Little Shoebox steps into world of custom design


Myrna Kaplan had already picked out one pair of shoes by Olivia Rose Tal, and was trying on another.

She liked the stylish wedge, but didn't love it. If only the front had a neat little twist, like another pair she had at home. That twist was so snappy. And comfortable.

"Can you do a black twist?" Kaplan, of Guilford, asked Dorinne Tal, the shoes' designer, as she waved the sample shoe in the air.

"Of course!" Tal said, her favorite phrase of the afternoon.

And with that happy accommodation, Kaplan bought that pair of wedges, plus three more.

"Is there a bank around here I could go rob?" Kaplan asked, with a laugh, as she modeled pair number four.

In scenes like this repeated throughout the day, Tal's recent five-hour visit to the Little Shoebox in Ruxton proved profitable to all involved.

Customers left satisfied and a few pairs of shoes richer. The store's owners made multiple sales and all but guaranteed repeat patronage. And Tal, armed with a clipboard, learned what it is her customers really want to see in her shoes.

"I never bought a pair [of Tal's shoes] because I don't wear slides," says Melissa Gray, a Towson divorce attorney who lives in Timonium. "Now that I see you can add straps to anything, I'm a happy girl!"

Customers personalized their shoe orders all afternoon: Adding a halter in the back for support. Exchanging satin for suede on the inside to prevent sliding. Changing metallic stripes to leopard print -- well, just because.

Tal's responses to just about every request: Yes. Of course. Absolutely.

"Try having Calvin Klein do that," says Kaplan.

One-shoe-at-a-time customization is indeed rare in the shoe business. It's very expensive, for one, and time-consuming.

"They'll probably make more money than I will," says Tal, referring to store owners Janie Griffin and Emilie Blaze, who have been selling designer-label shoes such as Oscar de la Renta, Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Missoni for 13 months.

But the one-day trunk show wasn't about money. Tal made the road trip from New York with her husband and her car full of elaborately patterned, imaginative shoes because of her admiration for Griffin and Blaze.

"This is called sacrifice," she says, while writing up order after painstakingly nitpicked order. "This is called love."

Tal's is a smallish operation, she says, that does better, for some reason, in cities in the South and on the West Coast. But the Little Shoebox owners took a chance last year on Tal's then-10-year-old shoe business.

And women in Baltimore -- those who have $225 to $325 to spend on her shoes -- have been fans ever since.

"We're sort of a quirky little company," says Tal. "We're not a highly recognized label yet. But when they opened up, they sought us out and we appreciate that. They have a high taste-level, so I'm honored to be here."

The love is mutual. Women -- including the store's owners, who took mini-breaks to try on new designs for themselves -- adore Tal's shoes.

"It's fabulous! It's not only gorgeous, it's comfortable," says Debra Scheffenacker of Baltimore, as she modeled a dark gold snakeskin pair with a comely, front-cross ankle strap. "I have no idea what I'm going to wear it with, but I'm not worried about it."

That's the thing about Olivia Rose Tal, so named after the designer's two daughters. The slides and mules with tastefully juxtaposed fabrics, brocades and animal prints, the pearls and bows and blinged-out baubles of Swarovski crystal, the textures and rich colors, the straps and chunky platform heels -- all combine to make statement shoes that need no corresponding outfit choice.

"She has a gift for mixing colors and prints," says Stephanie Pedersen, author of the book Shoes: What Every Woman Should Know. "The finished shoes are centerpieces. Shoes people notice, in a good way. Another thing that makes these shoes so desirable is exclusivity. Everyone knows about Manolos and [Jimmy] Choos. Olivia Rose Tal are under the mass-culture radar, publicized very little and sold only in exclusive shops."

Pedersen says Tal's shoes are popular with New York socialites, Bal Harbour women and the Hamptons set.

But Tal also designs for those Baltimore women who shop at the Little Shoebox. The attorneys and stay-at-home mothers, with their Isabella Fiore handbags. The Chanel-loving retirees who spend winters in warmer places. The stylish working women with keen eyes for style.

"I can't wear the kind of clothes my daughters wear and I don't want to. It's inappropriate," says Tal. "But I want the shoes. And I still want them to be exciting."

Baltimore women want that, too, says Griffin.

"We opened this store, knowing ourselves and our friends and the people we associated with. We were all going to either New York for our fashions or D.C. But we truly felt that the market was here," Griffin says. "The very fashion-conscious customer is in Baltimore.

"We took a leap of faith that [Olivia Rose Tal] was going to work here," she adds. "And people have been thrilled to see this look."

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