One of the first things I notice about a person is their shoes.
A wide variety of styles can be seen walking the streets of Salem or Boston. Everything from snuggly but worn UGGs, LunarGrand oxfords from Cole Haan, limited edition Nike Roshe Runs (of course snagged after an early morning release at Concepts), to New England staples like Topsiders in the summer and LLBean duck boots in the winter make an appearance. Clogs have gained in popularity recently, or maybe I’ve just been noticing them due to my love for the brand No. 6. Groups of school kids prance down cobblestones in the cheapest pair from Payless or light up tennis shoes featuring ‘Frozen’ or X-men. Jeans and a t-shirt can be updated with the proper application of loafers, heels, sneakers or boots.
While footwear is often practical, Western culture, among others, has elevated shoes to a statement about the wearer, whether influenced by shoe obsessions fueled by Sex and the City reruns or the hypebeast social media army.
Before my position as a Curatorial Operations intern for the Fall 2015 semester, where I helped out with the research for the exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, and a gig running a gallery and events for a local arts community, I worked at local footwear company Converse.
The maker of the iconic Chuck Taylor All Star has gone in and out of fashion since the company was founded in Malden, Massachusetts in 1908. After bankruptcies and tangled licensing, Converse was purchased by Nike in 2005 and left to its own devices to recoup a slice of the market they once dominated. After a successful outlet store expansion, the company opened their first full price brand experience store on Newbury Street in Boston.
Although I had worked in retail for several years, footwear was a new venture. And although I had always worn Chuck Taylors, I was not prepared for the internal and external excitement surrounding new releases or collaborations. It was easy to get sucked into a culture of new kicks and begin to notice the choices made around me. Groups of competitor’s staff sporting the latest New Balance or Puma thought they could check out the new store incognito, but were very easy to spot. Likewise, Nike or Converse executives tried surprise visits, but were always given away by their footwear. I learned to analyze practical, subtle or outspoken stories about the wearer projected by shoe choices and base my interactions around interpreted expectations.
Working in the field, one of our main brand objectives was storytelling. Teaching my staff to engage with customers by listening to their stories was the creative basis for our customer service training. We encouraged staff to share their own Converse experiences with customers to create lasting connections with locals and tourists alike. Because Converse is a local Massachusetts company that until relatively recently had manufacturing in New England, I had many conversations with people who used to work at the factories or remembered the smell of warm rubber drifting through their town. Because of the store’s location, we had many international visitors who were looking to stock up on an American classic without the export tariff charges. One of the I-beams on the first floor of the store was left exposed to encourage customers to tie the laces of their beat up Pro-Leathers, Chucks or Cons together and throw them up to our sneaker ‘graveyard’, as a throwback to kids looping old shoes to power lines. The store team strove to build off memories to encourage sales.
This conscious effort at creating an inviting space where customers are welcomed to share their experiences with the brand is a savvy marketing strategy aimed at connecting consumers with a brick and mortar store. While international tourists may have a difficult time finding unusual color Chucks back home in China or the Netherlands and may make a special trip to Newbury Street, most locals know where to buy discounted sneakers online or would make the trek to the outlets for a deal. We tried to forge connections through stories to encourage return customers.
This focus on shared stories brought me into the fold at Converse, and through it, I found my underlying passion for nurturing the connections between people and teasing out commonalities represented by objects. In researching local connections for PEM’s exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, I was able to apply my experience in the footwear industry to learn more about the interdepartmental collaborations that go into every exhibition at PEM. Through my studies, I hope to continue to explore the stories that bring people together.
Sarah Noe is an ALM candidate in Museum Studies at the Harvard Extension School and a former Curatorial Operation intern at the Peabody Essex Museum. She has a B.A. in Art History from the College of Wooster and after nearly a decade of retail management, went back to school to mold her customer service and story collecting experience to a new field. She lives in Melrose and loves public art, giant cats, and exploring local history. Follow her on Twitter at @NoeSR9 for museum impressions and hyperlocal Boston happenings.