The rise of the Philadelphia fashion designer has been slow, steady, and now victorious, as independent locals such as Milan (her unisex Milano di Rouge streetwear brand), Dom Streater (the winner of the 12th season of Project Runway), and Black Wednesdays’ Diana Bader and Lindsay Leichner (metal and leather goods) have made names for themselves, internationally, within the last five years.
Philly-area footwear designer Andrew Ma could be next. His Andrew Ma brand, focused on women and founded last year, is a serious balance of form and function with the embrace of vibrant colors and diverse textures. “The focus on both aesthetics and functionality is reflected by my background in engineering and interest in art and design,” Ma told me. “The incorporation of distinctive colors, patterns and materials is the outward expression of my inner confidence, a sense that I strive to instill in my designs and my brand.”
dosage MAGAZINE and I caught up with Ma, via email, at the tail end of a Kickstarter process, ready to talk at great length about his learning, life, and his glorious design aesthetic made walkable. Read closely: Ma offers a genuinely sharp look into the mind of a young serious designer and brand maker.
A.D. Amorosi: Please tell me a little bit about where you are from originally, where you went to school, and where you currently and work in the Philadelphia area. Andrew Ma: I am a first-generation Chinese American born in Buffalo, NY and have lived all over the US. I went to elementary school in Kalamazoo, MI, middle and high school in Plano, TX, and college in Evanston, Il. We moved around a lot during my youth because of my dad’s mechanical engineering jobs. He also really enjoys teaching engineering courses to college students and is now a full-time professor at Michigan Technology University in Houghton. During his spare time, he would also play the accordion, sketch and make paintings. I think his multi-disciplinary interests and constant desire to make things inspired me to be a multi-faceted designer and maker as well. I graduated from Northwestern University with a BS in mechanical engineering and a certificate of design. I eventually moved to Downingtown, PA, and found a job in Morgantown working for Iron Mountains LLC, a product development and marketing company focused on designing baby products such as strollers and car seats. My day job as a design engineer really resonates with my background as our development process is focused on both form and function. To us, creating safe, reliable products is just as important as shaping them beautifully.
A.D. Amorosi: What were your design and fashion influences before you got to the specifics of footwear?
Andrew Ma: I was always fascinated by architecture, the use of sculptural lines in such a grand way to evoke both strength and elegance. I am inspired by the Oculus in NYC, Cloud Gate in Chicago, the Harbin Opera House in China, the Chrysler building in Manhattan, and much more. I love how through buildings and structures, an architect can express his/her taste and style, from contemporary minimalism, to the geometric and rigid brutalism and to the timeless Art Deco. One cannot study Art Deco without studying jewelry and the great designers that inspired a stylistic movement which flowed across the world. If you take away the materialist glamour that we often attribute to jewelry, what’s left is pure geometry, color, contrast, a wearable sculpture. I love the works of Bulgari, David Webb, Faberge, and Cartier. Finally, in terms of fashion, I love the mixture of masculinity and femininity by Tom Browne, and the artistry and craft of Guo Pei, who said that she often creates her pieces for the sole reason of her enjoyment and exploration, her craft is her expression.
A.D. Amorosi: How did you decide to get into footwear? Was there something about your initial design aesthetic that was best or solely answered by creating footwear?
