The New Revolutionaries: Smarter than a Goldfish

Designer Alisha Budkie needed an identity for her line of handmade, sustainable shoes, but what swam through her mind were goldfish. Specifically, she thought about the old rumor that goldfish are unable to remember anything past the last few seconds.

What if, she reasoned, her company stood as a reminder that her customers could be "smarter than a goldfish" by drawing a connection between their choices and the long-term health of the world around them?

A multi-faceted brand that also includes earth-friendly art supplies emerged from this thought and has blossomed on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine: Smartfish Studio & Sustainable Supply.

On the Final Friday of August, the 27-year-old celebrated the one-year anniversary of her brick-and-mortar shop and a year of exploring retail with a conscience, of standing up to an industry status quo and standing behind--or actually standing in--her products.

And, judging from the steady stream of new and returning customers, members of her growing community stand right alongside her.

In order to understand the tall, athletically built Fairfield, Ohio, native as a footwear designer, first consider this anomaly: Budkie doesn’t have a closet full of shoes.

She regularly wears a pair of floral flats that were among the first she made three years ago. She doesn’t shy away from wearing a new pair to paint an awning or take a walk in the rain—for her, these are welcomed testing grounds.

Her description of the first memorable pair of shoes she ever owned is simple and unadorned: “well-designed, good lugs, really functional.”

Not only is Budkie not a typical shoe addict, she didn’t become particularly interested in shoes until she was in college, studying Industrial Design at UC.

That's where her lifelong love of running led her to pursue co-ops at New Balance and Adidas, where she worked on both athletic and lifestyle shoe lines. She felt drawn to the problem-solving component of the work, of creating products that married aesthetics and functionality, and so she decided to tread a career path in footwear design.

From that unexpected start, it was already clear that her path would be the one less traveled. Though grateful for an offer to return to Adidas, Budkie was dissatisfied with the corporate shoe world, specifically with the lack of control designers had over the final products.

She recalls being at a meeting where a shoe was presented with coins representing the manufacturing cost of each component attached to it. “It had a nickel taped to a toe vamp and they were like, ‘We need to get this down to two pennies instead of a nickel. How do we do that?’”

As it turns out, the company resorted to swapping a different quality of mesh so they could achieve the targeted cost reduction. “And that was controlling everything rather than what should have been,” Budkie says.

Budkie knew that a closer, synergistic relationship between design and production would yield durable, responsibly made items from quality materials. So for her senior capstone project, she developed a line of simple lifestyle shoes that emphasized craftsmanship and utilized woven jute, hemp canvas and recycled content sourced in the U.S.

Smartfish Footwear was born.

In January 2011, almost two years after she had graduated and begun selling her shoes online from her apartment, she realized something was missing. Business was good—the shoes had been picked up by several prominent blogs; she'd processed sales from Cincinnati to Portland and from England to Japan.

But Budkie wanted to expand the principles driving her shoe company to fuel a new venture that would meet the needs of students attending the area’s art schools. “We really needed another resource,” Budkie says. “We spent hours and hours searching for latex to make molds for a certain project or for a kind of paint we needed.”

The fruit of the concept is her store at the corner of Main and 13th streets. In addition to serving as the new home for Smartfish Footwear, the shop offers environmentally friendly versions of common art supplies, like premium recycled sketch paper and Glob botanical paint, as well as some made-to-last items that aren’t carried by many other local retailers, such as Bayha knives and blades.

Instead of spending time placing orders and divvying up supplies among friends, students can concentrate on their projects.

The move to a storefront also meant becoming a more visible part of a burgeoning art scene. “I didn’t love working in my studio in my apartment,” she says. “I love people way too much for that.”

From the start, the neighborhood welcomed her. Budkie had settled on the space, which before standing vacant for six years had housed a senior center. Locals rolled up their sleeves to help.

Danny Mouch of Greenthink Solutions completed the renovations, including knocking down a dividing wall that opened up an area Budkie now uses for workshop sessions. John Dixon from Losantiville design collective built her work and sewing tables.

When she launched a month-long, crowdsourced funding campaign to help pay for the expenses, supporters opened their wallets. She sought $5,000 and got it, along with numerous emails from strangers offering encouragement. That support helped her through 12-hour painting marathons during the final stretch.

