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BEHIND THE SEAMS: Shoe Designer Nik Kacy

“I think [we’re] starting to, basically, revolutionize the way that we view bodies — Not looking at someone just based on their gender, but just based on their style,” said Nik Kacy, creator and designer of the gender-neutral and gender-equal shoe line, NiK Kacy.

Kacy transitioned to a gender-neutral individual by undergoing top surgery last August after years of struggle. “I think it just speaks volumes that when we’re young, we’re all trying to discover ourselves and we don’t know who we are and it doesn’t help that people bully us because we’re different. Just because we’re different, shouldn’t mean that we should be discriminated against. We should be celebrated because we’re different. Our society, I think, is very contradictory sometimes because they’re always telling people, ‘Think outside the box. Be different. Be unique.’ But then when you are, people beat you up for it,” said Kacy during our interview.

The shoe collection, NiK Kacy, was partly inspired by Kacy’s love for men’s fashion and partly due to the frustration brought on by the number of times Kacy struggled in finding the right pair of masculine shoes. Kacy hopes the shoe line helps others who’ve had the same issue.

This gender-neutral designer is breaking barriers one step at a time.

Labeling Men: What inspired you to create a gender-neutral shoe line?

Nik Kacy: Basically the reason I started this company, as someone who is gender-neutral, [is because] I’ve spent my whole life having lots of challenges trying to find shoes that fit me, that were in the aesthetic of what I wanted to wear. Every time I went to a store, whether it was a department or a shoe store, I was faced with “Why aren’t you in the women’s section?” And I’m like, “Well, you don’t have the styles in the women’s section that I’m looking for.” [I was] caught in my own work and a job that I was never was able to fulfill my dream, until a year ago. I decided that, “You know what, it’s now or never.” I just decided that it’s never going to feel like it’s the right time, you just have to just do it. That’s why I’m hoping to not only make shoes for myself, but I’m hoping that anybody else out there that has the same issues that I’ve faced, it resolves their issues.

L.M: That’s awesome. Why did you choose to do shoes specifically?

N.K: I love shoes and everybody wears shoes. I loved fashion as a child. I used to draw men’s suits and I was always very much into men’s fashion, even before I knew I was queer. Clothing is something that, I think, you have to be much more skilled at to design. I realized that I really love what’s out there already and I know so many people who are starting to be at the forefront of this gender-queer style in the fashion industry. I said to myself, “What is lacking? What is it that’s missing?” It’s the shoes. Those clothes that are going to be out there, like Sharpe Suiting and GQA clothing, they need shoes and it just so happens to be that I love shoes and I love leather and I love that whole genre.

L.M: I know you also design jewelry. Does your website offer just shoes, or shoes and accessories?

N.K: It’s going to be probably shoes first and then accessories. I believe in trying to keep it a very sustainable and eco-friendly business. I know that I’m going to face challenges because of the fact that [I’m using] leather, but I’m already starting to do research on sustainable leather. But, I’m Asian and I’ve been raised to believe that we use every part — don’t waste anything. That’s kind of how I feel about my business. I can build holster wallets and belts and anything that is also utilizing my own scrap leather, so nothing is wasted.

L.M: That’s a great idea. I read that you traveled all over Europe looking for shoemakers and I saw that you don’t produce your shoes in China. How did you come about that? Where is your shoe line manufactured?

N.K: One of my other dreams was to travel around in Europe…The time came and I had the break [from work], I transitioned, I had top surgery and I had my recovery, and then I said, “Now I’m going to travel.” I went traveling for 9 weeks in Europe and basically took the train all over. Then, I went to my first international shoe fair. It’s one of those things where, I love shoes and I wear shoes, but I don’t know anything else about shoes. I was this total nobody, walking into this international shoe fair with tens of thousands of different shoe manufacturers and shoe industry people and nobody knew who I was. They were cautious about talking to me because they thought I was somebody trying to go there and copy stuff and I didn’t realize that until someone pointed it out to me. But I felt like that it could be a good opportunity for me to learn about all the different manufacturers and see the different quality [each manufacturer has to offer]. Because it was a world-wide event, I really got to see and compare. I was definitely faced with a lot of rejection, in terms of whenever I spoke about trying to create this masculine-gender-neutral shoe line. A lot of people were not interested. But I got to be a sponge and soak up all the information [some people] shared with me.

L.M: That’s great.

