Burju Perez’s philosophy is simple — shoes should look great and feel even better. Perez, a former internationally competitive salsa dancer, understands the dilemma facing women on the dance floor. Too often they must choose between gorgeous shoes that are too painful to dance in and pairs that are uninviting but functional.
Like many women, she often found herself leaning on her husband at clubs and social events because her feet hurt so much.
“We should lean on our partners because we want to, not because we have to,” Perez says.
And so, Burju Shoes was born.
Perez, 39, came to shoe design the long way. She was born in Istanbul before her family immigrated to Florida and then relocated to New York City. From the Big Apple, she moved to Beantown and attended Boston University, where, of all places, she was introduced to salsa. She’d done ballet as a child, then rhythmic gymnastics and hip-hop, but salsa spoke to her in a way other forms of dance didn’t.
“Salsa mixes a lot of different rhythms and feels,” she says. “You can go to a club and see so many different versions of the dance. At the same time, it’s a partner dance that has very specific rhythmic timing. And it’s a sassy dance — salsa has attitude.”
The salsa shoes Perez wore competitively were comfortable but boring, she says. So she went to work, gluing on sequins and adornments, dyeing them different colors, trying to make them look like the elegant shoes she wore when she wasn’t trying to tango.
“People would ask where I got them, and then ask me to make them some,” Perez says. The improved shoes had across-the-board appeal. “Every dancer is a real woman who has a family, has a job. We love our fashion, but we want to be comfortable, to be able to go from the job to the dance floor at a club or a wedding. What’s the point of beautiful shoes if you can’t wear them to dance?”
The next step — designing her own shoes from scratch — was a natural evolution. She kept in mind her ideal customer — someone who does not want to compromise comfort for style. “The style is the easy part,” she says. “You can always make a black pump with purple polka dots. The hard part is making it comfortable. If I get a prototype and it looks great but it’s not supportive, it gets scrapped.”
For Perez, making the jump to manufacturing her own brand was a leap of faith. “I honestly didn’t know what I was doing at first,” she says. “But I’ve developed great manufacturing partnerships. I bring a fresh perspective, while my partners have the experience and can tell me what will work and what won’t.”
Originally, Perez met with one of the few factories in the Merrimack Valley that still produces shoes, she says. And while making the deal work wasn’t impossible, it would have raised the price point for consumers significantly. “We want to be a luxury line without luxury prices,” she says. “We’d like every woman to have access to our shoes.”
So Perez, who lives in Methuen, entered the global economy. “You can design in one part of the world, manufacture in another, and distribute it elsewhere,” she says. “Being able to create an international fashion company from Methuen, how great is that?”
Burju Shoes was officially launched in 2009 but it has mostly been over the past four years that her shoes have grown to prominence — a global brand with a personal touch.
Burju shoes — which come in flats, heels and a unisex line — can be customized to the client’s specifications. “We’ve had customers say they love a certain shoe, but need a different heel or different color,” says Perez, who has also designed pride-themed shoes and shoes for breast cancer awareness. For brides, she’s taking it a step further, offering one-on-one style consultations to create the perfect shoe.
“We definitely want to make sure they’re happy — we’re not going to compromise,” Perez says. “Putting customers on cloud nine, that’s what’s going to set us apart.”
To make it work, Perez, who recently launched her spring line internationally, relies heavily on technology to cut down on travel. “I’ve done it so much, but I have children now. So far, it’s working out.” Her corporate headquarters, including showrooms, remain located in Methuen, and shoe lovers can visit her there for consultations and custom fittings.
If ‘‘working out’’ means being featured on a national television phenomenon, then Perez is right. Her shoes were worn on several seasons of Dancing with the Stars.
Seeing her shoes on the feet of celebrities and professional dancers was an amazing experience, she says, and one that opened a lot of doors.
But it’s another celebrity series that holds an even more special place in her heart. Perez helps organize the annual Emmaus Stepping Out with the Valley Stars fundraiser, an event at which local celebrities team up with professional dancers. Last year’s gala raised $85,000 for the Haverhill-based nonprofit, which assists the homeless. This year’s event, the fourth annual, is scheduled for April 7 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury.
Perez and Margot Regan, the events/marketing and communications manager at Emmaus, met at a local conference for women leaders. Regan, who was looking for an unusual spring event, approached Perez with the idea for a dance competition.
“It was serendipity,” Perez says. “We’d been dying to do a dance-related fundraiser for a cause. We’ve been so lucky — we’ve managed to create a lifestyle for ourselves that we’re happy with, where we can raise a family, spend time with them, and still run a business. If we can help other people with their goals, we will.”
“We really could not have had this event and had it be as successful as it’s been without Burju,” Regan says. “She didn’t know us from anything at the beginning, but immediately said she was all in and really got involved.”
Perez matches local celebrities with professional dancers, serves as a judge, donates rehearsal space if necessary, and occasionally dances as part of a couple if another professional is needed. She’s even called and given pep talks to local celebrities who are nervous before performing. And, of course, she provides the shoes everyone dances in.
“Whatever resources she has, she makes sure she’s giving back. It’s refreshing to see that. She’s just a kind person,” Regan says.
For Perez, it’s all in a day’s fashionable work. She’s on a mission to convert women to heels, one pair at a time. “When you are in heels and you slouch, you literally tip over. You have to stand with better posture, and you feel more confident,” she says. “People may say it’s superficial, but if a pair of shoes can help you feel more confident and put your best foot forward, it’s important.”
Emmaus fourth annual Stepping Out with the Valley Stars: