It's hard to believe that just four years ago, BucketFeet was no more than an original idea stemming from a longtime hobby and a chance meeting. Now, the shoe line employs 24 full-time employees and is sold internationally. 

BucketFeet shoes are unique in that, every design comes from a different artist across the world. 

With retail shops in New York's SoHo neighborhood and Chicago's Block 37 and sales through Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and independent boutiques throughout the U.S., the stories that BucketFeet seeks to tell through its products aren't falling short of an audience. 

Chicago Like a Local sat down with Co-Founder and Chief Artist of the company Aaron Firestein to learn more about his company's success. 

Chicago Like A Local: Aaron, can you tell our readers a little bit more about how BucketFeet was founded? It's a really cool story.

Aaron Firestein: At the very beginning, this whole company started from this idea of drawing on shoes. In college, I would draw on white canvas shoes and take custom orders. I'd sell them through Facebook and a lot of word of mouth. After I graduated from school I bought a one-way ticket to Argentina and lived there for a few years. 

When I first got down there I volunteered with kids as sort of a way to meet people and do something good. The first day I was with that program, our CEO Raaja [Nemani] also happened to be volunteering. He was on a solo, round-the-world trip and Argentina was his first stop. He's an ex-finance guy-investment banking and private equity-who quit his job and decided he wanted to travel the world while he was young and single. We became friends and had about three months of overlap in Argentina. 

The first day we met, I ended up telling him about my customized shoes and he bought a pair. Those ended up being the shoes he wore on his trip around the world. After he traveled for a year plus with those shoes, all of the stories that they led to and the way that they were a conversation starter led to him reaching out and asking if I wanted to make this a real business. 


CLAL: So did he end up finishing his trip before that?

AF: He did. We met in October of 2008 but he did not approach me [about the business] until May of 2010. 

BucketfeetFirestein (right) with Co-Founder and CEO Raaja Nemani

CLAL: What was your background with art before your trip to Argentina? Did you study it in school?

AF: No, I was actually a political science major. It sounds random on the surface but I think it actually makes more sense when you break it down because BucketFeet is really about connecting people from around the world. That's our goal. 


CLAL: Speaking of that, I was reading that you've now worked with artists in 60 different countries. How do you go about finding them all?

AF: A lot of them come to us but the initial artists were people that I knew. They were friends or friends of friends. It really started with a real hand curated operation and then maybe in the last year or so we opened up the submissions to anyone and everyone. By the time this article comes out, we'll likely be at about 12,000 artists worldwide. I think at last count it was actually 85 countries. 


CLAL: Wow! And what's the process from there for your artists?

AF: We still really want to maintain that curated aspect. We want to put out the best possible shoes and tell the best stories. That, coupled with the fact that it's very expensive to make shoes - you can't just go out and make whatever you want - means it needs to be very well done. Some designs might come in during the submission period for the fall collection but it will have palm trees and flamingos on it. We'll postpone something like that for spring. There's a whole formula and at this point we've released shoes by about 200 artists. 


CLAL: Which is very impressive. What about the quality of the shoes? I'm sure if you're paying this much attention to the design aspect, they must be well-made as well. 

AF: They are nice quality. We now have three primary silhouettes-the low-top lace up, the low-top slip ons and a mid-top. This year is the first year we've released new materials as well. We've got our primary base product which is canvas, and we've now moved into [suede and leather-like materials]. We want to make sure you wear our shoes not just because they look cool but because they're actually comfortable and you want to put them on. 


CLAL: What are some of your standout designs so far?

AF: Our most popular shoe to date is this one with a pineapple grenade on it. It's designed by an artist in Bogota [Dj Lu]. He's a very prolific artist in South America and his work often has a socio-political message of sort. That design was inspired by what's happened to that country in terms of conflict. A lot of their fields were once places where crops grew and now they've been replaced with land mine fields. It's a powerful image.


CLAL: You and Raaja seem to have connections all over the world. What made you want to launch BucketFeet here in Chicago?

AF: We looked at the Bay Area. We looked at New York - all the stand places someone would look to start a company. I didn't know much about Chicago but it's turned out to be a great decision because when you're bootstrapping in the beginning, it's a wonderful city for that. Public transportation is good. Rent is much more reasonable compared to San Francisco or New York. And it's central. When you're dealing with an actual consumer product, it's important to be able to get it to customers quickly, especially in the beginning. Being in Chicago is great because we're right in the middle and we can get to both the East and the West coasts in about the same amount of time.


CLAL: So, I have to ask since it's been something you've been doing for so long, what was that initially drew you to shoes as form of artistic expression?

AF: Drawing on shoes is such a fun canvas to work with and there's something about shoes that are a part of the wardrobe that's never an afterthought. You might not be sure what shirt you're going to wear or what jacket you're going to wear but when you build an outfit, shoes are really important. They're also a way to see a little bit of a person's personality. People really care about shoes. 


CLAL: More and more it seems. 

AF: It's just such a fun way to accessorize and outfit and they're so functional. You need shoes. Another reason we chose shoes is because no one else is doing it the way we are. We've only been around four years but I feel like I can go up to any artist and catch their attention because it's such a fun product to design. 


CLAL: And it's accessible. People buy a lot of art but this is a totally different medium. 

AF: Yeah, art doesn't need to be on a wall in a museum or be a mural that gets washed over. This is a way for the everyday person, art aficionado or not, can have access to it.