N.K: Everyone [else] I talked to…because they’re moved by my passion, I think that they’re like, “How can I help you?” and then they introduce me to somebody else… and then I’m meeting an agent in Italy at the shoe fair and he’s introducing me to all these different manufacturers and taking me to shoe factories and teaching me everything he knows. Then I go to Portugal, because I met another guy at the shoe fair. I meet him and his father and they’ve been in this factory for two generations. Then, they were like, “We want to work with you.” So, I get all these samples made and then I come home and when they finally arrive I can test them and make sure that they’re comfortable, make sure that if I need to adjust anything on the mold, that I can. There’s so many factors, but it was really great because being there and seeing it first hand helps me make much better decisions.

L.M: Yeah, absolutely. I really love the concept behind your company.

N.K: I think that even though the inspiration is from a small market, the concept itself is about everybody. It’s about equality. There is not discrimination. I’m doing this because I’ve been discriminated against. I just want to be available for people. I [eventually] want to make feminine high heels in bigger sizes because there’s lot of women and men who want to wear those shoes, and why shouldn’t they be able to?

L.M: Oh, I love that idea of bigger high heels sizes for men. That’s brilliant.

N.K: Why not, you know? Gender should not be a barrier. We’re breaking barriers.

L.M: So, does your fashion style influence your shoe line or vice versa? How so?

N.K: I think I’ve just been very much a masculine of center and so when I was young, I always believed that I was a boy. I think that as I grew, matured, evolved, and had the opportunity to experience life and learn to embrace the feminine side of me, I realized that gender is really not the issue. It is about style and it is about comfort and it is about what makes me feel complete. I realized that even though I've had top surgery, I'm completely comfortable being referred to as a he or she. I think that it's about embracing everybody and embracing all of myself and I think that my fashion speaks to that. I think that people can tell that I’m comfortable being in this style and that influences the way that I make shoes. Being masculine of center, I’m making masculine shoes to go with my outfit, but long-term, I also want to make high heels. I’m not going to be wearing them, because that’s not my style, but I love women who wear them. I love the way they look on women. So, in that sense, it’s something that pleases me and pleases my sense. I think that life’s too short. Everything that I do has to be pleasing and has to fulfill some part of me. The icing on the cake is that it helps other people.

L.M: If you don’t mind talking about this, can you tell us what was your transition like? What made you decide to do it?

N.K: I’ve always wanted to do it, probably from the day I got boobs, I was like, “I really want them off.” Then, one day I was like, “I can do this.” I got very lucky that I had a couple of friends who had also done it so it was nice to have that support system. They were all ready to offer answers, insights and guidance and so it was really, really nice. I think the hardest part about it was telling my friends or my ex-girlfriends or my mother, people who always embraced me and accepted my boobs or told me I had very nice ones — to give them the news, like, “Sorry, they’re going to be gone soon.” I know my mom was very worried, but as soon as I told her this was something that I, literally, thought about for over 30 years, she immediately was like, “Okay.”

L.M: It’s really nice to hear that everyone was so supportive.

N.K: I’m very blessed to have such a great mom and stepfather. I remember after my surgery, probably, two weeks after, I was like, “Okay, well I need new shirts now.” So my friend took me shopping and we went and I must’ve gotten like 16 t-shirts. I didn’t want to try them on at the store, because I was still bandaged and it was hard. So, I came home and slowly tried [them] on. I remember the first shirt that I put on, I looked at myself in the mirror and was like, “Huh. It fits.” Next shirt. Literally, every shirt fit. I was officially a men’s small now and it didn’t feel awkward and it wasn’t too tight. Every shirt fit and I started crying. I just started bawling. I called my mom and I was just like, it all fits.

L.M: I feel very emotional listening to such touching story.

N.K: It’s making me cry to talk about it. I’ve never felt so, just, complete. I was, literally, just looking in the mirror and thinking, finally. Finally, I am me… I think a lot of people don’t realize what a huge thing it is to transition. [People] don’t realize that when people choose to have an operation and remove a gigantic part of their body and go through all the pain and suffering, the swelling, and the lack of mobility for however long, it is not chosen lightly. Like, “I’m just going to do surgery,” like it’s for attention or something. No, this is because if I don’t, I have been living in this lie. I have been living in agony and it’s a different type of pain. My mom, when she visited me, she was like, “I’m so proud of you, because you’re so brave.” I think that was the first time that made me realize, yeah, I am brave but in explaining to her that the pain I felt from surgery was nothing compared to the pain I felt my whole life.

L.M: You are amazing. Thank you for sharing that with us. Since you brought up the amazing feeling you had after trying on t-shirts for the first time after your surgery, would you like to tell our reader what you’re wearing today?

