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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ladybrille Woman of the Month Florence Azria, the Shoe Goddess that Keeps Giving One Community at a Time

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New York Fashion Week Spring 2009, I received too many invitations to VIP events and parties to count. I was only going to attend less than a handful. Most seasoned journalists who cover New York Fashion Week will tell you that pacing yourself throughout the many shows, parties and celeb gatherings is key otherwise, you quickly burn out. In sifting through the numerous invitations, there was one event I knew I had to attend, the Shoe Goddess event at the Mercedes-Benz VIP Lounge. I was intrigued by the event for several reasons: 1) It was a fellow Web Snob Media Partner who was hosting the event. [Ladybrille's Web Snob Media partners are some of the top online publishers and bloggers with a combined readership base well into the millions]; 2) It was a co-branded event by Shoe Goddess and Mercedes-Benz. I found that pretty clever from a PR and branding perspective; and 3) I wanted to see and meet the intelligent mind and face that knew the importance of branding and was doing just that!

While my curiosity pushed me to attend, I was a bit reserved about the personality I would meet. Would she be some major diva? Snobbish? Needless to say, there are too many of the 'diva' personalities in the fashion and entertainment world. I had to be cautious and plan my exit strategy as I was not necessarily in the mood to accommodate diva drama.

Florence Azria, our Ladybrille Woman of the Month for January 2009, was whom I met. My cautiousness quickly gave way to relaxation as she was full of warmth and friendliness. There was something about her I couldn’t quite place. Maybe it was because she took time to meet and greet many at her event including yours truly. Maybe it was the way she told me in such honesty that she was a fan of Ladybrille and "loved [my] work"; or maybe it was because her aura told me she was one of those that actually cared. In any event I couldn't quite place it. But, I enjoyed the event and definitely, meeting her. In my head, however, I filed my experience as that was a really nice person and event to go to.”I was not planning to do more with it. . . that is until I received an intriguing e-mail with a headline in October of 2008 that read, “A Shoe Fairy To Los Angeles' Youth.”

"Hmmm. . . what an intriguing headline,” I thought as I clicked on it. It was a press release from Azria's public relations representative, Mashariki, informing me about Azria's background and work in South Central Los Angeles, a place still notorious for gang activities. I was impressed. I knew she had to be our Ladybrille Woman of the Month for January 2009.

Azria was born in the South of France but grew up in Paris. Even at such early age, her fashion driven environment influenced her style sense. “It’s really funny. I was five years old when my aunt on my mother’s side bought me a pair of gold sandals, Azria tells me in our telephone interview for this feature."I walked on the rocks with it and the gold started chipping and I cried. You can’t imagine how much I cried,”she laughed.

Azria’s tears, however, did not last long because her father an avid shoe lover indulged her style sense with his collection of assorted shoes. Azria was taking notes. As early as the 70s, Azria’s father was already having famed shoe designers design his shoes. “It comes from my father. Shoes are more than fashion to me. For me it’s a sculpture, tradition, culture, not all of them but many. [I ] use them also for [interior] decorating of my home," she tells me in a hybrid of her Spanish/French/English accent as she responds to my question of why she loved shoes so much?

Her love for shoes would soon turn altruistic, using shoes to help give back to inner city youths. You see, Florence married into a very wealthy Spanish family. Yes, the acclaimed Azria apparel family. Florence Azria is wife to Current/Elliott and Joie owner Serge Azria. For the most part images of the wealthy/elite on television, media culture etc. presents them as persons with superficial lives filled with parties, sex, drugs, ignorance and deep sadness topped with a "everyone else is poor because they are too lazy and not smart enough" attitude. Azria does not fit the stereotype.

A couple of years ago, Azria had some free time on her hands but felt she would rather forgo getting a tan at the pool side in the French Riveria with a nice cocktail drink, to volunteer in her local inner city community. “ A lot of people do not have much and I felt it was important that I give back. So, I went looking for an [opportunity] to give back,” she tells me.

She found the opportunity to give back at 'A Place Called Home' (APCH), a privately-funded organization that keeps kids off the streets in South Central Los Angeles."It’s an aftercare program, basically all the communities coming together," she explains.

"How did you go from giving back in the after care program to a shoe blog?,”I ask. “You know when I started at APCH, I wanted to do a cooking program and every-time I would ask the manager [at the time], he would say, “No! No!," she explains. "Then the manager changed and when I asked can I do my cooking program? He said “okay as long as you pay for everything,”she continued.

Pay for everything she did. Remember all those highly prized traditional ‘sculptures’ that are her designer shoes? Azria began to part away with some of those highly priced possession of hers by selling them on ebay so she could raise money for her cooking seminar for the kids at APCH. She sold Marnis, Alaias, Louboutins, Manolos and much more. The buyers on e-bay loved it! But, that was still not the push to start her blog. “You know Tina from Bag Snob?,” she asks me [Tina Craig is also another top online publisher who is part of Ladybrille's Web Snob Media partners]. “Yeah,”I replied. She says,“She came to my house and she was like why don’t you start a blog. I was like, “a blog? What is that?”

Azria had a language barrier as she did not speak English very well. “My English was awful.” Nevertheless, she started her blog. The blog took off, advertisers poured in and today the Shoe Goddess is the famous go to spot and a respected authority on shoes worldwide. She tells me, in a humble tone, “You know I never thought about such outcome." Adding, "but sometimes in life, you have a desire and you just do it even if it seems crazy.”

I can’t help but notice how she plays it down. So I say, “Florence you kind of play it down a little bit. I saw you in action at the VIP lounge in New York fashion week,” I say in a tone that says "don't even act like you are not the savvy business woman that you are." “Well, that was Mashariki’s idea,” she responds in a serious tone referring to her publicist. I burst out laughing."Well then, Mashariki thank you for that," I say. "Maybe I should be [interviewing] Mashariki.” She joins me laughing.

Azria’s Shoe Goddess, today, serves as more than a blog as it is now the #1 site filled with so many shoe goodies and resources for shoe lovers. “I’d like to see the site become a place to discover young talented shoe designers in the future. I don’t want any payment or anything. I want all the funds I get from there to go to my charity [APCH],”she tells me in response to my question on where she sees the direction of Shoe Goddess in the next five years.

"My ultimate goal is to open a business center for teenage moms. A lot of these kids when they get pregnant, they think their lives are over and they don’t get an education.”

Azria currently teaches weekly cooking and health classes and funds computers for the APCH. As she part ways with me on the phone, she tells me about a project she has been a part of for a while, "The Cinderella Project." The Cinderella project is a yearly charitable drive in LA where LA’s industry professionals [stylists, designers and fashion experts] collaborate to donate clothing, accessories and shoes to high-school girls who otherwise can’t afford the apparel to attend their senior prom. She invites me to participate in it and I tell her "of course" but I can't help but think, "very typical of a woman determined to give back, one community at a time."

Article by Uduak Oduok

Visit Florence Azria's Shoe Goddess at www.theshoegoddess.com.

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