When shoes become a way to express love and unshakable devotion

Designer, Stephen “Justice” Bessent overlooking some of his designs.

The Come Up

Agnes Bethel – Several years ago, I was approached via email by a gentleman who was in need of resources within the footwear industry. Life was happening and time did not allow us to connect back then.

Fast-forward to 2019, he had become full fledged and all-feet-in the footwear industry as the Owner and Designer of the luxury brand, Agnes Bethel.  And just by chance, while moving through a fashionable crowd at the Lux Museum, a stop to say hello and pass on a business card, lead to a surreal moment of “hey – It’s ME!”

I had finally met the person behind the emails and the queries, during Fashion Week, San Diego last October.

I can go on about how he we marveled at the realization that we grew up in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. I could go on about how even our mother’s may have brushed shoulders at the local grocery store. I’d further like to say, that this reconnection was cosmic, coming full circle, etc., etc.

But this story is about one man’s unconditional love and admiration for the women in his life – his mother, Agnes, and his wife/muse, Leslie.

“I never throw away my sketches.”

Stephen “Justice” Bessent

It was his wife that sparked the launch of a shoe collection that found its way into the March 2019 edition of, British Vogue. The magazine was properly graced by Naomi Campbell.

I had the pleasure of meeting, Stephen “Justice” Bessent, his wife Leslie and their two beautiful children. They took time out to sit with me at the FIDM campus to tell me about their new life in the fashion industry, their magazine debut, and why family is key to the hustle that is the footwear industry.

Naomi Campbell for British VOGUE
The write-up in British VOGUE
The collection as seen in British VOGUE
The Donna on the runway

2008 – The Bet

Stephen Bessent – a US Veteran – had done a stint in military service where he met, Leslie. An unfortunate turn of events in which he suffered an allergic reaction to the Anthrax vaccination, lead to him contracting a rare blood disorder called, Hypereosinophilia, while in service.

This resulted in Steven’s early retirement. Stephen was retired from the Navy in 2005 and Leslie was honorably discharged in 2004.

But life has this uncanny way of presenting another road for us to travel.

As the story goes, Leslie was out shopping for some shoes for work, with Stephen along for the ride. Stephen, who was supposed to be there for support, was dissatisfied with the merchandise and options available at the local BELK department store. Right there in their small-town Tennessee mall, Steven’s creative side had made a courageous appearance in the form of a bet. 

Stephen: “I bet you $20 that I can design something better!” 
Leslie: “Yeah right. If I like them you have to get them made for me”

The bet that started it all.

The bet was that he could design a shoe that is better than anything Leslie had laid her eyes on so far. Steven would get them made, and she would have to wear them. Concerned that her husband could draw, but not design – Leslie still went along with the bet.

With the way product merchandising is distributed in certain regions of the country – it came as no shock to me, that he won the bet! And after months of researching (and yes, an email to me), the ORIGIN shoe was developed almost 11 years ago, across seas in, Italy.

The ORIGIN shoe from Agnes Bethal collection

Today, Stephen still has the first round of sketches that he drew for winning the bet with his wife. “I never throw away my sketches.” He tells me. His wife, nods in approval as she gives details on the stacks of containers that house his ever-flowing creative ideas.

2016 – It’s On!

By this time, Stephen had become a shoe designer.

But they knew nothing about how shoes were made, nor were they educated about the industry. The two US Vets were thrown into the world of fashion in the best way they knew how. Leslie attended FIDM, and Stephen, due to his health issues, took up online learning with The Art Institutes.

He could not attend a traditional hands-on learning environment, and so the couple relied on Leslie’s education to become the foundation of how to establish and run the business.

After finding a resource to produce the Origin and other footwear ideas, Leslie took on the role as the Creative Director. She is the one who showcases the look and feel of the brand, while Stephen pumps out the heels. The two are a formidable team helping to shape his dream and dedication.

2016 is when the Agnes Bethel line was created. With his, rich urban history and the unconventional ways of beginning a new adventure – Stephen set the stage for the Agnes Bethel woman that represents the “Rebels of Luxury Footwear”.

The line hosts super-sexy heels, and ultra feminine silhouettes, lux materials and textures, and features a beautiful gold insignia on every pair.

Wearing the Bianca shoes – Leslie talks to me about manufacturing their line.

Leslie and Stephen. Leslie is wearing the LENA.

