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BucketFeet Co-Founder Aaron Firestein on Creating Wearable Art

BucketFeet recently announced it raised $7.5 million in a Series A round of funding, which the company will use to expand its in-house artist, technology and content teams, and open more physical stores.

“For the people, by the people” is not BucketFeet’s official slogan, but the artist-driven brand’s sentiment aligns with the phrase. The Chicago-based brand has used canvas shoes as a platform for artists to tell their story one shoe at a time.

Aaron Firestein, BucketFeet chief artist and co-founder (along with CEO Raaja Nemani) said the idea came about after an organic, serendipitous meeting. Firestein met Nemani in Buenos Aires, when Nemani was at the start of a planned trip around the world. Firestein introduced the ex-investment banker to his creations, and intrigue quickly turned into commission.

“[Raaja] wanted a souvenir. He thought it would be really cool for me to make a pair of shoes for him, so I did. He ended up wearing them all over the world, over the next year, year and a half,” Nemani said. “I’d always wanted to do something entrepreneurial, but I didn’t know exactly how to start.”

Then, something interesting happened in the Nemani’s trip. “No matter where he went, people always asked him about the shoes. While people asked about the shoes, and he ended up talking about the actual art [and] about the connection, and this person he had met,” Firestein explained.

Roughly two years later, Nemani presented Firestein with a business proposition: to blow his footwear concept out into a full-blown brand, using the talents of artists.

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The collaborative strategy that was borne out of an assignment Firestein had in Rio de Janeiro where he shadowed graffiti artists from the favelas for an art exhibit. “Guys from a part of town that were looked down upon, as destitute or violent. It was about showing that not everyone was a drug dealer or [armed robber.]” Firestein added. “I had this realization about incorporating my art: there’s so many amazingly talented people out there in the world. Why don’t we include them as well?”

With that, BucketFeet was established in 2011. The company holds open calls for submissions, based on season, which are pushed through a stringent vetting process. Selected artists are fully involved in their releases, via the BucketFeet website, social media and other events.

Though the brand is experimenting with different material, canvas remains the base, especially given its facilitation of consistently high quality prints. Linen, a warm weather favorite, will be used as a replacement with specific models in 2015.

Former Levi’s footwear designer Takashi Yoshii was brought on to work on developing new extensions for the brands. Nevertheless, don’t expect to break the bank for a pair in the future. Firestein said, “At the end of the day, we want to make sure everything stay very affordable. We want this ‘art on your feet’ to be accessible.”

For Firestein and the brand, storytelling and connecting the world through art is at the heart of what could actually be deemed part art fair, business venture and grand sociological experiment. “[We] want to try and disrupt the traditional way in which people consume art. We don’t want to have to buy an original art piece, to hang on your wall, to feel like you are an art fan. You can throw it on your feet and actually walk around in it, and it’s just as valuable.”