Joanne Tsai had an illustrious career in the LVMH group, working for close to 17 years at Dior Couture before shifting gears to launch the Fenty brand under Louis Vuitton. Her search for a career with more meaning and fulfillment led her to join forces with longtime friend Belen Sanchez in developing the IMM shoe brand, a values-based brand that provides training and livelihoods to immigrants and refugees while building beautiful products with incredible craftsmanship.
Tell us about your early years. How did you get your foot in the fashion door?
I was born in Taiwan and had a wonderful childhood there until I left as a teenager to boarding school in the UK. Fashion was always something really interested me, albeit from the business side. I knew that I had no chance of getting a design degree since I felt that I had no talent but the business aspect of the industry was fascinating. This was the late 1990s when it felt like every woman on the tube had a LV bag. The power of fashion was seductive so I got my degree at the London University of Arts in business and fashion.
Tell us about your early days in the business.
My first experience in luxury fashion was actually at the Richemont Group, which owns Cartier. I must have sent out thousands of CVs (resumes) and I got a callback for an interview which I subsequently converted to an internship as a management trainee. It was a special program where the ultimate end goal was to become an executive.
It was a real learning experience. I was extremely ambitious, almost bordering on arrogance. I had been bullied a bit in school and as a result, I had thick skin and was almost always on the defensive and this turned out to be my downfall. I ended up being one of the very few to not get a full-time position and it was a truly humbling experience and a total reality check for me, which I absolutely needed.
How did the Dior job happen?
I went back to school and felt like I was back at square one. I did another round of sending thousands of CVs yet again and got a call back from Dior. This time, I knew what was expected of me.
The job itself was an incredible growth opportunity. The Dior in those days wasn't the Dior today. It was the time of Galliano. The group was withdrawing all the global licensing agreements that were cheapening the brand. It was the era of logos! It was a different company and I was originally hired as an intern. And I ended up staying for 17 years. I loved it so much and gave it everything I had. I went from trainee to merchandising to product manager to marketing director. I also had the opportunity to build the China market which was growing exponentially.
Why did you leave?
17 years. It was too long. I needed a change of space and a new challenge. An opportunity came to help launch Rihanna's Fenty brand under LVMH in Paris. Of course I took it - it was the chance to launch something new but with the security of a big corporation.
Ultimately, I realized I didn't need the validation of a big company anymore. Plus, I felt like I was disconnected with new developments happening in marketing.
How did your partnership with Belen come about for IMM Shoes?
I met Belen in China where we became very close. She started the research process for IMM while I was at Fenty and had already launched the home shoes collection by the time I joined. I had helped her throughout this entire process so I already felt as though I was part of it.
Tell us about the origins of IMM.
It was really Belen's idea. She had this concept of a business that utilized immigrants' existing skills and give them a livelihood which would not only give them dignity but also help with the integration process. She wasn't thinking about shoes. She found an NGO in Seville whose mission was to find jobs and training for immigrants and refugees and they wanted to collaborate. The only problem was they didn't have a robust database on what these people could actually do. So what Belen did, which is incredible, is she spent 3 months and interviewed 600 people on their work history and their skills. That's when she realized that a good number of them had skills in shoes and shoemaking. Hence the idea of creating a shoe brand was formed.
Tell us about the materials you use in shoes. You use leather from the top fashion houses.
For the home shoes, Belen sourced all the leather. It was beautiful leathers that couldn't be used in other brands' production that we were able to use for the home shoes line.
For the espadrilles, we were able to leverage some of my relationships given my tenure at LVMH which was amazing. I made some calls and was able to source deadstock leather (leftovers) from some of the tanneries which was an incredible resource. We produce the espadrilles in Caravaca, Spain, which is the birth place of espadrilles and we were able to source the rest of the materials for the from the local region.
It's amazing since we are able to source the best materials while limiting our carbon footprint. And that's what we are creating - a sustainable brand with a social mission that is producing beautiful items with the best possible materials.