Trail & Error

The Self-Funded couple found themselves exploring options in China, Turkey, Brazil, and Portugal. However, it was after 6-7 months of research online and referrals through the Linkedin community  – they settled on Italy as their place of craftsmanship.

Leslie had always admired the work of Salvatore Ferragamo and his detail to luxury shoes, and they were adamant about being with a family-owned and operated factory. Italy provided all of their wants, as well as, that quintessential romance that the luxury market adores.

Family is important to this couple because they travel with their children everywhere! And they also depend on the close-ness of their business. Which is why it is difficult to be so far away from the family that is developing their shoes.

Steven’s ability to travel is limited, and so all of the work is done remotely.

Leslie: Distance can hurt the process. [You need to] rely on them to see your vision. 

Steven: If you are there, you can say – “change this now”.

On the challenges of remote development

Communication is done via email and photos. Comment sheets help a great deal. As well as, tools like Whatsapp and Skype, allow them to “see” the process before the samples are sent (in most cases). They are constantly on the phone at odd hours into the night as they converse with Italy and the sample room.

But not everything can run smoothly, right?

The Dutchess Boot had a fantastic, jaw-dropping debut at the FWSD runway. But it traveled to the US with a bit of a hiccup. The Over-The-Knee boot – already a massive development undertaking – arrived with a design feature that was not part of Stephen’s tech pack.

“It came with a thunderbolt patch on the side.” He says shaking his head.

“That was from a correction we made.” Leslie adds on. The correction mark was mistaken for a design detail that had the Designer scrambling for last-minute reinforcements, in the guise of an antique broach. 

The Dutchess Boot with Broach
The Dutchess Boot Dropped Jaws @FWSD

Art does not come without some failures to highlight the successes. They have also encountered fallen ornaments and other imperfect details that made them rethink their direction – for a moment. They thought about relocating to Italy to be closer to their design hub, in the future.

Although that is some time away – the focus on their online business model is key to their success.   And their legacy.   With retail opportunities and investor relations to consider, the Agnes Bethel brand is now open to the market as a luxury lifestyle brand that could potentially open new categories.

The Legacy That You Build

Earlier, I mentioned Stephen Bessent has built this brand on the love he has for the women in his life. Agnes Bethel is the namesake that honors his mother. Ms. Agnes Bethel started her family in Brooklyn, NY by way of,  Grenada. She is a seamstress (who also dreamed of being in the fashion industry), designed and crafted all of her children’s clothing for as long as Stephen could remember.

This kind of Legacy and creative insight within his family is the motivation that is driving him to continue to reverberate his love and dedication. His terms of endearment are in every design, every fabrication chosen, and in every idea, he has for this brand. It is a Legacy that he wants to build for their children.

“One day I’ll put your name on a building.”

Stephen Bessent said to his mother

The effort that Leslie is putting into building their social media presence, the website and networking has gained them celebrity stylist requests, retail queries and visibility in magazines like, VOGUE.

Straight from the head: Stephen’s drawings reflect classic fashion designer sketches

There is attention to customer service that they want to share with the women who wear their shoes; Complimentary 2 years of “Cobbler Service” is available when you purchase a pair of Agnes Bethel shoes. A service that is unheard of, but further promotes Stephen’s “Justice” nick-name.

Like his family, the styles have a close-knit bond of offerings, where they are done in small batches and SKUs are available until sold out. This increases that custom or one-of-a-kind emotion that luxury shoes convey.

It is an incredible time for them to see what road life will put in front of them. As the footwear industry is shifting in ways that no one seems to be prepared for, nuances like Stephen, are not afraid to jump in and make it happen. Inspired by his mother’s hand at tailoring and sewing, Steven’s eyes are now set on incorporating couture wear to compliment the luxury line of footwear.

“I told my mother – One day I’ll put your name on a building.”

Perhaps British Vogue is a great indication that Ms. Bessent will see that happen soon enough.

A round of fiercely feminine Agnes Bethel pumps

Designers You Should Know About.

Follow Agnes Bethel on Facebook

Instagram:  @agnesbethelshoes

Website: Agnes Bethel

Tanita Gray

Editor-In-Chief, Publisher and Founder of Last-Report.com, and CEO of Shoes Waste. Gray is a footwear, accessory and apparel designer/developer by day - writer and content architect by night. With over 17 years of experience in the fashion industry, you can find her teaching sustainability classes, drawing thumbnails, writing in her journal, giving her husband & children enormous hugs, or eating french fries.

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