First acquainted with fashion when she was a child, designer Ieva Juskaite began learning the foundations of design when she observed her mother working as a stylist in her hometown of Lithuania. Remarkably amidst the pandemic she founded JiiJ after realising that her uncommon shoe size was not only something to embrace but also a glaring gap in the shoe market. Today, Ieva explains how she created a business that offers inclusive and sustainable shoes, all with electrifying designs sizing from UK size 3 to size 11.
Could you take us back to the time you first became interested in fashion, did you quickly realise that design was something you wanted to pursue?
I would say that there wasn’t really an ‘ahah’ moment, it felt like a very natural step going into fashion and launching JiiJ. Growing up, from around 5 years old, I used to spend Saturday at work with my mum who was a stylist for the national television channel in Lithuania. She styled everything from singing and talent contests all the way through to bigger productions such as Eurovision. This meant I was around a creative spirit from a young age, I learnt to appreciate how the most talented wasn’t necessarily the loudest or the person with the highest position. I saw how creativity, especially in the world of fashion and style, takes place even with the person who is putting a single stitch into the back of a costume. Lending a hand with my mum, slowly but surely, I grew to feel comfortable and empowered in this world of fashion, clothes and self-expression. My interest really catapulted when I started going to art and design school and I can say that at 14 years old, I flew to London on my own to help out at Kokon To Zai for London fashion week, as well as Antonio Berardi and Toga. At 16 I took on my first styling job and it’s gone from there.
How does your home of Lithuania have an influence on how you design and your philosophy behind JIIJ?
I think I try to look at where I come from as part of my inspiration. My childhood and what I was obsessed with when I was growing up in the early 2000s, the fashion trends I followed, the pop celebrities I was interested in back then like Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus, The Black Eyed Peas…watching MTV, live red carpet events from my first computer, playing Sims and other online video games, singing karaoke and learning every pop song’s lyrics, that’s the most inspirational period for my current creativity. An obsession with the Western world is something that attracted me naturally as I grew up in Post-Soviet Lithuania where all those dreamy American things did not exist. I think that when you are a kid, you have so many dreams and it’s easier to get away from the reality into your fantasy world if it’s just a click away. Regardless of pop culture and new technologies in the 2000s being my inspiration, it was my mother’s job as a stylist and my father being an architect that shaped my taste in fashion and design too. On the other hand, JiiJ's philosophy on inclusivity and sustainability is inspired by the latest period of my life, when I no longer lived in Lithuania, when I saw the world and only then understood who I really am and what I stand for.
Struggling to shop for your shoe size was stimulated starting JiiJ, how did you transform your disappointment to entrepreneurial spirit?
At the time, when I had this idea of making a business out of my struggle, I was unemployed and caught up by the pandemic, so the world seemed unclear and I guess this was a push for me to really start something new. It was the end of May 2020 when I was sketching clothes for myself and I suddenly had this feeling of self-embrace that changed my thoughts that my big feet were a problem. At that moment I understood who I am and that I will never be able to change the size of my feet, so why not make fashionable shoes for myself and for those like me. And then immediately I started researching all the celebrities that have big feet and found out there are more women like me. There was nothing in the market that was fashionable, cool, sustainable and in my size. So, I thought I've found this amazing idea that could be the thing that changes my life and helps others like me. I just knew it was it. I will use my skills and talent to make something useful out of my story. That later became JiiJ, a footwear company that focuses on size inclusivity and sustainable fabrics.
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Some words that are synonymous with your brand are self-expression, inclusion and sustainability, could you elaborate on the essence of your brand?
JiiJ is about both community and individuality. For me and at JiiJ it is important to celebrate yourself and to celebrate others. It is important for each individual to feel welcomed and to feel comfortable in their own skin without being judged. I believe self-expression is key to finding your true self and learning about who you are. Therefore, at JiiJ we welcome all the individuals, expressing themselves through a particular culture or fashion. It’s a judgement free zone. There are no outsiders. We accept each and every human being for what they are. No matter the style, nor the shoe size, nor opinion, we welcome all and we include everyone. We try to learn from others as it’s the best way to make something useful. We listen to what customers ask whether it’s the style or the price or the shoe size we don’t offer, we want to make it happen. It’s the community that is full of self-expressing individuals that will shape JIIJ. While sustainability is just part of necessity and a step forward to saving the place we call home, I believe that without it there is no need to make anything else anymore. I have recently read this comment somewhere that went like this: “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try counting your money without breathing”.
Many of your shoes are named after Greek gods: Apollo, god of sun, or Eros, god of love, could you explain the relationship between your designs and their foundations in Greek mythology?
