Ten years ago, Janan Leo’s high heels were so painful that she made prototype ‘bendy shoes’ using thick socks and rubber. Today, her foldable footwear sales exceed £1m a year, as Steve Dyson finds out.
Janan Leo was both furious and pleased when the issue of women being forced to wear high heels at work hit the news again earlier this year. “It’s disgraceful that she was told that,” says Leo, referring to how secretary Nicola Thorp was sent home from work at accountancy firm PwC after refusing to wear stilettos.
“As long as you look smart that should be acceptable. It’s really hard to accept in today’s world that any boss can demand ‘your shoe heels should be this high’ or ‘you must wear make-up’.
“I mean, really – I don’t wear any make up. So, it’s quite belittling in a way. We’re all grown women, and I’d have thought that at PwC, where you have to have brains to work, people just wouldn’t have had that attitude.”
But anger aside, Leo also has her business head screwed on: in 2007 she created the concept of the foldable but fashionable shoe for women to wear while commuting, enabling them to slip into high heels at work without the crippling pain of wearing them all day. Or because they were so stylish, they could just wear the flexible shoes all day – and still look good.
The footwear was launched under the brand Cocorose London and ten years later the company is selling tens of thousands of pairs a year to more than 30 countries, with annual revenues topping £1m.
And so back to the high heels debate: “Yes, of course this news is a great opportunity for us – because the subject is exactly what we’re about. Cocorose London is about giving women flexibility and freedom of choice over what shoes they’re going to wear and how they’re going to wear them.
“We offer women the opportunity to say ‘I am going to wear heels to that meeting, but not all day, and I still look good and feel great’. It’s about comfortable luxury, because it’s important to have that inner confidence and emotional stability in this commercial world.”
Leo was born in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in 1980, the daughter of a British mum and a Thai dad who’d met at the University of Leeds, before they set up a jewellery factory back in Thailand. This meant Leo grew up and was educated at an international school in Chiang Mai until the age of 18, when she came to the UK to study food science, also at Leeds.
She studied hard and graduated with first-class honours, before moving to London for a job with luxury sandwich-maker Hazelwood Breadwinner, which supplied everyone from Asda to Concorde flights. Then she moved to Pret a Manger to work in new product development (NPD), where she picked up many of her business skills.
“It was so different at Pret,” Leo recalls. “I went from what was essentially manufacturing to understanding more about retail where the consumer’s always at the heart of it. I remember when lots of cafés started offering the hot panini, but Julian Metcalfe [founder of Pret a Manger] said ‘We’re not doing that’ because he didn’t like the smell or the sound of the panini machine pinging, and he didn’t think his customers would.
“That was quite deep for me. He was always thinking about the end consumer and said ‘It doesn’t matter what anyone else does as long as you do what’s right for you’. I still go into Pret a lot and I think today they have hot sandwiches, but technology’s moved on. It wasn’t right at the time, and that was very influential to me.”
Leo spent nearly three years working at Pret, part of a team responsible for everything to do with new products, from the recipe to training staff, and from introducing concepts to rolling the idea out and seeing it on the shelves. Then she joined Oldfields, another sandwich maker, as NPD manager for its Starbucks account.
“It was great experience,” she says. “Working with two big retailers and for such an entrepreneurial company like Oldfields subtly makes you realise ‘maybe one day I can go out on my own’. Meeting those people and seeing the way the high street was going, I realised there was something more than a nine-to-five job for me.”
After a few years at Oldfields, where she met her partner Gareth Austin-Jones, the company was taken over, leading to a restructure, and the new couple took redundancy and went travelling together to South America. When they returned, Leo took what was supposed to be a short-term role at Virgin Trains covering maternity leave, but ended up staying for three years.
Once again, she worked in NPD, introducing what were then new services like wi-fi on trains, and mobile phone charging in first-class lounges. Leo had to dress smartly for her role, which was when she started to feel the pain of high heels on the tube every day.
“It’s not possible to wear heels all the time,” she explains. “But in flats, I felt really frumpy, because they didn’t give me the confidence of wearing high heels. This feeling built and built and I thought ‘I bet it’s not just me’, and I wanted to find a solution, thinking ‘How can I create one that no-one else needs to make for me?’”
