J Shoes' Baltimore team kicks off a new decade of growth

The small, all-female team at J Shoes in Brewers Hill is leading the international company into new territory.

Nestled in Natty Boh Tower and tucked behind a series of walkways and entrances, the North American headquarters of J Shoes is easy to miss.

"People think that we're a cobbler or that we carry other brands," said Natasha Yaeger, communications manager for the company.

But once inside the 1,700-square-foot office, the company's scope becomes clear. More than 100 types of men's and women's shoes line the entrance of the open-plan office, where an all-female staff runs the U.S. operations of an international brand. A sturdy, industrial-size clothing rack chock full of shirts, sweaters, coats, jackets and other garments signifies its latest foray into ready-to-wear clothing.

On the heels of its 20th year in business, the British fashion brand is primed for growth at its U.S. outpost. J Shoes will make its debut this month in 15 Nordstrom stores — including Tysons Corner Center and Pentagon City — after selling through the department store's online platform. American customers already account for two thirds of the 105,000 pairs of shoes the company sells each year, and the Baltimore-based team will introduce them to the Peregrine Clothing line this spring.

Baltimore is an unusual location for a fashion brand of this size, which is also sold through Amazon, Trunk Club, Stitch Fix and 80 boutiques nationwide. But the North American office has been in Maryland since 2004, and the six-woman staff like their Brewers Hill digs.

"I don't think we're missing a lot not being in New York or L.A. We have weekly Skype meetings. It's much easier than it has ever been to work from wherever," Yaeger said.

Sarah White, operations manager for the office, agrees.

"The fact that we are all from Baltimore and we don't have to go elsewhere to work in the fashion industry is a great thing," White said.

White is responsible for leading the company into the challenging and fickle ready-to-wear industry.

J Shoes is now the U.S. distributor for Peregrine Clothing, a British brand featuring a mix of tweed garments and wool knits that evoke a warm, relaxed feel with tinges of preppiness. Pieces in the collection retail between $120 and $300.

"We're starting from the bottom — ground zero," White said of the expansion. "To be a new brand coming into the U.S. is really difficult."

Unlike the recognizable J Shoes brand — known for its masculine to unisex appearance, artisianal details and old-world British craftsmenship — Peregrine is unfamiliar to American buyers, but the Baltimore team is working to change that.

Despite the fact that the majority of their business — 70 percent — deals with men's shoes, the North American team is entirely female.

"It's cool that a team of women runs a global foot brand. And we're all under 40," said Yaeger. "It's not intentional. We would welcome anyone. We've definitely had guys in the office before. This is kind of how it shook out the past five years."

Employees — there are a half-dozen full-time workers in the Baltimore office plus an intern — say that the all-female dynamic has helped in part to foster a welcoming, supportive environment where employees feel safe, nurtured and encouraged.

For example, J Shoes offers three months paid maternity leave, which is a rarity in the workplace. (Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, new mothers are allowed 12 weeks of unpaid leave.)

"You're not docked because you have a life choice," Yaeger said.

Paige Goldsmith, the company's office and sales coordinator, has worked there for the past year.

"It's great. Not that I'm against men. I love men. But we all really get along. We can talk about things," she said.

Those things have even included an occasional political discussion — especially amid a polarizing national political climate where the focus on women's issues has been heightened.

"For me — especially in these times — it's incredibly empowering," said Yaeger, who has been with the company since 2012.

For the most part, the office discussions are relegated to work.

"We keep it pretty PG," White said. "We're also professionals."

Still, their office is bursting with personality.

Potted plants and picture frames pepper shelves along with various metallic knickknacks and antiques. Wooden desks support flat-screen computer monitors at each workspace, reminiscent of tech offices in the Pacific Northwest.

And there are dozens upon dozens of shoes aligned meticulously in shelves that stretch the entire width of the office's back wall.

J Shoes produced about 120 styles of shoes this season alone. Prices range from $125 to $350. Most of the production is done in India, though recently the company teamed with Sanders, a family-run factory in England, that has been making shoes by hand for over 140 years, to create an updated take of J Shoes' iconic unisex style, the "Charlie" brogue, which was released in February. J Shoes declined to release company earnings.

James Dant, a menswear boutique in Indianapolis, has carried J Shoes since opening three years ago.

"The thing that I love the most about it is a lot of other brands try to do what J Shoes does. You don't see that old school construction like you see with J Shoes," said the boutique's owner, Tommy James Dant II. "With J Shoes, you really see that quality from the get go."

Dant said that at any given time, his boutique is stocked with four core styles and three seasonal styles from the brand.

"The classic styling and the quality standard are what people come back in and talk to us about," he said.

That's part of what attracted Jerome McManus to the brand. He's been wearing J Shoes for the past five years.

"I think they look great. They feel great. And they last a long time," said the Mount Washington resident, who has 10 pairs of the shoes.

His collection ranges from ankle boots to wingtip dress shoes.

"They look stylish without being too flamboyant," he said. "And they are based in Baltimore. I like supporting a company that is based here."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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