Andrew Ma: At a very young age, I experienced the transformative potential of shoes, both in terms of expression outwardly and confidence inwardly. I’ve always been a very anxious and soft-spoken person, and when I was around 5, my family lived in Beijing for several years. I remember the crowds of people, the hordes of vehicles and the constant noise during the day; it was sensory overload for me and I didn’t enjoy going outside. But one day, my dad bought me a pair of light-up shoes and things changed rapidly for me. My world quite actually went from black/white/sepia to full color with each step I took. The shoes encouraged me to explore the outside and allowed me to focus on the cool colors emanating from my feet and the joy they brought me. For the first time in my life, I realized that I can be empowered by the shoes on my feet and gain confidence by wearing something distinct. From that point on I have always worn strong colors and expressive shoes as a way to remind myself of the courage I have within. The first kinds of shoes that I gravitated to were basketball shoes. I enjoyed the cushion and support and of course, the loud styles, colorways and patterns. Wearing them was like lacing up stylized armor. I had a chance to design concept shoes for an industrial design course I took at NU and starting at that point I began to explore the boundaries of men’s footwear. I love how with shoes there’s the combination of soft fabrics like leather and canvas and hard, sculpted elements like EVA foam midsoles or hard rubber outsoles, I felt like this product category was more relatable to my background as an engineer and maker than traditional fashion and clothing design. However, I did eventually find that much of men’s style is limited in color, shapes, and diversity with the exception of street and athletic wear. At the same time, I was noticing through my fianceé’s shoes that women’s style offered complete freedom across the entire footwear spectrum, from formal to casual to athleisure. In particular, I was drawn to the high heel and its inherently sculptural nature. The sense of drama they create and the empowering confidence they express reminded me of my first experience and connection with cool shoes I had growing up. So I switched gears, and for a full year, I did nothing but sketch women’s heels. Although I do draw digitally on my iPad, I prefer to work with paper, pencil, and markers when sketching; to me when I draw on paper, I feel like I am sculpting with my pencil, carving lines into the paper, and that tactility and connection is something that digital tools cannot replicate. The freedom and endless possibilities that women’s style offered was exhilarating, and after filling two full sketchbooks full of designs over the span of several years, I decided to pursue my own line of women’s shoes.
A.D. Amorosi: What about the heels? Anything tough about the heels?
Andrew Ma: There was one area regarding heels, specifically stiletto heels, that bothered me, the irony that the shoes aesthetically and emotionally emboldens a woman but all the while, physically stunting her balance. If you’ve ever watched the Netflix series “House of Cards,” you’ll know that the character, Clair Underwood, becomes the President of the US, and arguably, the most powerful person in the world. But in most of the scenes that you see her, her feet can be seen wobbling with each step and her walking pace is usually measured and restricted. This aspect of the skinny stiletto heel is what I sought as a designer to improve upon, and I am of the agreement that the best designs are more often evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I wanted to design a heel that simultaneously accentuates a women’s legs, exudes strength and elegance, and widens the contact of the shoe for improved stability. The result is my Alto High Heel, a refinement in heel design featuring sleek, splitting arches and three times the width of a traditional stiletto, a balance of form and function.
A.D. Amorosi: Are you also a cobbler? Are you well-versed in the art of layering and stitching leather? Please explain the process in as much detail as you can.
Andrew Ma: Although I have learned how to make women’s shoes under both a cobbler, traditionally a shoe repairer, and a cordwainer, traditionally a bespoke shoemaker, I would not consider myself as either, out of respect for the dedication of both crafts. For me, learning how to make is critical to knowing how to design, and I use my skills that I have acquired to prototype my initial concepts and develop my designs with manufacturers.
A.D. Amorosi: So, when did you initially take to the skill of it all?
