Best Foot Forward
Alumnus rethinks the meaning of ‘canvas’ at his artist-focused shoe company
Like many creative ideas, it’s not easy to trace the origins of Bucketfeet, a Chicago-based shoe company known for its wildly patterned kicks. But the founding story ultimately leads to a shaggy-haired UO senior in a house in Eugene, hunched over a simple pair of white canvas shoes. Armed with a pack of markers, this lifelong doodler transformed the footwear with an explosion of colorful squiggles. “I just thought it would be fun to customize shoes for myself,” Aaron Firestein, BA ’08, remembers. “There was no bigger plan than that.”
Satisfied with the result, Firestein snapped a photo and uploaded the image to Facebook, where it caught the attention of a high school friend from Berkeley, California. He wanted a pair of his own. Firestein obliged, and before long, he was selling embellished shoes to friends and acquaintances on campus and beyond.
While Firestein enjoyed the process for its expressive freedom and the extra cash it generated, he thought of shoe customization as a hobby, similar to his other artistic pursuits. A self-described “creative type,” Firestein didn’t discriminate among camera, pen, or musical instruments—they were all vehicles for interpreting the world. He chose the UO in part because Oregon’s lush greenery and snow-capped mountains appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. Also, Firestein knew he would find fellow musicians and artists among the UO’s large and diverse student body.
Easygoing and quick to laugh, Firestein moves through life with an optimist’s belief that things will always work out. This attitude served Firestein well when he entered a bleak economic landscape postgraduation. Undeterred, Firestein moved back home, worked at a restaurant, and saved money. A year later, he moved to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish and continue with his art projects.
In Buenos Aires, Firestein volunteered with an arts and athletics program for impoverished children. There, he befriended Raaja Nemani, a finance associate turned globetrotter. When Nemani departed for his next adventure, he was clad in a pair of Firestein’s hand-decorated sneakers that were, fittingly, evocative of the urban landscape where they had met.
Those shoes took Nemani around the world, and wherever he went, people asked about his unusual kicks. Eventually, Nemani contacted Firestein and proposed turning his side shtick into a legitimate business. Firestein immediately agreed. The new venture would be different from Firestein’s hobby, however, in one important regard. “It was never just going to be my art on the shoes,” Firestein explains. “We wanted to give artists around the world an opportunity to showcase their work in a really unique way.”
Bucketfeet launched in 2011 with seven shoe designs from seven artists. Today, as cofounder and chief artist, Firestein helps promote the work of emerging talent from more than 120 countries. Sometimes it all seems too good to be true.
Firestein becomes visibly animated when he discusses artists who have partnered with Bucketfeet. Argentinian-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone, Firestein says, “was someone I found on Instagram years ago. I loved his work and thought it would look really great with our product.” A year or so after the successful launch of Pantone’s design, Firestein contacted him to discuss another collaboration. But this time, Pantone’s agent replied.
“He told me Felipe was booked for the next two years,” Firestein says, laughing. “His career had really taken off.” In 2016 alone, Pantone had solo exhibitions in Mexico, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. “Today, he’s one of the most exciting, sought-after artists anywhere,” Firestein says. “It’s really cool to be able to say we were one of the first to work with him.”
In addition to sourcing new talent himself, Firestein relies on the Bucketfeet design team to review online submissions from professional and amateur artists. With more than 7,600 designs submitted last year, it’s a monumental task. Each artist whose work is selected receives $1 per each of the first 25 pairs sold; after that, the artist receives $10 per pair in perpetuity. The artist also retains ownership of the work.
As of August, all Bucketfeet shoes are now made on demand for the consumer. This production shift effectively eliminated the company’s backlog of excess inventory—a common problem in the finicky world of retail. “It’s very difficult with art to know what’s going to be a hit,” Firestein says. “Now we don’t have shoes sitting in the warehouse, collecting dust.”
This on-demand model has enabled Bucketfeet to broaden its stable of artists. “I’m really excited that we can feature even more designs on the website now that we don’t have the inventory risk,” Firestein says.
The boldness of Bucketfeet designs doesn’t begin and end with the shoe—it permeates everything about the company. Indeed, the Bucketfeet tagline, “Create a Brighter World,” encompasses much more than the visual impact of the shoes. In addition to generating more than $500,000 for artists so far, Bucketfeet has launched special-edition shoes to raise funding for organizations focused on pediatric cancer, marine life, and other causes. The company’s community outreach efforts include an artist-speaker series and customer meet-ups.
“We practice what we preach,” Firestein says, emphatically. This commitment stems in part from Firestein’s time at the UO, where he majored in political science. “I’ve always been very interested in the ways of the world,” he says. “My political science courses were fascinating—they gave me a foundation for understanding how history, geography, and politics interact on a global scale.”
Firestein’s experience at the UO prepared him for his career in another important way. At the UO, he says, “I learned how to learn.” For an entrepreneur, especially one in an evolving industry, this skill can make or break a business.
As Bucketfeet adapts to the marketplace, Firestein remains vigilant. “When you think you’ve succeeded, that’s when it goes downhill,” he says. “There’s always more to be done.” Despite an ever-expanding list of to-do’s, one thing consistently makes him smile—hearing from friends around the world that they saw “his” shoes on the subway in Mexico, on the street in Paris, or at a restaurant in Kyoto.
“Those ‘pinch me’ moments will never get old,” Firestein says.
Visit bucketfeet.com to order shoes or submit a design. Follow Aaron on Instagram @fuegostein.
The Duck spirit of innovation and creativity is alive and well—and shoes are only the beginning. Meet the entrepreneurs behind some of our favorite ventures.
Bliss Northwest Bridal lives in the sweet spot between wedding planners and DIY brides. The concierge-based model from Jenn Albertson, class of 2018, was developed with the coaching of faculty. “Their mentorship is undeniably the reason Bliss Northwest is where it is today,” Albertson says.
Members of Roam Fitness, the only postsecurity airport gym in the country, can thank the UO for their sweat sessions. “We had the flexibility to gear our class projects toward creating this company,” says Cynthia Sandall, MBA ’15, who cofounded Roam with Ty Manegold, MBA ’15.
Ian Moise, MS ’03, says the UO “refined my understanding of the complexities of environmental idealism,” a concept at the heart of Kuttlefish, an online marketplace for upcycled, recycled, and reclaimed materials. “We’re helping to build the circular economy.”
At Oregon BrewLab, owner Dana Garves, BS ’10, serves breweries, home brewers, and the cider industry by analyzing the alcohol content and nutritional information in beer and other fermented beverages. “My chemistry degree got me into quality control, which propelled me into the beer world,” she says.
The Duck Store may soon carry the LightLock, an elegant, high-security bike lock from Bluprint, Inc. As part of the Duck Store’s Oregon Incubator Program, Thomas Blase, BS ’16, says he and Bluprint cofounders Alex Reinhart, BS ’16, and Siobhan Mead, BS ’16, received “tremendous support.”
Kelsey Schagemann is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor.