Sole-searching: get to know local shoe designers Freda Salvador

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Freda is mysterious and anonymous.

She walks the hills of San Francisco with purpose. Her style is classic, a bit androgynous, with flair for edginess. She’s always up for new adventures. She marches to the beat of her own drum. She’s fashion-forward but she values comfort, veering away from the misconception that beauty is pain. She loves rock 'n' roll. She’s a San Francisco chick through and through.

Freda Salvador is the creation of San Francisco residents Cristina Palomo-Nelson and Megan Papay. Combining their mutual obsession for Frida Kalho (“more like her badass persona than her folkloric art”) and Palomo-Nelson’s El Salvadorian origins, the duo created footwear brand Freda Salvador. They launched the company two years ago with the intention of bringing contemporary artisan shoes to Bay Area Fredas.

“We wanted to create a fictional character that’s bigger than us,” explains Palomo-Nelson in the company’s Union Street design studio and flagship store

The Freda Salvador store is a combination of the pair’s personal styles: Palomo-Nelson sticks to the classics with an edge, wearing an oversized blazer, a simple white blouse, ripped jeans and the line's popular black “Star” Jodhpur ankle boots. She comes from a shoe-making family in Central America; her studies in fashion and footwear design brought her to Milan and then San Francisco, where she’s lived for 13 years.

Her blonde counterpart, Papay, veers toward a simple bohemian look with paint-stained jeans, a boxy sweater, a chunky statement necklace, and her favorite “Roam” lace-up combat boots with studded welt. Papay hails from the East Coast, via Delaware, Virginia, and New York City, where she began her fashion career in celebrity styling for Calvin Klein, then at top fashion public relations firms. Her husband’s job moved her to San Francisco, where she began working at a comfort footwear company. The soft-spoken designers met there, working together for a year.

“The chemistry was really great,” says Papay. “Our desire to create the same aesthetic of shoe was there so we decided to do our own thing and launch Freda.”

With Palomo-Nelson’s background in footwear construction and Papay’s experience in fashion trends, the footwear brand has become a household name in the industry. Seen on the heels of fashion bloggers, in magazine editorials, and on fashion must-have lists, Freda shoes balance high fashion aesthetics with no-fuss comfort.

“A big source of our inspiration comes from men’s shoes,” says Palomo-Nelson. “Easy, classic, concentration on lines and materials.”

“And wearable details,” adds Papay. “In ladies’ fashion, the details are a little bit bizarre to the point where they’re not wearable or understandable. In men’s shoes the flair is always wearable because no boy is going to sacrifice anything for style.”

The designers prefer to stick to classic shapes like Jodhpur boots, oxfords, and loafers and incorporate some sort of edgy detail: removable bracelets and harnesses, mixed leathers, haircalf accents, and studded soles. 

With San Francisco consumers in mind, the designs rely heavily on comfort. Each shoe is entirely made of leather with padded footbeds. “They’re made to be put on at 7 o’clock in the morning and taken off at 11 o’clock at night,” says Papay. “Our shoes are perfect for the city, walkable and urban.”

The beauty of the shoes also lies in the craftsmanship. Palomo-Nelson and Papay travel to Italy twice a year to pick out leathers for the next season. They then design the shoes in San Francisco based on trend watching and trips to New York Fashion Week. After that, they travel to Spain for production. The shoes are handmade in a small family-run factory in Elda, Spain.

“We truly are blessed. We live in one of the best cities in the world. We travel to New York for shows all the time and then Italy and Spain for our production,” says Palomo-Nelson.

The San Francisco flagship store is the company’s only retail location and doubles as the pair’s design studio. With wood paneling and staircase, the store mixes a rustic, comfort atmosphere with modern simplicity. The shoes are aligned on metal shelves and vintage bookcases in the first room. A small Dia de los Muertos-inspired shrine to Frida Khalo sits on a shelf in the corner. On the walls of the second room are framed old black and white photos. In the third room — the design studio — a giant mood board with color swatches, fashion editorials and a large painting of Frida Kahlo hangs above a large wooden table.

“It was in our five year plan,” says Palomo-Nelson about setting up a retail location. “But I think it’s the best thing we could have done. We really built a presence and a brand point with our physical location where people can experience not just the shoes but also the aesthetic of who we are and our designs.”

At the store, the designers will occasionally get phone calls asking for Freda. They also sell T-shirts with the question “Who is Freda Salvador” printed. But there is no answer: This mysterious woman was created so that women could build their own idea of Freda based on their personal style and inspirations.

“We’re like, ‘No, there actually is no Freda,’” says Papay. “But it’s good. It’s meant to be that way.”