|Itamar and Rachel Carmi with their shoes that blend comfort and style.|
Today, the shoes that Itamar Carmi of Teaneck designs with his wife, Rachel, are found in 1,200 stores around the world.
But his adventures in the shoe trade started with a bad loan in New York City.
Mr. Carmi had grown up in Tel Aviv. After the army, he studied at university for a year before deciding it wasn’t for him. So he came to New York to seek his fortune. The year was 1985.
He wasn’t penniless. He had enough money to lend a not insignificant amount to a friend who owned a shoe store on Fifth Avenue.
Rather than being repaid, he was brought on as a partner and an employee.
Then the friend returned to Israel, leaving Mr. Carmi in charge of the shoe store – and with $300,000 worth of debt to his suppliers. He convinced the shoe wholesalers to keep doing business with him as he gradually paid it off.
It took two years, but then the business was in the black – and it was all his.
At the peak of his retailing success, Mr. Carmi owned four stores in Manhattan – three of them on Fifth Avenue – as well as in Englewood and in Cedarhurst, one of Long Island’s Five Towns.
Meanwhile, back in Israel, his sister had become friends with Rachel, who had studied fashion design at the WIZO France High School of Art and Design in Tel Aviv. Itamar met Rachel at his sister’s wedding.
“If I send you a ticket to New York, will you please come?” he asked her. She said yes and came to New York. Within a year, they were married.
That was in 1991.
“I hope he thinks I’m the best import he’s done,” she said.
When Rachel first came, she ran a small jewelry business. Then she started raising a family. (Their oldest three children are 20, 18, and 16; the youngest, the only boy, is 3.)
As their children were growing, Itamar was making a change from selling shoes to creating them. It started with importing shoes from Italy under his own private label.
“It was our own designs, our own shoes,” Itamar said.
In 2000, one of his suppliers approached him. His name was Bernie Mev. He made shoes in the Bronx. But the shoe industry in America was dying. The components he needed for the shoes were no longer made locally. Waiting for overseas deliveries meant missed deadlines and lost business. So Mr. Mev decided to sell his factory, and partner with Mr. Carmi in importing shoes from Europe, now under the Bernie Mev label.
In 2007, after four decades in the shoe business, Mr. Mev decided it was time to retire, move to Florida, and work on his golf game. Itamar Carmi took over Bernie Mev shoes.
The next year Mr. Carmi came up with what has become Bernie Mev’s signature creation: a woven shoe.
He was thinking about a comfortable shoe. The result, he says, is “an upper that’s breathable and elasticized. We are marching to a new concept, a new kind of category.”
Rachel Carmi says: “If is not comfortable, it can’t be Bernie Mev. It has to be practical, wearable, it’s a special niche.”
With the children older, the time was opportune for her to start working with her husband, bring her design training to the shoe industry.
They’ve mostly moved on from retailing, though they keep Medici Shoes in Englewood as a showroom and to stay in touch with customer sentiment. Their offices are in Teaneck; the shoes are manufactured in Asia and warehoused in California.
The new Bernie Mev shoes come in some 200 styles, and some of the styles come in as many as 25 colors. Some are leather and suede, but most are elasticized cloth. Colors range from demure to rainbow pop. The soles are made from memory foam, and prices range from $49 to $79.
And now, the Carmis have brought their older children into what has become a family business. The girls are helping with the company’s marketing and social media campaigns.
“It’s nice to see how you can recruit the children in a positive way,” Rachel Carmi said.