In Discussion With: Lexi Cross and Huston Conti
It’s nearly impossible to view just one pair of kicks on @shoesof. The footwear discovery platform, after all, is nothing if not addictive: Click on one seemingly benign slip-on and you’ll be transported to three more; one harmless pair of Air Force One’s and you’re greeted by its innumerable cousins. After many feverish minutes (and very possibly several hundred dollars) later, it begins to feel as though you have entered into a shoe vortex studded with marquee designers ranging from high fashion to high street, from Valentino to Vans. And that sort of equal opportunity eye is exactly what makes @shoeof, brainchild of Seattle natives Lexi Cross and Huston Conti, shine in the age of Instagram, where fashion both high and low occupies the same amount of real estate on any given feed.
“In terms of the curation aspect of it,” Conti explains, “What people respond to the most on our feed is bright poppy colors, high heels, you know, and those things are important, but you can't fill a feed with all that. Because it doesn't really tell the full story of how people wear shoes. You know, we all wear shoes from high to low. You might have your beat-up chucks or you might have your two thousand dollar Louboutin's, so when we're out on the street, we're always aware of that, and subconsciously, it's like, ‘Okay, yesterday, we got a ton of heels, we need to balance this out and get some sneakers.’ On our feed, variety is important, because we really show how you can wear every show in your entire closet. It's not only sneakers, it's not only heels, not only one type of shoe, it's everything.”
@shoesof was launched in the summer of 2014 as something of a fever dream. Huston had just arrived in New York and Lexi’s was the first apartment on which he couch-surfed; They started @shoesof a month later. Cross was working in fashion at the time and Conti in tech. Neither could’ve predicted that just two years later, they’d be able to monetize it into a full agency, offering “branded partnerships and street style photography, content creation for footwear and fashion brands, and photo and video assets for brands,” as Cross explains. “It honestly was so organic. We met a couple of footwear designers we became friends with through @shoesof-- or ‘Shoes of NYC,’ at the time-- they came to us with a need for content. And that was right at the time we were so ready to get fully involved with @shoesof, so it was perfect timing. Content even three years ago isn’t what it was today. It’s taken far more seriously now than it was then. Brands had Instagram accounts and everything, and social media was a thing, but content wasn’t a thing as much as it is now. And so we just saw that brands are putting way more time and energy into developing their own content strategies, and so we could come in and help with that, especially in terms of footwear, because we always have our eyes on the ground. We’re always looking at what people are wearing in the streets, we’re always looking at Instagram accounts that are footwear-forward, so are brains are always wired to be thinking about marketing from the lens of footwear and content.”
The two soon found their niche in “small-to-mid-level” independent brands, even though, Conti insists, “we’re still of the mindset that we’re still the small brand and we still have a chip on our shoulder, just trying to make it. It’s little wins, and I think once we started to get jobs and more work through referral, it made me think, ‘Okay, we’re doing something right.’ Because friends and people that we worked with in the past are talking about us to their friends and their colleagues and think that we can help other people. I mean, it’s one thing to cold-email hundreds of brands—which we used to do to try to get jobs—and it’s another thing to be trusted and believed in by a brand that you’ve worked with in the past that feels confident to recommend you to someone else.” Though they’ve made a business from collaborations, roughly 95% of their content, Huston estimates, remains organic.
“And then with @shoesof it’s just been slow and steady growth,” adds Cross, “and we kind of like it like that. It’s fifty thousand followers, so it’s small compared to some other Instagram accounts, but the people who follow us really love what we do, and we do, too.” Part of that love, Huston admits, has been sustained by the fact that a “typical day in the life is never typical. I find myself at the end of each day, or the next morning, trying to remember what I did in the previous day, and sometimes I have to look at my calendar. We’ll have a shoot and then we'll be out on the street shooting shoes for two hours. And then we'll be in meetings for three and then we'll have an event. We're rarely in an office, so every day is kind of a toss-up, but it’s hard to get carpal tunnel that way.” Even taking into account the ever-changing nature of being street style photographers, one constant remains: “We're typically always together. I feel like we're more approachable together, for some reason,” Conti says, adding that the pair has their our own “internal system on how we approach certain people, whether it's a guy or girl or a couple.” If the subject is female, Huston approaches. If he’s male, Lexi will. If it’s a couple and it's the woman’s pair of shoes they want to shoot, Lexi will approach; If it's the man’s pair, Huston will. “It’s social etiquette, and just being less threatening,” he explains, noting that the job is far less glamorous than it may seem. “I think I think one thing that like doesn't really make it on Instagram is that pretty much every day of the week we’re carrying anywhere from two to four bags with us per person, just like schlepping around the city. Because it's either we have three or four pairs of shoes that we were sent that we need to feature on on the account or we’re, like, changing in the back of alleys, and I’m standing in front of Lexi to like block her from the street so that she can change in ‘private.’ There's a lot of that.”
