Denise Laurel wears Virtual Mae's shoes in this week's cover of Rogue magazine
Forget diamonds.  Shoes are a girl's best friend.  Ask Mae Sergio, or Virtual Mae, as she is known in Multiply.  Better yet, ask her customers-her drooling, raving, gosh-can't-wait-i-gotta-buy-this-shoes-mad customers from tweeners to, yes, grannies.

In less than ten months, Virtual Mae has become a byword in the "latest, runway-inspired footwear" as Female magazine, Malaysia's leading fashion and beauty magazine that recently featured her site, has put it. 

Her shoes have also found their way into local magazines like Cosmopolitan, Sense and Style, Preview, and Luxe; this week, Rogue magazine is featuring her shoes on their cover as worn by cover girl, Denise Laurel.  That is quite a leap for a business that's less than a year old.

And yet, according to the charmingly driven former law student cum entrepreneur whose joie de vivre seems to mirror her bold and sassy shoe styles, Virtual Mae is just a small business, even a temporary one.  She is still torn between staying on and going back to law school to fulfill her father's wishes. 

"That's my dad's frustrations because all of us were either into business or in the entertainment industry.  He wanted someone to follow in his footsteps and that's what's bugging my conscience. I still might just do it but not right now since my hands are full," says this young woman for whom being idle is a big no-no.

In one of those sweet ironies of life, her father became indirectly responsible for her foray into this business and away from law school.  Upon seeing another girl wearing the same style of shoes at his wake, she swore she was going to create her own shoe business, and so Virtual Mae was born.
Updated classic pumps
Always a risk-taker-a trait she says she got from her mom who is also her inspiration-Mae had previously dabbled in selling clothes, setting up branches here in BF, first in the One-Stop building then moving on to the ruins, while branching out as well to the University Mall and the FBR Arcade to reach her target market.

She left her burgeoning business career for law school while staying ever the entrepreneur by doing events management on the side.  After her father died, she decided to go back to entrepreneurship, her first passion, being a Business Management graduate after all. 

Starting again from scratch, Mae went the rounds of manufacturers here and abroad and got exclusive Philippine contracts from her foreign contacts.  Then she set up her enterprise in Multiply and in her words, "for some reason it just grew."

Grew is putting it mildly.  More accurately, it seems to have exploded on the fashion scene and her exquisite footwear quickly turned into a must-have item on any self-respecting fashionista's list.

Mae turns the spotlight on her customers for this phenomenon.  "I have to give credit to my customers because it's just really by word of mouth. My best ad is free and that's word of mouth when they blog about it.  Some of them I met through my old business."

Companies would kill to have her word-of-mouth drawing power.  Friends talk about her shoes; customers blog about them; actresses parade in them; and all of them rave about their merits.

For one, they're comfy.  "They would take pictures of themselves wearing items they bought and say how comfortable they are.  They would wear it in the mall the whole day and not get any calluses," she smiles.

For another, she only puts out a limited number.  "To begin with, the reason I put up this business was that I know how it feels to go to an event and see somebody else wearing the same design so I try to limit it as much as possible--this is my selling point, this is what I tell my customers," she points out.

But her ever-growing list of clients need not worry because at any one time, she has 300 styles to choose from in her website.  They range from the ballet flats, to the classic pumps, to sandals, to Mary Janes, to boots of all lengths, all the way to the edgy, funky, and avant-garde styles.  She even has wedding shoes, which to date, are her most expensive shoes. 

Sometimes, Mae adds new styles every week--the sounds you hear are the screams of a thousand women squealing in anticipatory delight.  Her lack of formal training in design hasn't stopped her.  She collaborates with her team abroad in coming up with new designs based on popular styles or based on inspirations from well-known labels.

Another big draw is that you can order a customized pair of shoes, limited only by your budget, and to a certain extent, your imagination.  As far as style goes, anything goes; however, she stresses that she continuously does her research like checking out the runways abroad for inspiration so that she remains fashion-forward, trendy, and trend-setting.

She also adjusts to the needs of her clients, whether adding a couple more inches to a shoe height, changing colors, tweaking designs, or accommodating a payment adjustment request. 

She has adopted an order-lite system that's easy on her customers and on her one-woman business as well, making simplicity her rule, while remaining meticulous in her operations.  "I haven't had items returned," she proudly declares.  No small feat, that, given her international market.

She has had orders from the United States, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom, and one from Nigeria, too which, unfortunately had to be rejected because of an import ban in that country.  Cebu and Davao are also big markets for her bulk orders.

Some of her clients have asked Mae to include clothes again but she is non-committal for now.  "If you see the trend today, the focus is more on the shoes so sometimes you wear the shoes first and look for a dress that matches it, whereas before you look for a dress first then shoes after.  So it's the shoes now that dictates the entire look."

She adds, "Girls go gaga over shoes.  So what better ways to put up a business than something that women really want?"  Yes, you have to admit it, Imelda Marcos was far from being an anomaly; there's something of her in all women as far as being shoe-crazy is concerned.  And Mae has many stories to attest to this.

She tells of a client who called her up at 3 a.m. because she couldn't sleep, counting the hours till she could buy one more pair; and of a pregnant client who purchased her wedding shoes from Virtual Mae happily reasoning that "since I can't look sexy in my wedding dress, I might as well look sexy with my wedding shoes."  Mae says she can't forget stories like these.

Although her biggest market come from young women in their 20s and 30s, she is tickled pink recalling the success her shoes have been with older women.  "Of late, I've been getting customers who would tag along their mothers and their grandmothers." 

A case in point was a popular celebrity who did the next best thing after discovering her shoes.  "The following days, she brought her grandmother, her mother, her in-laws and even her daughter, who got to purchase a night bag.  The 6-year old goes, mom, I need this," she laughingly recalls, "So it's all generations of women."

Another came to her before she became a big star.  She could not afford to buy and just wanted to look around; Mae entertained her anyway.  The would-be celebrity endorser dragged her reluctant mom to her showroom and mom was converted.  She ended up purchasing more than her daughter.  Now a celebrity with several billboards to her name, the young celebrity visits her showroom with a big smile, ready to add to her collection of Virtual Mae shoes.

Having celebrity clients has given her business a big boost; they have not only become big buyers but have also become big resellers, sometimes even recruiting their moms to sell for them while they go about their show business.  Whether it be a  girl group ordering her shoes for their re-launching; or actresses wearing her shoes for their weddings; or celebrities going around with maletas of her shoes, these personalities have given her shoes a high profile in the social scene.

Wedding shoes
Will she put a shop someday?  Not yet, Mae says, because she is still testing the waters.  Another reason for her reluctance is her sad experience with pilferage in her clothing business.  And then there is law school.  "I'm checking if I can enroll in November.  I'll see; it depends.  I pray a lot.  I believe that whatever you want is still dependent upon what the Man upstairs has so willed for you," she muses.

For now, she is delighted with her shoe business.  She is even more satisfied that she has made people happy.  "It's nice to be a part of these people, witnessing them grow professionally and personally and being a part of their success.  That's the thing that makes my heart really happy." 

But women do not seek her out only in good times.   "Women come here and they're like, my boyfriend and I just broke up so I need new shoes.  There would be girls coming in here with their new boyfriends--hey I just got a new boyfriend and he's really gorgeous so I need new shoes.  Whatever the story may be, whether it's a sad story or not, women just really need shoes."

Mae certainly knows whereof she speaks.  Indeed, shoes really are a girl's best friend.

Virtual Mae