By Tammy Scileppi
Two years ago, a young, spirited entrepreneur from Corona started her own line of custom-made, handcrafted riding boots and Oxfords for stylish women and men. While it may have been a shot in the dark, the gamble turned out to be well worth any risks involved.
Now that J.J. Gray Founder and CEO Jessica Perdomo has found success with her online startup, she would like to share that positive karma by giving back. And what better time, now that the holidays are just around the corner?
A life-shaping personal experience as a young teen is at the core of her desire to make an impact in the lives of those in need. As a tribute to her humble beginnings, she hopes to make some sneaker magic happen, once her special program takes off. Perdomo would like to jumpstart a team effort (if she can find larger footwear companies to team up with), that would provide truckloads of cool sneakers to underprivileged kids in the five boroughs.
“My family was so hardworking and always wanted to provide for me, so I started thinking about all the families who want to provide for their kids and give them what other kids have, but just can’t,” she said. “I thought about how important footwear is and how it really matters to young people. I can relate to them. I know their struggles.”
During a recent phone interview from her downtown Manhattan apartment, which also serves as her work studio, Perdomo, 32, said she was extremely proud of her unique line of weather-resistant and artisan-crafted styles. She pointed out that it takes about eight weeks to make each hand-stitched pair of boots or shoes, and that no two are alike.
Perdomo’s path to success has taken her from Corona to the south of Spain and back to New York. Along the way, both a chance encounter and a generous dose of hard work helped move her toward her goal.
That chance encounter took place in Spain, where Perdomo met a family of third-generation artisans, who had been creating custom-made shoes for over 100 years. She said they perfected a last that is used to build all J.J. Gray styles. In addition, the supple calfskin they used to make their shoes, sourced from local tanneries in the region that don’t use harsh chemicals to treat their hides, made their work distinctive.
When visiting the factory, Perdomo recalled asking them: “If I sketch something, could you make it?” She said the sketch wasn’t at a professional level, so she was thankful for Google. “I showed them the heel of this boot and the toe of that one… and they were able to translate my vision.”
Luckily, her creativity and business savvy made up for her lack of formal fashion training. “I have no design background, which is why this is a real miracle. But I have great taste and I knew everybody liked Spanish leather,” she said.
Her exposure to high fashion was also a big part of J.J. Gray’s inspiration. Perdomo’s retail career started in luxury brands, when she was working on Fifth Avenue for Salvatore Ferragamo. Eventually, she worked on the sales floor at Ralph Lauren.
After her trip to Spain, Perdomo said she had no intention of starting a company. “But after discovering that incredible leather, I decided to make boots for myself that I would really be in love with,” she said, and designed three styles that are available on her company’s website (www.jj-gr
“Then we finally made them. And they were great, and they were beautiful. People were stopping me on the street,” Perdomo recalled. “I could never have imagined that two years later, they’d be so popular.
“And I really didn’t know what I was doing. Where I come from, we don’t talk much about entrepreneurship. It’s go to school, find a good job, find a good match….”
Jessica was raised by her hard working immigrant grandparents—a home health aide and a tailor. She grew up to appreciate the importance of family values, as well as the value of a dollar, but never realized her family was poor until she needed new sneakers. An embarrassing hole had ripped through her only pair and there was no money to buy new ones.
Because of her innate entrepreneurial spirit, she set off to find work so she could afford cool kicks, like her friends were wearing. But what mattered most, was helping her family out.
That experience shaped the person she would become, and taught her compassion. And in time, Perdomo would see her torn sneaker as a kind of symbol of the journey that brought her to where she is now. And to a place of giving back.
Surprisingly, that life lesson would also awaken her fashion mojo.
Perdomo recalled how it felt to be made fun of when she wore those worn-out sneakers. She quickly learned that dressing nice meant you were treated differently, especially if you wore something designer. “When I did, I felt really cool,” she said, and remembered how special she felt back in high school, when she wore her Versace bomber jacket—bought for cheap at a sample sale. “When you come from humble beginnings, you also become a very smart shopper and learn how to make things work.”
And you get tougher, as well. Perdomo didn’t know it then, but her grit and resilience would pay off.
“We’ve come a long way and have an amazing group of supporters,” she said. “Our brand is out there and moving. We have clients across the country, and in London, Dubai – all over the world. And our top clients are all in New York.”
J.J. Gray’s first-ever fashion week was something to talk about. About 100-150 people were there from all over, to shop and support the brand during its mid-September trunk show presentation, hosted by a top client in her Flatiron District law office. Several celebs stopped by as well, including Miss J. Alexander, one of the judges on America’s Next Top Model.
Perdomo said she is still trying to figure things out, but insisted, “It’s all about making sure I make comfortable, versatile styles that go with everything, and that everyone loves.”