Interview: Designer Nina Z on NYC’s Clog Craze

 

clog-designer-Nina-Z-spring-2015

When Swedish-born, Brooklyn-based clog designer Nina Z decided to introduce some of her home country’s fashion flavor to New York in 2008, she found herself alone in a sea of  city footwear designers. Seven years later, New Yorkers, and Brooklynites especially, have embraced a clog love that sometimes borders on obsession. Now they can be found at nearly every major retailer, from Zara to Urban Outfitters and women of all ages and backgrounds strut about in the iconic wooden-soled shoe once associated (at least in the States) with nurses or Scandinavian fairy tales.

This is all great news for Nina Ziefvert, who has built a loyal and passionate base of clientele by focusing on bridging the worlds of traditional, age-old clog making and stylish urbanity. Drawing inspiration from her upbringing in Sweden, cultures encountered on her travels, and her love of materials that can live many lives, Nina Z’s handmade clog designs manage to marry comfort, style, and chic simplicity. I recently had the pleasure of talking to her (and her adorable daughter Sonja) about clog love, sustainability, and wearable art at the Brooklyn studio where she and her partner Tshidi bring all of her designs to life.

Clog-designer-Nina-Z-classic-clogs

Of all of the Swedish cultural and aesthetic elements you could have introduced to New York, what made you choose clog design?

It was selfish really. Since I was young I had always had the classic braided clogs – in the fall my mom and all her friends would wear them with socks. Eventually I moved to New York and went to FIT, which is a fashion school, and then worked in different aspects of fashion and then in the arts. I was still always wearing clogs myself, but I couldn’t find good ones in New York. And then every time I went back to Sweden, my friends in the fashion industry would ask me to get them some and bring them back. So I said, “You know what? Why don’t I make a small line and see what happens!” They kind of weaved all of my experience together, because for me, clogs are also a sculptural object.

At first I was really obsessed with the classic clogs that have the flowers painted on them. But then I realized they’re more for someone working in their garden or walking their dogs. So I had a couple of old vintage ones that I was always wearing and those were the ones that I realized women would wear as something that would make them feel good. And stylish. Not just good.

When you first started making them, clogs weren’t really a style thing here yet. But now, it seems like everywhere you look, someone’s wearing a clog. Why do you think they’ve taken off as a fashion statement here in the past few years?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that! I remember I got my first production for spring 2009 and I then brought them to the [Brooklyn] Flea. And I could look around and go, “Ok that person might come over and just love them.” But most people would be like, “This is weird. Why would I wear wood shoes?” Telemundo even did a feature on me and titled it, “Shoes for Abuela,” like, “Shoes for Grandma!” I was the Swedish crazy lady that introduced grandma shoes to the fashion scene.

I think the clog design – the natural materials – speaks to the arts and crafts renaissance that got really big. I feel like a lot of people have gone back to making hand-crafted things. There are so many people that have their own hand-dyed clothing lines or handmade jewelry. Now there’s such a big group of nontraditional brands, and I feel like it has the same idea as the arts and crafts movement – accessible, functional designs, made from materials surrounding us.

So there was always a core customer, but the arts and crafts renaissance brought the “fashion” customer that’s sensitive to trends, what’s worn in magazines, what’s blogged about, what’s talked about. It’s kind of like when the sneaker was introduced. It’s almost like that with clogs in Brooklyn now. And to me it’s strange because I’ve always seen clogs, but it’s as if something was newly introduced to people who have never seen it before.

I think that here the arts and crafts renaissance you mentioned, and the way it’s impacting style and aesthetics, is really tied to ideas about sustainability, too. Is that something that’s played a role in your process?

It was not a conscious decision to make a sustainable product, that was just me naturally. I think that the clogs themselves are a sustainable product. They’re made out of natural materials and we make them by hand. They can also be resoled, resanded, restapled. They can age. And they last for a pretty long time!

I think growing up in Sweden, too, you weren’t educated about sustainability. It was just kind of all around you. You spend so much time in nature there, I think you naturally have a leaning towards working around seasons and with natural materials. Even with school they take you out to the forest, you go skiing when it’s winter, you go ice skating for physics. When I grew up there was no McDonald’s. And you know my father would hunt a moose for winter. I mean we lived in the city in the capitol and he was a lawyer! But he would still go with his friends and shoot a moose every year.

What! Ok, so where do you keep a moose in the city?

On the balcony! Frozen.

Maybe I can’t talk for everybody, but for me I had a very sustainable upbringing. In the summer we would go live on a farm with cows where we would get the milk and we would go get the eggs from the chickens. So for me, I kind of loved coming to America and being able to buy like Ben and Jerry’s 50 different flavors with cookie dough!

But it wasn’t part of the process, me thinking, “Oh, I’m going to make a sustainable product.” There’s so much great stuff out there that could be used. And there are so many amazing materials that will last for the next 20 years. I sold vintage clothes, which is a way of recycling. I always decorate my houses with flea finds. I still love sourcing vintage pieces. Like, I collected a big chunk of half stained silk and linen pieces that were beautiful, but they had armpit stains. So I did a hand dye with them! I love doing these things.

That’s just the way I am. That’s maybe the Swedish in me, too. That is very hands-on.

Even now, we’re moving more and more of the production in-house. The bases are still made in Sweden, but my partner Tshidi builds the shoes here. People usually start in-house and then outsource, but we’ve done the other way! It’s just really rewarding to see something from the beginning to the end. I’m still always so excited each time I sell a pair. It’s kind of like letting your babies go.

clog-designer-Nina-Z-spring-2015

Unlike all the clogs sold at larger retail stores now, yours are still made traditionally. Do you think that people have a different relationship to your clogs because of that? Do you walk around thinking “that’s not a REAL clog?”  

No! I think all love towards clogs is fine. We just make them in a traditional way and use traditional materials.

My design approach is very much that I want it to be an organic piece of wearable art, but less fragile than a piece of art. That’s why I only use natural colors for the leather. I think they hold up better and age better. It looks better the more you wear it. I always have customers asking me what to do if they get dirty. It doesn’t bother me if they get dirty because I feel like that’s part of the process. But if they do, you can just sand them down or you can put a varnish on. Because it’s a piece of wood so you can do whatever you want with it!

We use Birch or Alder – Alder is one of the biggest tree families in the Nordic countries, but here in America there’s nothing similar. There’s something called Red Alder, but it’s not the same wood. We still get the bases from Sweden because nobody makes them here. We looked everywhere in the States, but it’s not as if you have a denim company and you can just have anybody or any factory do it.  I think that you could get something like them, but what I’ve seen almost looks like plastic. I like them raw. I don’t like them when they’re too sanded down or too glossy or when you can’t see any ring marks. I like them to look like a piece of wood.

I think people have very personal relationships to their clogs, like a sculptural object– the different woods and colors and how they’re worn. And it’s almost an obsession for some people! I have customers who can only wear clogs.

I think America, and especially Brooklyn, must be one of the most clogged places. It’s really interesting. The States itself for some reason is a really clog loving country.

Clog Designer Nina Z summer 2015

To get updates on clog designer Nina Z, follow her Instagram @ninznyc or check out her website ninaznyc.com.

 

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“Interview: Designer Nina Z on NYC’s Clog Craze”
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