Interview: Justine and Kendall Barber, Poppy Barley
It was love at first slip and zip. As soon as my feet met their first pair of Poppy Barley boots, I knew it was a beginning of a beautiful friendship. See, not many shoes can truly become your friends: some are too tight, too hard, or too pinch-y. Not Poppy Barley, because they are custom-made especially for you. Sisters Justine and Kendall Barber launched this bespoke shoe brand in 2012, in Edmonton, after Justine had what she calls a “eureka” moment, having purchased her first pair of tailor-made shoes while vacationing in Bali.
Poppy Barley (named after the old-timey shoe measuring system of using barleycorns and poppy seeds) shoes not only fit like a dream, but are made ethically in León, the shoe-crafting capital of Mexico, by skilled artisans. Making sure the loyal clients always have something covet-worthy, this smart and savvy sister duo keeps us on our toes by introducing new styles and special collections (hello, snakeskin!), and they recently launched their men’s line. Fellow shoe lovers, meet Justine and Kendall.
Before launching Poppy Barley, what were your day jobs?
Justine: I worked on the strategy and evaluation of Alberta’s Plan to End Homelessness for 2.5 years; then my last job right before Poppy Barley was for the City of Edmonton in affordable housing and urban revitalization. I never imagined myself as a business owner/entrepreneur until one night, frustrated, I decided I wanted to work for myself – the next day I got on a plane to Bali and there came up with the idea for Poppy Barley.
Kendall: Directly before starting Poppy Barley, I was working with my husband (an optometrist) on his business eye-bar, a rockin’ optical store and optometry clinic. I had left my corporate marketing job 6-months prior. While working for a larger corporation equipped me with lots of great tools, I’m a builder. I love ideas, uncertainty, discovery and action. The transition from corporate marketing to small business was exactly the transition I needed to create the mental space that prepared me for Poppy Barley.
When did your love of shoes develop?
Kendall: When I was four years old, I only wore white clothes and bright pink lace-up LA Gear shoes. I loved those pink shoes, I felt grown-up, stylish and confident. Shoes still make me feel that way.
Justine: The first shoe I remember coveting—not that this says a lot for my taste—is the black and white stripped Adidas sandal that was super popular in the mid-90s.
As a sister duo, do you run into challenges of working together? Any sisterly squabbles or is it a smooth sail?
Justine: Kendall and I believe we are both equally committed to and contribute to Poppy Barley. I think that is the foundation of any healthy co-founder relationship. After that, we “fight” sometimes, and likely more because we are sisters, but there is also no one you make up faster with than your sister. There is tremendous resiliency in sibling relationships.
Kendall: I don’t believe it’s healthy to have a perfectly smooth relationship with your business partner. At Poppy Barley, we value thinking differently—this means pushing boundaries and questioning everything we do including the other’s perspective. The strength of our business relationship is we share the same vision and values for the company. Ultimately, my love for Justine as my sister drives me to make better, whole decisions for Poppy Barley as it’s entirely entwined with our personal lives.
Manufacturing integrity is important to you. Tell me about your León, Mexico factory.
Justine: We manufacture in León, Mexico, a city that has been making shoes for over 400 years. The depth of artisanal talent there is incredible; it is what we needed to build a scalable bespoke footwear business. We practice manufacturing transparency and share online key information on the wages and working conditions of the artisans.
What are your shoe closet essentials?
Kendall: My shoe closet consists of styles that are understated and luxurious in craftsmanship. My shoe wardrobe works hard to take me from work to play and all around the world. I love my Poppy Barley Black Python Classic Point Flats, Ruby Red Chelsea Boots and Snakeskin Slip-On Oxfords. Other mainstays in my shoe closet: Superga sneakers, Stuart Weitzman classic pumps (in nude and black), and so many pairs of running shoes.
Justine: I live in Poppy Barley shoes 80% of the time, with my go-to’s being the Metallic Gold Modern Mary-Jane, Black Python Classic Point, Black Oxfords (coming March!), the Cognac Chelsea Boots and La Hacienda Boot. Because I lead product development, I also have an early pair of almost every new style. Besides Poppy Barley, I love Converse sneakers and gladiator sandals—I’m hoping to buy these this year.
Now that you are becoming well-established, what’s next for Poppy Barley?
Kendall: Two years into building Poppy Barley, we’re in a position to be bolder and more creative. We’re listening closely to our community to release styles, offer custom and ready-to-wear footwear, open a showroom and continue to grow.
Many pop songs about shoes have been sung. What’s your favourite?
Kendall: “Fuck Me Pumps” by Amy Winehouse
Justine: Based on my answer to earlier question: “My Adidas” by Run-DMC
Those in Toronto can get their feet measured at the Poppy Barley shop-in-shop at Brodawka & Friends on Queen Street West.