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The Complicated Process of Making a Simple Leather Sandal

How two cousins taught themselves everything about the sandal business.

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A close up of two women wearing pale pink sandals that criss-cross over the foot.
Sandals by Cousin, a new brand based in New York.
Photo: Christina Arza

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Over the last few years, summer footwear has gotten noticeably covered up. Slides and thick straps are everywhere, thanks to the influence of downtown brands like Maryam Nassir Zadeh and Mansur Gavriel. Your feet, no offense, are not the point right now. We’re more interested in ogling swaths of peachy suede, lacquered blue leather, chocolate faux croc, and blood-red rabbit fur.

As a result, anything that’s not a pale pink slide looks kind of novel right now, no matter how classic it is. In that light, a new brand called Cousin chose a good time to launch its line of simple leather sandals.

Its first summer out, Cousin is selling four styles in colors like terra cotta, cobalt, and creamy beige, all of which promise to get nicely worn-in over time. Arden Sherman and Jessie Jenkins, the cousins behind Cousin, consider them timeless “utility sandals,” meant to be worn all summer for years to come. That’s an understandable hope, because Cousin itself has been years in the making.

Sherman and Jenkins grew up eight hours away from each another in Florida and have a relationship that seems to hover somewhere between sibling and best friend, being deeply rooted but voluntary. They were pen pals as kids, using letters to keep up between their once-yearly reunions. Today, the low-fi photos they post to Cousin’s Instagram show them hanging out in public restrooms, drinking wine on the floor, sitting on each other, sitting in the bath. It’s not immaculately arranged like other brands’ imagery, but it looks like they’re actually having fun, which they are.

Neither has a professional background in shoe design: Sherman, 34, is the curator and director of Hunter College’s Hunter East Harlem Gallery, and Jenkins, 35, is an artist who worked in a restaurant until recently. But they wanted to create something together, so five years ago, they came up with the idea of making sandals.

“It took a lot of steps post-college and post-grad school and feeling comfortable in our other career and life pursuits in order to do this,” says Sherman.

“Sandals felt like something we could figure out and make,” says Jenkins. “Later on we found out that they’re really hard to make, and there’s not a lot of room for error.”

Jessie attempts to give Arden a piggy-back ride.
Arden Sherman, top, and Jessie Jenkins, bottom.
Photo: Christina Arza

The Cousin guide to hacking a new craft while holding down a paying job involves watching how-to videos on YouTube, dissecting a cross-section of sandals to see how they’re built, and taking pattern-making classes. Sherman and Jenkins did that for about two years. They spent six months trying to find a sandal factory in the US, but the absence of a strong domestic industry led them to León, Mexico, a leather tanning and footwear manufacturing hub.

(The US isn’t a leader in footwear manufacturing, period: The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that just 2 percent of shoes sold in the States were made here.)

Things clicked into place when, after some email formula guesswork, Sherman and Jenkins made contact with a shoe broker in León, who now negotiates with local leather vendors and factories on their behalf. Millimeters of thickness matter when it comes to leather — it will stretch if it’s too thin, but will be uncomfortable if it’s too thick — so the sampling process requires precise technical communication and, inevitably, numerous iterations. Even the smallest tweaks, like moving a strap over an eighth of an inch, requires making a new sample, which costs upwards of $100.

Since Cousin officially opened for business in January, the founders have been doing pop-ups at stores and showrooms like Malia Mills and The Turf @ In Support Of, gathering feedback from customers and retailers. They wound up lowering their prices from an average of $220 to between $148 and $198, which narrowed their profit margins but boosted sales. “Because we’re so green, we have to take that price cut,” says Jenkins.

A cutaway Oxford sandal, sitting by the pool.
Jenny sandal, $198

The price of a Cousin sandal includes material and manufacturing costs, along with broker payments, shipping, and sampling. Design elements like braided straps, the extended back of their soles, and rubber bottoms, which the cousins deemed necessary for city dwellers who wear holes in their shoes from walking all the time, tack on extra costs.

Their first time around, Sherman and Jenkins priced the sandals according to the designs they wanted to make. Doing that means a cool sandal can quickly become an expensive sandal, though, so moving forward, they’re committed to picking a price point first and working backwards.

They’re only making sandals for the time being, which is on the one hand a rejection of pressure to diversify briskly into adjacent product categories, and on the other right in sync with the increasingly seasonless nature of retail. Sherman and Jenkins have talked about creating a single piece of clothing, but agree that if they did, it would be a one-off item that goes perfectly with sandals.

Cousin necessarily exists relative to the retail world at large, but Sherman and Jenkins are trying to figure out how to sell footwear without slotting themselves into the machinations of the fashion industry.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we don’t think that following that path is the right way to go,” says Jenkins. “There’s a protocol with fashion: you have to show at fashion week, you have to go to these markets, show in these showrooms, there are timelines you have to follow. We don’t like rules in general.”