Kendall Barber (left) with her sister and business partner, Justine

How Alberta Shoe Boutique Poppy Barley is Thinking Globally and Succeeding Locally

By Tom Murray

In an era where the “fast fashion” concept of inexpensive, cookie-cutter clothing dominates the retail scene, Poppy Barley stands out from the crowd.

“We try to design products that will stay in people’s wardrobes for a long time,” says Kendall Barber, co-owner of the Edmonton-based footwear boutique—and an AMA member. “We don’t really get swayed by what’s trendy.”

Inspired by a visit to a handcrafted-boot shop in Bali, Kendall and her sister, Justine, launched Poppy Barley in 2012. Their e-commerce business, which offers ethically produced, artisan-quality, small-batch shoes and leather accessories, has also grown into a full brick-and-mortar enterprise, with stores at Edmonton’s Southgate Centre and Calgary’s Market Mall.

The sisters’ small-business story connects Alberta to the central Mexican city of León. It’s there that Kendall and Justine found a leather shoe factory that offered the flexibility in sizing and inventory that they needed. Equally important, the family-run factory shares Poppy Barley’s focus on sustainability: it is fully powered by solar energy.

Despite COVID-19, the Barber sisters have continued to move forward: With their Mexican manufacturing partners, they produced 1,000 masks for Edmonton’s Hope Mission during the early stages of the pandemic. On the retail side, they also unveiled a line of vegan shoes made from the spines of the nopal cactus, and already have plans to work with other unusual materials, like apples. We spoke with Kendall Barber about Poppy Barley’s past, present and future.

What prompted the move from an online-only concept to opening traditional stores?
After some success online, we realized that people still want to touch and feel the products. Once we started conceiving of a store space, we wanted to design it so people could learn more about our brand, but we also wanted to tell the story of our journey. It was also important to tell the story of Mexico, where most of our products are made.

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How important is the relationship with your Mexican manufacturer?
We’ve really grown together. The flexibility of the plant allows us to be agile and respond to what’s happening in the world. And because we don’t work within traditional fashion cycles, we can be flexible in creating and launching products.

Are there challenges to running a shoe business in Edmonton, which isn’t typically counted as a large fashion centre?
Yes. There aren’t a whole lot of footwear and handbag designers in the city, nor is there a critical mass of people with deep knowledge of e-commerce. We also don’t have the economies of scale like they do in larger North America cities.

How has COVID-19 impacted on your business?
In addition to Mexico, we also manufacture some products in Brazil, Portugal and Spain, and we receive boxes from China. All of those countries have been hit hard at various stages, and factories have been closed for periods of time. Here in Alberta, stores being ordered closed at certain points, and regulations like how many people can be in a store when it’s open—that’s also been hard. On the other hand, we’ve been able to draw on our previous expertise to shift our focus back to e-commerce. It’s been exciting to see people make their first purchases with us online.

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What do you predict things will look like for Poppy Barley in a year’s time?
Though our products aren’t designed to follow specific fashion trends, we’ve been having interesting conversations about what people will want in 12 or 18 months when the pandemic has hopefully slowed down. Will they want to stay in a casual lifestyle, working from home mode, or will people want to get dressed up and have shoes that stand out when they’re on the town? I hope that people will want to go out, because at this point we could all use a little fun in our lives.

AMA members earn 5% cash back on the purchase of gift cards, which can be used at participating retailers (including Poppy Barley) at Southgate Centre, CrossIron Mills and Premium Outlet Collection EIA. Buy the card—as a gift, or for yourself—at any one of our 17 AMA centres across Alberta.