After already establishing a career in footwear, Bernie Fatla found a niche when an idea lead him to create Le Dame Footwear.
Great businesses start with great ideas, and Le Dame Footwear is no exception. Bernie Fatla credits the inspiration for Le Dame to a single article in the New York Times about three years ago which told of a drag queen who bemoaned the dearth of stylish shoes that fit. With that single spark, Fatla switched gears from a successful 30 years in the shoe business, redirecting his experience into a family startup aimed at filling a specific void in the market–shoes in feminine styles that comfortably fit masculine feet.
Fatla, a happily married resident of Verona, began intensive research with his target customer base, interviewing over 2000 consumers. He’s an engaging guy who takes seriously his business’s tagline, “where style and fit matter,” and makes no bones about his intended demographic. His website touts Le Dame shoes as, “a line of feminine styled footwear built to fit a masculine foot and designed specifically for transgender, drag queen and crossdressing customers.” And yes, those words are in bold on the front of his catalog. He wears his products himself, showing off a classy leather ankle boot (dubbed the “Alex”) at our interview . Fatla is fiercely loyal to his customers, whom he refers to as “my girls.” He is an energetic, outgoing man with an evident passion for his products who takes intense pride in offering both high quality products and sensitivity/respect for his client base. “A lot of girls have been exploited, and their fears of being judged have been preyed upon to scam them,” he says. “At Le Dame, the customer comes first.”
Fatla strikes a careful, classy balance between discretion for his customers and an unabashed pride in his business. He eschews market research based on the needs of genetic women, preferring instead to maintain a personal correspondence with his customers, listen to feedback and conduct focus groups. He has also chosen not to offer his products in women’s sizes, worried that doing so could be confusing, and thereby taking a stand about whom his product is designed for. His attentiveness to his niche market has helped him make specific choices that might not be apparent without his careful research. For instance, he does not include functional buckles in his shoes because “my girls tend to have bigger hands, and they don’t want to be dinking around with little buckles!” He also is working on introducing a line of dyeable shoes in his signature style, the Sharon, so that a customer seeking accessories for her formalwear can match the color of her shoes exactly to her dress.
Le Dame began as an internet-only company. No Madison area stores carry Le Dame shoes at this time, but Bernie makes private appointments in his home to try on shoes, which are also available through his website, www.ledame.com. Fatla and Kiki, Le Dame’s spokesperson and model, attend Southern Comfort every year in Atlanta to interact with the trans community there. Le Dame also offers a scholarship to Southern Comfort to cover the cost of one person’s trip (who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend) as a way to give back to the trans community.
What advice does Bernie have for a budding entrepreneur? “Just do it! Life is too short not to try it. Do your market research, find a niche and have fun doing it!”