Beyond the mere act of taking photos, Cross and Conti are focused on cultivating imagery that speaks to the nature of their subjects as much as their shoes. “We have a really good eye for what’s out there, and it's not always luxury shoes,” Cross says. “It's just anything that looks like it might have a story or a person that looks like they might have a story to tell. But we think about it more now in terms of being photojournalists. If you look back at the trends, even in the last five years, they’re like moments in time that might bring back memories for our followers.” She cites the Stella McCartney ‘Elyse’ star platform to illustrate. “That was such a hot shoe, and when I see it, I remember the exact summer it was everywhere. And so looking at, it's like a snapshot of history. Or a time capsule, and that for us is really fun. To be able to look for and document trends and hear peoples’ stories behind them.”
One of the duo’s favorite events for getting capturing striking style in the city—Fashion Week be damned—is shooting outside Bagatelle, the notorious Meatpacking District club-restaurant-hybrid, during their day parties on Sunday’s. “People walk out, and they’re a little bit drunk and so ready to talk about their footwear because, you know, like they dress up to the nines,” Cross says. “Since people don't wear heels that much in New York, if we need a pair of heels or luxury footwear, we're gonna go hang out a Bagatelle on a weekend. We've gotten some really awesome people, and I think that’s because of their stories. There's this emotional tie that people have to their footwear, more than any other item of clothing, probably. Except jeans. It’s interesting because listening to Scott talk about denim, I think people have ties to denim as well.”
“There’s still something to the expression, ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,’” Conti says. “There is something about footwear. A t-shirt is a t-shirt is a t-shirt, but for some reason, it might be different for each person, but a pair of shoes is what in my closet holds memories for me. And I don't know exactly why that is. It could be because when you're walking, a lot of people will look down at their feet, I don't know. But there's, there's something there where I can look at multiple pairs of my shoes and connect stories to them.”
“Or maybe it’s that your body’s always changing, but shoes can be with you for your whole life,” Cross adds, admiring the frayed edges of her cropped white 3x1 jeans. “I do love these, though. There's something about white. White shoes, white denim. It can get tricky because there's something about white denim that feels almost too preppy to me. It’s something I would imagine someone wearing with a boat shoe and a striped shirt. But these still feel cool. Yeah, it’s a white pant, but it’s high-waisted and has a cool flare at the bottom that looks good with a sneaker like an Air Force One. I have another pair of 3x1’s that are like, tight fit and like a flare at the bottom that I'm obsessed with.”
Huston took an opposite approach with his 3x1 selection, a pair of dark pin-striped shorts. “I gravitate towards pieces that are different. I’m a contrarian in most things in life, and I think it comes through in my fashion sometimes. I’ve always struggled with denim shorts because they’re either too short or too long, but these ones are the perfect length, not too tight. They kind of have a West Coast skater vibe, where they're like baggy enough to move in. I’m from the west coast and these just kind of spoke to me and felt right.”
Both styles evoke the classic American tailoring and craftsmanship central to 3x1’s unofficial motto: ‘Made here.’ “To me,” Cross says, “‘Made here’ really makes me think of ‘Shoes of New York,’ which was truly made here. I mean, we could’ve never done this in another city. We couldn’t have been anywhere else and have it take off in the way that it did. Or create the network around us to believe in us and support us and buy into our concept with us. So I think ‘made here,’ for us, is ‘Shoes of New York.’
And as for Huston? “I can’t beat that,” he says.
Words by Chloe Kent @thefakechloe
Photos by Elena Mudd @elenam