N.K: This is a Calvin Klein [button up] shirt and I have a Transformers t-shirt underneath. This must be Banana Republic or Gap dress pants. I’m not really big on labels. I just like the style. If it works, then great. It could be a no-name brand or it could be a super high-end brand, it doesn’t matter to me. In fact, I try to steer away from anything that has huge, big labels everywhere, which is why even with my shoes, you can kind of barely see my logo on the heel because it’s supposed to be subtle. I put the gender equality sign on there so that, not only is it communicating something that’s very important to me, but it’s also like a signature of -- I don’t know you can be at like a restaurant or a dinner party and maybe someone crosses their leg and reveals the symbol and you’re like, “Oh yeah, those are Nik Kacy shoes. You support gender equality, that’s great.” That’s the way I look at it.

L.M: You have a Kickstarter launching soon. Can you share with us when it’s launching and what are you fundraising for?

N.K: For the Kickstarter, I want to raise enough money to build all the different sizes for the molds. These are new molds that need to be created to fit a specific proportion, therefore it takes capital. I want to continue to build my company as the soul creative person and… that’s a really a good way to utilize crowd funding. I would like to raise a stretch goal of maybe 60 to 70 thousands [dollars] because then I can have the freedom to actually hire people to help, whether it’s for marketing, PR, to building the website and just really making kickass e-commerce site. Also, I can have shoes readily available and just be able to create all the different molds and start producing all the different styles in all the different molds and sizes and just have them available and then start building the next collection or start the feminine high-heel line. Again, that’s a stretch goal. That’s what I would like ideally. But the immediate need is to build, at least for this collection, the sizes so that when we actually launch, we can start selling and people can buy. I feel like so far everyone has been really supportive and excited and everyone is like, “When are you going to start selling?” It’s funny that there’s so many people who want to buy these shoes but I can’t sell them yet. But I’m working on it.

L.M: How many designs do you have for your line?

N.K: There’s 4 basic designs. There’s the dress boot, the desert boot, the monk boot and then we’ve got the traditional derby and like a wing-tip. So, it’s taking some very traditional, basic designs that we’ve all wanted, but couldn’t find the sizes.

L.M: I really like the styles you have available.

N.K: Yeah, thank you. Another thing that was very important to me — because I’m extremely nit-picky as a person and I’m very OCD — is that the insoles are going to be very comfortable. Even though nobody walks in L.A., to me it’s still very important to have comfortable shoes.

L.M: Of course. Totally.

N.K: That’s something that was high on my priority list and I made sure [by] going to an insole factory to see how they make it and what makes one material better than the other. Every aspect of what makes a shoe, I’ve actually gone to every factory to make those things. I might not know how to build a shoe myself, but I know how it’s made and I know what it takes and who makes it. And I’m making sure that I select the best materials and most comfortable and sustainable [from] factories that treat their employees well and have high health standards.

L.M: That’s amazing. If you had to come up with or describe your own fashion, what would it be?

N.K: My own label… I think the reason I labeled the brand “Nik Kacy” was because I really didn’t have another way to describe it. Even in my paintings, when I used to paint, it always is kind of a self-portrait and so with the brand, it’s also like my self-portrait. I feel like it sounds so vain, but it’s really about expressing and communicating who I am and I’m sharing a part of who I am with the world and hoping that it helps other people find themselves. Nik Kacy is a name that I created when I was a kid playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and that was my detective name and as I grew up and evolved into the person who I am, I realized my birth name didn’t really suit me and it didn’t reflect the person that I am.

L.M: That’s a great name!

N.K: I think it’s also very gender-neutral in itself.

L.M: I think so too, it’s a great choice.

N.K: Thank you.

L.M: We, at Labeling Men, also have a section about dating on our website. Would you like to share some dating advice to our readers?

N.K: My one advice that I always try to remind myself of, is to not let your - you know, everyone has baggage - hinder you from happiness. I’m the kind of person who really lives for the moment. What makes me a generally optimistic person is that I can be aware of the pitfalls and I can be aware of the things that I should watch out for if I see red flags. We spend too much time worrying about stuff that you don’t get to live. For me, every moment, you have to be alive. I feel dating is the same — even if I meet somebody that I’m like, “Okay, maybe, really, I shouldn’t be dating this person.” I think that you just have to go with the flow and be aware that you’re making choices and you have to be conscious about them. Don’t be reckless, but be present and be alive. Just go for it. Worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t work out, and then you move on. I don’t know, that’s just my philosophy.

Check out the gender-neutral shoe line by NiK Kacy

You can watch the 20-minute mini-documentary by NiK Kacy, “It Does Get Better” here

The Kickstarter campaign for the brand will be starting in January, so keep an eye out for that as well!

Interview and photos by Karen Guzelian

Additional photos provided by Nik Kacy

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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