The earliest memory that footwear designer Benjamin Spencer has on Melissa, the Brazilian footwear brand popular for their signature jelly shoe, is when he and his sister would wear a pair during their childhood. Fast forward to now and many years later, Spencer is forever immortalized in the footwear brand's history as the winner of their inaugural US competition.

Back in February of this year, the heritage footwear brand took their search for young talents stateside (before, it was exclusive to the UK and Brazil), offering $10,000 to the winning designer appointed by both a panel of judges (including PAPER's Justin Moran) and the general public. After receiving hundreds of submissions and more than 400k votes, Spencer ascended the footwear throne.

"Melissa has always been on the cusp of young success and they are a brand that has always focused on giving young designers a platform to express themselves and the story they are looking to tell," Spencer tells PAPER.

Now available online, in stores and at Galeria Melissa NY, the story Spencer is telling through his latest collaborative collection with Melissa is an optimistic one that doubles as a love note to blooming florals. Vines wrap around the heel while the top of the shoe's toebox is reminiscent of petals. Vibrant colors are splashed throughout while a floral pistil sits on the face of the shoe.

Choosing to wear one essentially looks and feels as if you're wearing a bouquet of flowers. It's no wonder why so many voters gravitated towards the designs: they're joyously playful and they make any quick glance down to your feet an immediate mood enhancer.

Below, PAPER learns more about Spencer's process and inspiration for this collection with Melissa, and how winning this competition helps his brand, Thomas Benjamin.

This is the first time Melissa is in the US. How does it feel to be its inaugural winner?

Winning the Melissa Next competition and a collaboration with the brand has been amazing. I am grateful for the opportunity. Throughout the process, I have had the chance to gain vital experience I may not have had otherwise, collaborating with their factories in Brazil to adjust the original design, working with their marketing team and so much more. It's also allowed for my brand, Thomas Benjamin, to gain exposure as it is difficult for young designers to break through into the industry.

What was your submission process? Did you tweak what you usually do, up the antics, push your usual design process for the competition?

When designing for Melissa, I stuck to the typical process I go through when designing any product, whether for my brand, Thomas Benjamin, or for other brands. There are four elements I focus on when starting my design process. I knew I wanted to focus on capturing the brand and customer identity, develop a strong story that was relatable, and from a design standpoint, bring something original to the table. When designing for Melissa, identifying the first three elements of this process took a few days of research to really understand where I wanted to take the creative direction, but the design itself was pretty easy. I felt as if I had an abundance of ideas and couldn't get them on paper quickly enough.

Names like Thierry Mugler, Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier are associated with Melissa. How does it feel to join the ranks?

When given the opportunity to collaborate with Melissa, I immediately dove into their archive of past collaborations. This research revealed just how tall of an order was ahead of me. They have collaborated with some of the top designers and brands in the world and my goal was to live up to the precedent these designers had set. Hopefully, in the future, when people look back at the entire catalog of Melissa's collaborations, Melissa x Thomas Benjamin will be welcomed into the prestigious group that the brand has created.

Can you walk me through the collection?

The collection was inspired by the increase in mental health issues caused by the pandemic and not being able to leave our homes due to global lockdowns. The topic of mental health is very personal to me, but is also relatable to millions of others around the world. When designing I was focused on how I could have a positive impact on this conversation and bring joy to such a dark time in the world.

I focused on nature as a key factor to bring about positive change. One, because nature was something many people around the world were missing, being stuck in their homes, but also because studies have proven that "being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduce[s] anger, fear, and stress and increase[s] pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to your physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones."

The shoe was designed to look like a flower, a representation of nature, so that whether the shoes are on someone's shelf, or on their feet, they could bring the feeling of nature with them wherever they are.

Why did you find it important to add a sense of positivity to such a dark time and how do you want people to feel when they don one of these pieces?

I felt like it was important to add a sense of positivity to the world because over the last couple of years people have been struggling so much and if I had even the smallest opportunity to help bring some light to the darkness that has surrounded us then I knew that's what I wanted to do.

My goal was to utilize the design to help bring a small spark of joy to people's life. I want those who own or wear these pieces to experience the same boost in serotonin and dopamine levels one experiences when in nature, regardless of where they are.

Was it difficult to imagine creating something positive during such a difficult time?

For me, the idea of creating something positive during such a difficult time was very therapeutic. It allowed me to put myself into the shoes of others and imagine how my design could make others feel.

What is your personal connection with the outdoors and nature? Do you incorporate time for it in your daily life?

I have a very personal connection to the outdoors. I grew up in the country, just outside a small, farm town in western Missouri, and as I child I practically lived outside. Nature is something I grew up around, continues to be an important part of my life and always brings me a sense of peace.

The feeling nature brought me and the thought of not being able to enjoy it due to the global lockdowns really inspired the design of the Joy Flower. Life is full of joy, but when it's not, wear your Joy Flowers.

Photos courtesy of Melissa

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