First, I wanted to call each shoe style using names that people around the world would understand. Greek mythology names sounded less binary and that felt like a better fit than any other modern names. It felt like Apollo, Gaia, Eros and Atlas were not restricting and were not putting any frames on what gender the right customer for that shoe could be. It felt like these names were mythical because they allowed imagination to foster and because they sounded genderless. But then I also wanted to give the shoe personalities. So, for example with Eros, god of love, it was the connection of the shoe being a heel that has a sensual element to it, rather than forming the shoe round a given name.
What would you like your customers to feel when they put on a pair of JiiJ shoes?
Welcomed. I wish I could give a sophisticated answer here, but the simple honest truth is that I just want people to feel like themselves. Whatever that looks like for whoever it looks like. The only thing we ask is for you to feel confident in whatever your look like when you put on our shoes.
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Apple leather is one of the materials you use for your shoes, why is it important for you to use plant-based leather?
I think plant-based leather is one of the best and most sustainable steps towards a more circular economy and a safer environment. It’s not an animal derived leather and it’s not 100% synthetic. Avoiding these two is a better step forward, yet not the solution. My purpose is to keep on researching for other plant-based leathers and more sustainable ways of manufacturing so one day it would become regenerative, rather than sustainable. So that one day it would be circular and no more harmful for us or the environment.
JiiJ says that there is 'no definition to who can or can’t wear JiiJ and for what occasion', so what categories and boundaries are you trying to dissolve?
As I mentioned earlier JiiJ celebrates individual style and self-expression. Therefore, we don’t put any labels on who can wear JiiJ. And ‘occasion’ is truly just a buzzword to sell things. We don’t believe in occasions to put your highest heels on. Dressing for occasion is not really an inclusive term on its own especially for those who love a daily self-expression moment through clothes. The goal should be to dress up or dress down beyond the occasion and beyond any judgement.
On your instagram, your shoes are worn by nameless game characters, could you explain the message behind this?
It is simply inspired by my childhood video games era, specifically Sims that is as digital and virtual as it gets. On Sims you can create a world you want, a character you want, a home you want and a family you want. JiiJ is like Sims, where I create a world I want and a family I want, yet it’s inclusive of everyone. Customers being portrayed as game characters is a way of showing there is something bigger and beyond us which we collectively need to take care of to be able to continue to play the game.
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You write that it is difficult to harmonise sustainability and luxury. What hurdles have you encountered partnering these concepts and are there ways to overcome them?
Sustainability in the sense of JiiJ means using recycled and plant-based materials but it is a pretty new concept and is not tested enough nor has been used as a principle of manufacturing in many other luxury houses. So, for us to make sustainable products that still serve as luxury is like being a test bunny and figuring it out by ourselves. Basically, we are trying and testing products these new sustainable materials and setting an example for those big luxury houses. There are always product manufacturing problems when it comes to new plant-based materials that take time and further development to find the best solution. The biggest hurdle is that in luxury you get many exclusive products, colourways, textures, fabrics and so on but, when it comes to sustainability, there are not that many options. Plant-based leathers do not offer all the same colourways, textures and fabric manipulations are rather impossible compared to production from authentic leather or a 100% synthetic one. To make 100% post-consumer paper recycled shoe boxes and explain that they cost much more than making classic printed/coloured/glazed cardboard packaging is also really difficult. We are trying to show here that while we choose fewer exciting options, we choose the environment, and we prioritise sustainability being the luxury.
JiiJ has collaborated with remarkable nail artists, content creators and prominent figures from LGBTQIA+, why is partnering with other creators important to you? How do you find and choose the artists you work with?
Representation is key for diversity. Whether it is an artist that JiiJ collaborates with, an influencer or an LGBTQIA+ community member, it is important to find the representation for each and every culture, style, race, body type and gender to be able to foster a welcoming community and therefore be able to speak without judgement. The people we work with come truly naturally, either by showing up somewhere on social media and me picking their strong individuality or by themselves sliding into our DMs and me having an open door for them. Collaborations with artists for specific projects is also a way we communicate. For example, for July 14th, for International Non-Binary People’s Day, we collaborated with a Lithuanian artist Emilija Zukauskaite, who in a form of a painting helped to communicate the concept of nonbinary figures wearing JiiJ.
Is there any advice you would give to designers who want to dismantle other existing limitations in the shoe and fashion industry?
Firstly, just go for it. Take that risk. Secondly, go for it but with a collaborative intention. I think that to reach that global change while being competitive is a waste of time. There is nothing more beautiful than working together for a better future.
What is on the horizon for JiiJ? Tell us your hopes and goals for the brand.
This feels like a manifestation exercise so let's hope this all comes true! I have many hopes and goals but I would say the following feel like things I want to have achieved in the near future. I want to develop my community and to find channels through which we can have continual and active conversations in a setting that feels more alive than emails or DMs and I would love to connect other members of my community with each other. I want to continue developing products that are useful to my community and to add to our selection of styles. Also, and here’s the big one, I would love for JiiJ to produce its own in-house plant-based leather! If anyone who reads this has any expertise or ideas, please get in touch!
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