Growing up in the Pennsylvania countryside, Mary Alice Malone discovered her first love, dressage, which earned her a spot on the Junior Olympic equestrian team. Later, after studying furniture making, carpentry, upholstery and welding in Colorado, she landed in London to become a cordwainer — a.k.a. cobbler — and discovered her second love, shoemaking. After a fateful meeting with her future business partner, Roy Luwolt, a diplomat’s son and venture capitalist, she cofounded Malone Souliers in 2014. Three years later, the little luxury shoe label that could is stocked in over 250 stores worldwide, including Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey Nichols and Net-a-Porter. Celebrity fans of the brand include Amal Clooney, Elizabeth Olsen and Bella Hadid. Here, Malone — also an accomplished martial artist — walks us through her unpredictable path to astonishing success.
Claire Coghlan: How does a former Junior Olympic equestrian, welder and furniture maker end up designing luxury footwear?
Mary Alice Malone: I’ve always been a maker. I tried my hand at welding, furniture making and all sorts before deciding on cordwaining. Shoes, or rather the creation of shoes, from the ground up, always held a fascination for me. I like to understand how something works, internally, before its design. I’d like to believe that Malone Souliers represents a new era of craftsmanship — bringing an age-old technique to a new age that’s been called disposable.
Coghlan: What drew you to London?
Malone: I enrolled in the Cordwainers program at the London College of Fashion. London held a certain pull for me; I’ve always respected and admired the craftsmanship behind the brands of Savile Row and Jermyn Street. There were also logistical advantages, the accessibility to the factories in Italy being one. I visit our factory most weeks.
Coghlan: You draw inspiration from a rather unusual source: psychology.
Malone: I really enjoy evolutionary psychology; how the male-female dynamic has got to be. Shoes are fundamentally of sensuous presentation — an ode to one’s self-admiration and often the wish for its external celebration. I’m constantly trying to understand what and why we do, uncovering the elements that make women feel beautiful. When starting to sketch, it begins with the consumer: who is she, how is she and what can I do for her? I design architecturally and, secondly, aesthetically. Each shoe must support a woman’s form and weight, so much so, the position of the heel is exact to a millimeter to ensure that the weight is perfectly balanced.
Coghlan: Is there a philanthropic component to your business?
Malone: Yes, we have an ongoing collaboration with supermodel/activist Natalia Vodianova to benefit her organization, Naked Heart Foundation. 50% of proceeds from the collections, which reference bespoke Russian embroidery and the work of artist Léon Bakst, are donated.
Coghlan: You share a home with your business partner and best friend Roy Luwolt. How do you avoid talking business 24/7?
Malone: Roy and I are yin to yang, opposites that complement each other. We operate on completely different schedules, which means we don’t see each other as much as you think!
Coghlan: Heels or flats?
Malone: Both! I make sure to trial each style myself before they go into production. When I’m designing, though, I prefer to be barefoot. The majority of my time spent away from the atelier, I’m laced up in sneakers for the gym.
Coghlan: I’m so curious about your Brazilian jiu-jitsu training. How often do you train, and does it inform your work at all?
Malone: I train every day, anywhere from two to three hours. What I find so intriguing is the way it shadows life. It’s a very humbling process; there can be no ego involved if you want to improve. There’s a game for everyone, there’s a way for every type of body to be useful and skilled in defeating a larger opponent. Overall, it’s taught me how to use my power. I have unique attributes, and being a woman on a mat full of men, I rarely find myself the weakest.
Coghlan: Does your dressage background also influence your work?
Malone: The most meaningful lesson I learned from competing as an equestrian was my discipline, in every aspect of my life, and an enduring will to strive for perfection.
Coghlan: Do you still spend time in the saddle? Any other surprising pursuits?
Malone: I try to ride when I go home to Pennsylvania, but unfortunately, due to my schedule, that isn’t as often as I’d like. In addition to jiu-jitsu, I also do muay thai (a Thai combat sport) twice a week, and weights. I enjoy being strong.
Coghlan: What’s your proudest or happiest moment to date?
Malone: When Bergdorf Goodman picked up our first collection, that’s a moment I’ll always remember. When my nephew was born — that’s one of my happiest moments.
Coghlan: What do you love most about your job?
Malone: All of it. The design, the creation, the suppliers, the people, my team, my business partner.