The shop's opening night came and went in a blur of toasts and good will.

“My brother came into town and some of my friends came in from New York,” she says. “A lot of people from the neighborhood that I hadn’t met yet were just like, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, thank you for being on this corner, and thank you for doing what you are doing.’ ”

The physical storefront has sparked mutually beneficial neighborhood relationships. Budkie picks up some of the materials for her shoes across the street at Atomic Number 10, a vintage store owned by former DAAP classmate Katie Garber.

“I keep an eye out for vintage fabrics that I think Alisha would like for her shoes,” Garber says. “I've gotten fabrics at antique markets and thrift stores with her in mind. I mostly look for a smaller scale print on a heavier, more durable fabric, such as a canvas.”

Garber donates some of the smaller pieces and sells the larger sheets to Budkie with a “fellow business owner discount, of course.”

Budkie doesn’t even cross Main Street for the material she uses to make her shoes’ outsoles. She uses natural latex and sawdust, the latter of which she gets from Losantiville next door. (These replace what would typically be heated plastic and rubber.)

In return, fellow store owners take advantage of Smartfish’s earth-friendly supplies.

“It’s really helpful having a supply shop across the street,” Garber says. “I've been working on an Etsy shop for my store, and we needed some white paper to use as a backdrop for photographing purses and shoes. I can just run across the street, pick up what I need, and get back to work.”

Local art students and recent graduates benefit not only from having a new option for buying supplies, but also from a venue where they can gain professional experience. Now that she has a steady flow of clientele, Budkie’s been able to bring in two part-time employees, two fall co-ops and an intern. She wants UC, the Art Academy and NKU all represented in the staff.

Employees assist with everything from ordering, pricing and general store upkeep, to helping with shoe construction and conducting seasonal research.

Megan Harmeyer, who is entering her third year in DAAP's Fashion Design program, recently began her co-op at the store. Rather than pursue a high-profile brand, she says she was keen on working for a small, local company. An aspiring business owner, she finds Budkie’s story inspirational.

“I feel I will benefit from this co-op in so many ways,” Harmeyer says. “Learning what it takes to design your own products, run your own label, open your own store; learning all the little things you need for success, I feel like this knowledge will be more helpful in my future career than anything.”

Budkie hopes that the extra help will give her time to re-launch her web store and to concentrate on adding a fifth style to her inventory. “I am thrilled to maybe have that open up some time so I can design and execute some of what’s been circling in my head the past few years,” she says.

While shoes and supplies occupy most of her time, Budkie also takes her role as a steward of the community seriously. Earlier this year, she assumed responsibility for Second Sunday on Main and has since organized merchants, accepted portable toilet deliveries, bagged parking meters and put up street closure signs—which, incidentally, involves only her and a Sharpie.

Emilie Johnson, the new president of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, has worked with Budkie on the events since July and says Budkie has emerged as a natural leader among store owners in the neighborhood.

"As the merchant coordinator for Second Sundays on Main, she approaches this role consistent with how she runs her store -- with passion and commitment and an eye on creativity and community engagement," Johnson says.

Budkie wants to further engage and inform the community by ramping up Smartfish workshops, which focus on topics like learning a new craft or how to use some of Smartfish’s less familiar “green” supplies, like oil paints without solvents and fiber reactive dyes. A boat shoe workshop is scheduled for September 22. A session on sock-knitting, which emphasizes responsible sourcing and includes a visit to an alpaca farm, will take place later in the fall.

Budkie attributes interest in the workshops and the success of Smartfish to an ongoing values shift in the marketplace. She concedes that while some large shoe companies are now operating more responsibly, many people still choose to invest in local economies by buying from neighborhood busineses.

She also finds she doesn’t have to explain the motivation behind Smartfish as often. “Now people come in and really get it,” she says.

Her first anniversary week coincided with the weeks the Art Academy and UC began fall semester classes. She operated on little sleep as she organized and delivered foundation supply kits for first-year art students. Still, she retained her cheerful disposition, energized and encouraged, perhaps, by her contribution to the local revolution. That, and the thought of everyone she’s reminded to be smarter than a goldfish.

Keith Rutowski is a freelance journalist based in Cincinnati.
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