Francesca Kennedy spent every holiday of her childhood visiting her grandfather in Panajachel, Guatemala, a small town 90 miles from Guatemala City. The family home sits near Atitlan Lake, and she grew up understanding the importance and significance of the lake to the community.
Now, as founder of iX Style (pronounced EYE-EX, meaning water in Mayan), a shoe company that has been touted by celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, the Pennsylvania native is hoping to change the lives of the Guatemalans who live near and depend on that lake.
The huaraches, or sandals, she sells are inspired by Kennedy’s Guatemalan heritage and the indigenous inventors of the iconic footwear. And while the shoes have made a mark in the fashion world, she also wants to make a difference in other ways – by helping the Guatemalan community her parents grew up in have access to clean water.
Three years ago, on one of her regular visits to Guatemala, Kennedy arrived to witness a horrifying sight. The lake had been taken over by toxic green algae that was caused by a mixture of agricultural run-off — a sanitation plant had been wiped out by a hurricane and non-native fishes that were introduced to the lake in the 1970s (not natural to the ecosystem of the lake) that were eating all the other fish. The imbalance left an opening for the algae and the community noticed a change in the lake almost overnight.
“I saw kids collecting the water from the lake, and it looked and smelled like sewage. The contamination was obvious. I wanted to do something, but it had to be beyond simply starting charity to raise money,” Kennedy told Fox News Latino.
Kennedy said many people are jaded by charities, so she wanted to do something different. One day a few years ago, she said, she picked up a few pairs of huaraches for friends and the idea hit her.
“Why not create the most comfortable huaraches in super-fun colors, and maybe some of the money from the sales could help with the water situation in the town,” she said.
Working with her brother, John, a teacher in Philadelphia, Kennedy returned to New York, where she lives, and started designing samples. She had them made in Guatemala. One year ago, in March of 2013, she sent a pair out to the Fashion Editor at Style Watch and People.com.
“Within 30 minutes they called and wanted more styles and to feature the shoes. I left my job in banking and became full-time at iX Style,” Kennedy says.
Calling their marketing and PR efforts “bootstrap,” iX Style has been featured in Vogue, InStyle, WWD, Refinery 29, Bazaar, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog, Goop, to name a few.
“I give a lot of credit to interns who have nothing but guts and confidence. It was their idea to give a pair to Gwyneth Paltrow,” she said. “Paltrow wrote about them on her Goop website, and that helped to really launch the brand.”
Kennedy says the most rewarding part of her newfound fashion company is the water mission. iX Style donates 25 percent of its sales to organizations like Asociacion Puente, a non-profit that fights for justice and equality in the Central American nation.
In June, Kennedy says, iX Style will begin collaborating with Paltrow, offering a pattern only available on Paltrow’s Goop website.
There’s also talk from Kennedy about introducing handbags and clutches into her collection starting in the fall.
“My grandfather passed away three years ago," Kennedy said. "But I know he’s watching down on us and so proud of the work we’re doing to help the people in the community, clean up the lake, and bring sustainable water sources to the area.”