Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kassie Rempel has always hated paying a lot for clothes. Shoes, however, are another matter. The 34-year-old Mount Pleasant resident, a native of North Carolina, spent $275 for her first pair of designer shoes shortly after graduating from college and "immediately recognized how much better I felt: They felt better on my feet; they held up better." There was another reason Kassie, who then worked in accounting, appreciated upscale footwear: "You can't get too creative with your wardrobe, but you can express your personality with a pair of shoes."

After moving to Washington in 1999, however, Kassie found it hard to find the designers she wanted and a hassle to get to the stores. So, in 2003, while working as a financial adviser, she looked into launching a catalogue, reasoning that other women would welcome the convenience and luxury of paging through a collection of carefully selected, sumptuous shoes.

But creating a catalogue is a lot easier said than done, she recalls: "You can't just go down to Kinko's." Kassie wrote to the co-founder of Wisteria, a home and garden catalogue, who generously responded with a long letter containing a wealth of advice. "It was my blueprint," she says. She studied the catalogue business for a year -- contacting many of the people the Wisteria owner recommended, buying lists of customer names, determining her target audience. Then, using savings and home equity, she launched SimplySoles in September 2004 by sending out 30,000 36-page catalogues and setting up a complementary Web site.

Most pages feature just one pair of shoes, some of which are exclusive to SimplySoles. "No one needs these shoes," Kassie says of the footwear, which ranges from more than $100 a pair to almost $600 and comes from designers such as Bettye Muller and Missoni. "These shoes have to speak to someone on an emotional level. That's why we have big pictures and a very edited collection."

SimplySoles catalogues are now sent to more than 500,000 women each year, 7,000 of them repeat buyers. Kassie says the typical customer is a 51-year-old upper-income woman who orders two pairs of shoes a season. "They want fashion, but they want wearable fashion," Kassie says.

Betty Fier-Handsman of Hillsdale, N.J., was on one of the initial mailing lists. "I thought it was one of the best put-together shoe catalogues I've ever seen. I think I bought almost every shoe in the first catalogue," she says. "They have the most beautiful shoes, and they're so comfortable." Handsman also cites individual attention, easy returns or exchanges and the company's policy of giving customers a 10 percent discount for each pair of office shoes they donate to the nonprofit Suited for Change.

SimplySoles made more than $1 million in revenue in 2006 and turned its first five-figure profit with this spring's catalogue. For now, the four-employee business is run from the basement of the home Kassie shares with her accountant husband, toddler son and infant daughter. The home, marriage, catalogue and children have all come into her life in the past three years, and things can be stressful. But Kassie says she can't complain. "I've created something that I'm passionate about, and I get to spend my days doing something that I genuinely enjoy."

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