Nigerian-born shoe designer Shola Yusuf realizes her dream in Tampa


Shola Yusuf at home. - LESLIE JOY ICKOWITZ
  • Leslie Joy Ickowitz
  • Shola Yusuf at home.
When a woman survives a near-fatal car crash and the first thing she seeks is her missing Christian Louboutin, you know she’s got a thing about shoes.

That was Shola Yusuf’s reaction even before leaving the scene of her accident, which took place in NYC in 2009: She put the EMT to work finding the shoe that had slipped off her foot. And although the crash left her with a broken femur, she was driven to walk again by a fierce desire to wear those Louboutins. The experience also prompted the pharmacist and entrepreneur to take a step in a new direction:

Shoe design.

When Shola opened the door to greet me recently at her Corey Lake Isles home in New Tampa, she was wearing a turquoise caftan from her native Nigeria and a smile from ear to ear. The house features a virtual shrine to footwear — a gleaming glass showcase filled top to bottom with shoes, glorious shoes of her own design.

“I’m a shoe freak,” Shola says. “I have over 400 pairs of shoes myself. Most of them I don’t wear. I buy them and keep them in the box.”

  • Leslie Joy Ickowitz
Shola’s designs are beautifully shaped, elegant and quite well-made in vivid hues and luxury materials (some with patterns) adding to their appeal. The purple suede pair (called “Dove”) has crystal-encrusted heels and platforms, with crystal buckle-clasps adorning the ankle straps. The sensible low-heeled coral pair called “Kike” (pronounced “keek-eh” and short for “Kikelomo,” a nickname for her sister-in-law that means "pampered child") makes a point with a studded embellishment on the front. “Ife,” the playful, color-blocked patent leather flats, could make running around town a total blast. And the aqua-patterned shoe “Biola” (and its “Tope” counterpart) have the smooth rhythm of an African drumbeat. Who wouldn’t want to feel that energy strutting down the street?

Shola arrived in the U.S. in 1989 with only $100 in her pocket. She worked her way through pharmacy school and continued to work at a breakneck pace to support herself and her daughter and to one day realize a dream of owning her own business.

“I’m from Africa. I want to work hard,” she says.

Shola owns and operates four local pharmacies (with her brother) but she also knew she wanted a fashion business someday.

“All I knew is I wanted something that would have my name.” She thought of selling high-end fabrics (like her mother did) but on the heels of her accident, the focus turned to shoes.

Shola Designs are inspired by her travels and the colors she finds in the places she visits. Hong Kong is a favorite, for instance. In the shoe business for two years now, Shola has launched her first production line. Already, that process has taken her to China and back multiple times. She’d hoped to have the shoes manufactured in Italy but says even the Italians are making shoes in China these days. Still, she sources leather from Italy and fabrics from all over to incorporate into the designs.

From the shoes lining her shelves, the first thing I reacted to was a red, black and white patterned wedge (shown with a matching handbag). I took a minute to catch my breath and then was a little deflated to learn that these are not in production. But if they are indicative of where Shola Designs is headed, it’s a great direction.

A patterned wedge and matching handbag by Shola. - LESLIE JOY ICKOWITZ
  • Leslie Joy Ickowitz
  • A patterned wedge and matching handbag by Shola.

Where does she want her shoes to take her? “I want the business to take me all over the world,” Shola says. “Anywhere people appreciate beauty. That’s where I want to go. That’s my goal.”

Shola Designs are available via the website, ($5 from each pair sold goes toward water relief efforts in Africa), and at Heavenly Heels in St. Petersburg.

Heavenly Heels owner Melissa Mihok is impressed with Shola’s “unique style” and with the quality of the shoes. “The softness of the leather and simplistic yet trendy design appeals to our customers,” she says.

You can also find Shola at local trunk shows: May 25 at Blissfully Yours on North Dale Mabry in Tampa, May 31 at Heavenly Heels in St. Petersburg, and June 7 at Fresh Threads Designer Consignment on South Dale Mabry.

“In my culture, we are a fashion destination. We take pride in the way we dress. I believe a shoe defines your personality,” Shola says.

She has witnessed firsthand the joy her shoes bring to new owners.

“They dance with the shoes and that makes me happy.” 

  • Leslie Joy Ickowitz

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