For spring, she's planning a bridal line, a new shoe collection — not to mention coordinating handbags. Not one to rest on her laurels, she's scouting space to expand her boutique to San Francisco.
Americo de Souza is a bright, bubbly, sunny young woman, with more energy than most, who has parlayed her original $5,000 nest egg into a going concern. Today, she has investors who are backing her expansion plans and a loyal following of repeat customers, who purchase her $300 shoes as quickly as she can churn them out. For those who favor Manolo Blahnik or Salvatore Ferragamo, they're a bargain.
Before beginning her shoe endeavor, Americo de Souza came to the U.S. as an exchange student at 17, returning to Texas to study pre-med (following in her father's footsteps). But she interrupted her college studies to seriously pursue a modeling career, where she specialized in displaying bathing suits and lingerie. Along the way she also studied interior design.
Eventually Americo de Souza realized her 5-foot 8-inch stature was too short for continued success, so she started thinking of her next steps.
Today Americo de Souza said she has a calling: "I woke up in the middle of the night. I didn't know how to design a shoe, or how it was built," she said, but she quickly found a Manolo Blahnik book and started sketching. Then she looked for factories to make her designs.
"For the past two years, the factories I have worked with have put me through shoe manufacturing school," she said of her steep learning curve. She can talk at length about the angle of the last and the height of the heel and how it can affect one's center of gravity.
She's very concerned with fit — "It will make you or break you," she said, adding that "customers will hate life if they won't be able the wear them more than an hour."
Today she carries samples of her couturier shoes that are feminine, delicate-looking, mostly high-heeled, yet comfortable. She also carries seasonally produced ready-to-wears. Her new fashions, with one or two pairs in sizes four through 11, will be available in mid-November.
Most of her shoes are no higher than 3 inches, but appear higher because of their slender design. Her most popular shoe last season was "Audrey," a navy and white concoction with double ankle straps that she described as "sexy but not vulgar." It went for $345. This season she's offering "Terrie," a suede and lambskin almost flat (with a 1-inch heel) in camel and chocolate suede, contrasted with espresso lambskin, topped off with a bow. The little stacked heel is leather that looks like wood. Another popular style is "Moura," a black-patent pump with a 3 1/2-inch heel, topped with a velvet bow. "I call it a cross between a pump and a Mary Jane," she said.
Americo de Souza's customers range from the affluent 28-year-old to women in their mid-50s. "Most of my repeaters are in their mid 40s," she added.
Customers can custom-order shoes — choosing color, fabric and design. Sometimes a client has had a shoe in mind for years, but has been unable to find it. Americo de Souza sketches the fantasy, then reviews it with the client. Cost of the couturier shoe ranges from $300 to $500, depending on the materials chosen. The shoes take four to six weeks to be manufactured.
"If I already have the last, it is less expensive," she added, noting that the more development from scratch, the higher the cost. Although she's willing to customize one of her designs, or create an original, she doesn't make orthotics. All of her shoes are made in medium width, but she can use memory foam that molds to the foot shape to create a better fit for narrow feet. She's giving some thought to how she could accommodate up to size 13, or extra wide, sizes.
Americo de Souza discourages women from wearing higher than 3-inch heels, but she occasionally gets a request for higher. She said a young woman insisted that she could walk in 4-inch heels. When she really couldn't, Americo de Souza took them back, but for a store credit, not a full refund. There's really not much market for killer black shoes in size 5 1/2.
For the past year, Americo de Souza has been working on overdrive, designing shoes, arranging for their manufacture, finding her Palo Alto boutique location (and personally designing it, from applying the purple Venitian-plaster walls to laying the laminate flooring and upholstering wall panels), running the shop, meeting one-on-one with customers and thinking about the future. She now has help keeping the store open with regular hours (Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday by appointment) and is turning to more designing.
Her first collection was inspired by Brazil's Carnival, but she doesn't plan to limit herself to a theme any more. "I get my inspiration from women. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and so do my shoes," she said.
In five years, she hopes to be known internationally, with boutiques in the U.S. and Brazil. Her line is already available in San Francisco, San Diego, Long Beach, St. Louis, Florida, and soon, near Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. And her objective is for the wholesale operation to support the boutique stores. "I want to keep the personalized atmosphere," she said.
She also hopes to be married with a child, although she acknowledges there's not much time for an active social life while she's building the business. She looks to her mother as a role model of a strong woman, making it on her own as a podiatrist after her divorce, while continuing to be a "very caring, nurturing mother."
As for bringing her dream to reality, Americo de Souza admits to being overwhelmed at times. But, she adds, "I've never been shy. I have a close group of friends who encourage me."
In her "spare time" she's even found time to work on an interior design project of an 8,000-square-foot home in Palo Alto Hills. "I still do interior design by referral," she said, noting that she likes to channel her energy in a positive direction. "I am bubbly, but I can be mellow too."
With all the expansion plans, she wants to "stay true to the couturiere idea but provide a ready-to-wear version for people who need a shoe this weekend."