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When the shoe fits

She lives by the motto, ‘Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can conquer the world’. And for Enya de Oliveira, former Linmeyer resident, the shoe fits just right and she is on a quest to master the world in shoe design.

Enya currently lives in Portugal where she designs shoes. She recently made it into the top 10 designers of the #ChooSketch Competition on Jimmy Choo’s Instagram page.

When we caught up with her to chat about the competition and her life since she left for Portugal, she eagerly told us, “Sandra Choi, the creative director, picked her top 10, and then the top five winners would be selected by the public. Over 10 000 entries were sent from all over the world. I made it to the top 10, and just to be recognised by Sandra Choi and the Jimmy Choo team already feels like a win to me.”

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But why shoes?

“I always wanted to be in a design field, I just didn’t know which one. There are so many. Graphic, product or interiors. Fashion seemed like the most obvious choice. Back home, in my high school years in Marian College Linmeyer (Marist Brother), all my friends were applying to LISOF and FEDISA, we were all fashionistas. However, I just didn’t see how I would fit into the bigger picture. We can’t all be fashion designers.

“Then during matric dance season I kept hearing the same complaints from girls and guys alike: ‘I can’t find shoes. Either ‘I’m too small a size’, like my best friend, or ‘I’m too big a size’ like the rugby boys who only wore sneakers and couldn’t find formal shoes in size 13.

“The penny kind of dropped. I have always loved shoes and it just sounded so unique. I had never met anyone who was a shoe designer and that interested me. I could now see how I could fit into the bigger picture.

“To this day most people are still quite intrigued when I say what I do.

“Oh, and I also know my great grandmother was a ‘Gaspeadeira’ which is the technical word for a footwear seamstress. Maybe it’s in my blood.”

Taking the leap

With her dream in sight, Enya left home to travel overseas at the age of 18. We asked her about her fears when she left and the drive behind her decision.

“I think the 18-year-old me had few fears. Probably because I was naive and I had
my mom. She came with me for the first nine months, leaving my poor dad behind in SA.

“I am eternally grateful to both of them because I know how much they hate to be apart and how, without both of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“When we arrived, my mom did everything for me because I spoke no Portuguese and was 18! I had no idea about anything in the real world.

“She got me into the school, found us our first home, set up bank accounts and did all the necessary paperwork, helped me with my projects, taught me Portuguese, did the food shopping every day because we didn’t have a fridge, did laundry by hand; she got all of this and more done without a car to travel.

“We lived with the absolute minimum because we were living in a new country and didn’t know what was going to happen. My dad supported both of us financially, which was not easy with the exchange rate. I think they had more fears than me. Looking back it was quite an adventure.

“I think the final decision stemmed form the fact that I always wanted something more than SA. I wanted to live in Europe or the US. While everyone was looking into universities or moving to Cape Town, I was looking at the rest of the world.

“And then this door opened and I couldn’t say no. Ever since then I haven’t said no to any opportunity, big or small, that has come my way.

“I look at life as my university. Life and its experiences will teach me whatever I need to know.

Up for the challenge

The language was one of her biggest challenges. “We had Portuguese lessons at Marian, and I even did them for a few years in primary school but I really did not enjoy them.

“I mean even more school on top of the school I was already forced to do. No thanks. I remember my exact word: ‘When will I ever need Portuguese?’ Well, well, well, did that not come back to bite me.

“I thought I knew how to speak it until the first day of class and having lunch with people with a thick northern accent. I would listen to the lectures in Portuguese, translate in my head and write my notes in English. My mom, who is a translator, would translate all my assignments for me.

“My colleagues helped me with Portuguese and I could help them with English. I basically learnt how to read and write with text messages and predictive text. I am now pretty fluent reading, writing and speaking. My English, however, has been what has opened many doors for me.

“I also was very homesick for the first year. I missed my family and friends. I cried a lot. My first European winter was awful. My first birthday and Christmas were especially difficult. It was a difficult time but I never considered giving up.”

Ticking the boxes

Despite all the challenges, the sweet taste of success was finally there.

“I feel I have had many successes. The fact that I’m still here, seven years later, when many people said I wouldn’t make it six months, feels pretty good.

“I got a scholarship to study my passion. I interned for Luis Onofre, the most famous and best in my eyes, Portuguese footwear designer. I lived and interned in Italy, I was the senior designer for Cristina Ferreira, a TV personality and influencer, for four years, a senior designer for Cristiano Ronaldo, lived and interned at Sophia Webster, London, one of my favourite shoe designers.

“Now, I work for a New York-based company which was on my bucket list, and now Jimmy Choo. All successes, some big, some small, but all successes which have pushed me closer and closer to something bigger.

Tell us about your vision and mission

“I guess the vision of any designer is to see their name on a shoe, to own a brand. However, because I work daily in the industry I know all the difficulties new brands have and that obviously scares me still.

“Hopefully, one day I will have the courage to take that leap of faith. For now I really want to grow within Thursday Boots Co. I want to expand their infrastructure in Portugal and get lots of people wearing Made in Portugal.

“Made in Italy still holds so much value and I hope to get Made in Portugal that value in consumers’ eyes because technically we are already there.

“My mission will always take me back home though. I would love to be the fairy God mother of shoes. I would love to get a pair of shoes on every South Africans feet and then the rest of Africa.

“I don’t see shoes as a luxury. They are an essential which we all have a right to. I would love to start foundations, educate young people about the industry and be a philanthropist.

The best part of what you do?

“I love to see my ideas come to life in the factories. I love to draw and the creative process. Many people think this is all I do. In reality this is probably five per cent of the process and usually the quickest part.

“There is something so special about being in a shoe factory, watching the leather getting cut and stitched, and seeing the evolution from 2D to 3D… or maybe its all the free shoes I get, lol.”

Any future dreams and plans?

“Eventually, I would love to own my own company or brand. I would love to create jobs for my family here in Portugal as well as other talented people. I would love to be the first millionaire in my family and give back to both the SA and Portuguese communities.”

Details: Want to know more about Enya’s designs? Follow her on Instagram @ladyenz

Text: Carina van der Walt. Photo: Supplied.

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