Nina Ziefert: That was really an amazing experience too because for that shoot, because of the level of the job I had access and was able to pull from every single big designer straight off the runway, Spring/Summer 2013, which is not usually the way Mickalene and I or just myself has worked before. It was a totally different experience. Obviously the level of the production was really intense.
P: What are you inspired by?
Nina Ziefert: I’m more inspired by general people and what is around me rather than other designers I think I am more inspired by my customers and my friends and whoever I consider being an inspiration and who can tell me what’s needed and who I can listen to more than looking at what somebody else is doing.
P: Tell us more about Cloggie of the Month, is it just people you see on the street?
Nina Ziefert: It has happened that it’s people on the street but it’s usually a customer or a friend or maybe I go into a shop or a cafe and I see somebody wearing them. Eventually I want to make a pinup calendar so there is a Cloggie for every month!
P: Have any of your customers ever suggested something and you have implemented it?
Nina Ziefert: Yes. One of the ankle boots from the new collection’s tongue was removed because someone suggested it in passing, but it wasn’t a specific thing but when I wore it to the market people responded well to it. However a few months after I saw a very similar shoe because people copy so quickly.
P: How do you make the business work with you here and your cobblers in Sweden?
Nina Ziefert: I travel to Sweden at least two or three times a year so usually it starts by me sending them a sample, or sketches or a photo or sometimes I even mix three photos together and then they interpret it and it could come back looking totally crazy or good, but then depending on what’s needed either when I’m there if it’s timely otherwise it has to be done over the phone or via Skype or I send the pictures. Now I am going to start working with someone in New York to help me make samples though, because so much time gets lost.
P: Do you have any favorite pairs?
Nina Ziefert: The boots (Camilla), I wear them all year round and also the braided sandals, because they are the first ones!