Andrew Ma: I first learned to make women’s pumps at the Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking in Ashland, Oregon back in 2015. During this 7-day course led by the recently retired cowboy boot maker Bill Shanor, we learned the entire process of shoemaking from sketching on the last (the form that the shoe is built on), to pattern-making, to cutting, skiving and sewing the leather, to lasting the upper and lining (process of stretching and tacking the leather over the form), to gluing the outsole and finally attaching the heel. What I find truly satisfying and beautiful about the process of shoemaking is the transition from 3D (the initial design of the shoe on the last) to 2D (the flat patterns made on card stock used to cut the leather/material) and back to 3D again (the finished shoe)! Following Bill’s course, I eagerly started making my first prototypes, combining my hand-made shoes with my 3D printed heel designs. Every step of shoemaking involves at least one skill that takes years to master, so needless to say, my first creations were very rough! But during my time living in Warsaw, Indiana, I had the opportunity to develop my skills further and made a great friend who was also the town cobbler. I lived in Warsaw, the self-proclaimed orthopedic capital of the US, for four years after graduating from NU. During that time, I would visit the town cobbler, Larry Momeyer, at least once a week as he was always very gracious to let me use his machinery and shoe equipment and eager to talk about shoes. Larry was in his mid-70’s when I first met him, and he gave me a lot of good advice and taught me better techniques, especially on how to sharpen and clean a knife and skiving leather (process of thinning down the edges of a piece of leather when layering multiple pieces or creating a finished, folded-over edge). Shoe factories have sophisticated machinery with spinning blades that can skiv in seconds but what Larry taught me was how to skiv leather using a knife. With a properly sharpened blade and a hard surface supporting the leather underneath, he showed me how to methodically and steadily move the knife to thin down the leather. I’m still a crude novice at skiving and shoemaking, but I can now at least make believable prototypes without slicing holes through my leather, thanks to Larry’s advice. I think this is what I love the most about shoemaking, it is a passion that connects all kinds of people from all walks of life. Although our politics may divide us and our upbringings and environment separate us, our love of shoes connected a life-long cobbler and blue-grass mandolin player from the Midwest with a millennial, first-generation Chinese American dreamer.
A.D. Amorosi: How and when did “Andrew Ma Footwear” become a reality, and how do you define your brand?
Andrew Ma: Our company, Andrew Ma, was founded in March of 2019 by my friend Yifan Wang and I. Our brand is defined by the balance of form and function and the embrace of vibrant colors and textures. The focus on both aesthetics and functionality is reflected by my background in engineering and interest in art and design. The incorporation of distinctive colors, patterns and materials is the outward expression of my inner confidence, a sense that I strive to instill in my designs and my brand.
A.D. Amorosi: You are currently featuring women’s footwear? Do you intend to also create men’s footwear? Why or why not?
Andrew Ma: Although men’s shoes have less opportunities for sculpture when compared to women’s heels, I still enjoy designing interesting cuts and incorporating diverse fabrics and patterns. I definitely plan to create a men’s line in the future and am always open to athletic and streetwear, though the latter two may have to be under a different label. I think you can do so much just by experimenting with colors and materials and is the reason why Converse and Taft are my favorite men’s shoe brands. A timeless, iconic silhouette like the Chuck Taylor high top can be made new and refreshing time and time again by simply incorporating new colors and bold textures.
A.D. Amorosi: Are you following the traditional collection schedule – spring, resort, fall, etc.?
Andrew Ma: As a startup brand in the midst of COVID, we cannot blindly follow rigid schedules of any sort, let alone traditional collection seasons. The Libra Collection, our debut line was designed with versatility in mind, 3 heel heights for different occasions, and the selection of colors and textures that can look great in all seasons. Balance in choice and design. The goal is to let this first collection last as long as possible and then use the feedback and data we collect to inform the next release. It’s difficult to predict consumer trends during this pandemic when people aren’t spending as much or traveling as far, and so trying to pump out multiple collections throughout the year becomes more of a financial risk. What makes sense right now is to take things one step at a time, evaluate the market and landscape often and react accordingly.
A.D. Amorosi: What will set Andrew Ma footwear apart from other shoe lines – its signatures – and what is your personal and professional motto?
Andrew Ma: What sets the brand and collection apart from other lines is the split arch heel designs, the sculptural lines, cuts and details, and the irresistible fabrics and colors. The Libra Collection features a sophisticated, navy herringbone fabric as well as a gorgeous, satin floral print in addition to crowd favorites like leopard print and neutral palettes. Form and function do not follow one or the other, they are opposite sides of the same entity. As for my motto, it’s ‘Bring some killer shoes, because confidence starts from the feet up.’