Leo began experimenting, and before long had stitched a pair of Footsie socks to some thin rubber from the cover of a notebook. And that was it – her prototype foldable shoe, and one she believed could be a success if only she could get it made properly.
“I approached so many factories, but they were all saying ‘No’. You have to have confidence in both your product and yourself, and by having that prototype – even though it was basic – it helped. It took a long time trying to develop it, breaking it down and going back to the ‘concept to launch’ process I’d followed at Pret. Eventually, someone said ‘Yes, I’ll help’.”
Even then, Leo was cautious. The whole idea of her bendy shoe was that it was a fashion accessory, one that folded into a smart and trendy purse. This potentially meant a patent, so she didn’t want to tell the factory exactly what it was in case they just made it for themselves. She went the long way around – getting one factory to make the shoes, and another to make the travel purse.
But the product worked. “Women instantly got it because it’s about our everyday lifestyles,” she says. “Women today are busier than ever before. They’re multitasking jobs, families, and goodness knows what else. As a young professional, you’re out first thing in the morning, then back late at night, so you’re constantly thinking: ‘What is my outfit, how is that going to work, and what can I do to make my life easier?’
“When I started, I launched online and straightaway, day one, I had sales. One customer said ‘This is really cool’, another said ‘I definitely need these, I’ll buy two’. It was striking a chord with the customer, because that was me, and there were a lot more out there like me.”
Back in 2007, the digital world was nothing like it is today, so Leo built her brand physically. She carried on working for Virgin Trains for three years to help fund it, spending weekends on a stand at London’s Brick Lane market in front of her customers. Meanwhile Gareth, her partner, helped drive operations by going full-time immediately.
In year one, total revenues barely reached £50,000. Now in its tenth year, Cocorose London’s sales are 20 times that level and still growing, with about 70% in exports. The company only has the equivalent of five full-time members of staff because it out-sources most of its operations, with its products manufactured in China and Italy.
Cocorose London has scores of models in its range – from trainers to boots and slip-ons to sandals – and Leo and her team are constantly developing new designs. The brand not only sells well online, but is also stocked by high-end fashion stores across the country, at prices from £50 to £120. Big names like Dame Helen Mirren and Pippa Middleton wear the shoes, and the brand has trend-setting partnerships with the likes of The Royal Ballet and the BAFTA film awards.
It’s not all been simple though, says Leo: “We started in a recession and so business was a tough old road. We’re big exporters, and so then faced the recession in other countries where we have big markets. Then there’s the brand itself. How do you build it up? That was a challenge.”
The potential patent never materialised, which annoyed Leo. The process was long and drawn out, but her bid to protect the concept and packaging of the foldable shoe was rejected. “They could have said that at the beginning rather than leading us down what was an expensive track,” she laments. Instead, she trademarked Cocorose London, and says this is crucial for any new brand wanting to export, as some countries and distributors won’t accept non-trademarked products.
Leo has just launched a new, bigger website to handle global sales 24-hours a day, and is continually linking up with key customers on social media. “Social media takes time to build up conversations, but it’s also fun, because you instantly know that someone’s really seen them [the shoes],” she says. “There are some very loyal people out there. We’ve made something that makes their lives easier, and they’re coming back again and again.”
Back in 2007 there were no competitors, but today several similar products are on the market. Yet Leo’s relaxed about competition: “It’s healthy and keeps us on our toes,” she says. “And it just goes to show it’s a great idea. In this world, there’s space for us, and we just need to focus on our product and make it the best – like the lesson I first learned at Pret – and not worry too much about what others do.
“Trying to remember that is important for me. Otherwise it’s so easy to get caught up in everything. Instead it’s better to come back to your core – this is what we’re about and that’s why people come back to us. And it’s about pushing our boundaries. We were always unconventional, and we’re constantly bending the rules of what shoes can be like.”
Getting up to go, Leo shows me her two-year-old foldable boots, and adds: “Because I’m wearing them all the time, I can say ‘This is what’s good’ in developing our products. For example, we’ve added pillowed heels for ultimate comfort, and concealed wedge heels in some designs to give a little height.”
And with that, she heads back into a tube station for another tortuous journey – but one she’s made easier for herself and tens of thousands of other women.