Throughout her life, Ieva Juskaite struggled to find shoes that would fit her EU size 44 (US size 11) feet. Drawing on her own experience, the idea to build a footwear brand that catered to a range of sizes came to the Lithuanian designer in March 2020. ‘The fashion industry put me into a category and I always felt excluded and insecure about my big feet,’ she says. ‘I love clothes and I was tired because I couldn't dress up head to toe. I could only dress up head to knees!’
After nearly 18 months of building the business, JIIJ (pronounced ‘jee’) was born.
The first collection from the brand, which is based in Paris, consists of six core pieces that Ieva believes are missing from the shoe racks of those with large or small feet – ‘basically everything other than trainers’ – resulting in seventies-inspired boots, heels, Mary Janes and loafers. The David Bowie-esque aesthetic is available in EU sizes 36 to 46 and, in the short time since the brand has launched, it's gained fans among street-style influencers and customers alike.
Across Ieva's collection, the styles are made of apple leather – a more eco-friendly option than plastic and animal-derived alternatives. ‘I've been vegetarian for almost 12 years and, because I have very strong opinions about where the fashion industry is going, I really couldn't work with any real leather,’ explains Ieva. ‘That's pretty much why I chose a sustainable alternative.’
While the ready-to-wear side of the fashion industry has been making small steps towards being more size-inclusive, most notably by the addition of plus-sized models to many major fashion houses' catwalks, the footwear business has done little in comparison. And, as the average US women's shoe size has increased from a 6.5 to an 8.5 since the sixties, a brand offering a range of pieces that are just as fashion-forward as they are accepting of differences couldn't come at a better time.
‘Maybe I was influenced by that being around me,’ Ieva says. ‘To be honest, it was just so natural… it was an embrace of my own feet.’ The personal connection Ieva has to JIIJ is what makes the brand's community so strong.
‘Every other day, I get messages from girls and boys who have bigger shoe sizes than EU 42, saying they've never seen shoes for themselves like JIIJ and that they're extremely happy that I'm making them,’ says Ieva.
She says this dialog between her and her customers is essential to the brand and how society perceives who should wear what. Creating designs that ‘aren't extremely feminine nor masculine’ in sizes for everyone removes the stigma of sartorial gender conformity, allowing those who identify as trans or non-binary to confidently pick a pair of shoes without feeling unacceptably different.
Could this brand instigate a step in the right direction towards a more diverse footwear industry? Ieva seems confident that it could. ‘[The big fashion houses] need an example like me. I'm showing that there is a market.’ And with a new collection dropping later this year, Ieva is striving forward one foot at a time.
This article was first published in 100 Ways to Make a Living 2022. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.