By Claire Stern
Apr 03, 2014 @ 4:45 pm

While visiting her grandfather in Panajachel, Guatemala, three years ago, Francesca Kennedy was horrified to see that her beloved childhood lake, Atitlán—where she and her brother, John (above, left), swam for countless summers—was covered in toxic blue-green algae. What's worse, she noticed local children collecting the water, presumably to take home to drink. “You could literally see sewage floating on the water they were collecting,” Kennedy told “It was heartbreaking. I thought to myself, 'I really have to do something.'”

Kennedy, whose family is originally from Guatemala, already had fashion on the brain. During her lengthy eight-hour flight, she had finished reading Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, and was inspired by his one-for-one business model (every time you purchase a pair of TOMS, the company donates a pair to a child in need).

Feeling entrepreneurial, she visited the local market and bought a pair of huarache sandals, a flat-heeled leather sandal of Colombian origin with intricately woven leather strips (huarache translates to “braid” in Spanish). “I thought, 'If I really updated the quality and made it more contemporary, maybe I could do something similar to what Blake [Mycoskie] did with TOMS,'” she says. Mycoskie himself took a typical Argentinian shoe—the alpargata, made by artisans in Argentina—and brought them back to the U.S.

Leaving behind her job in private wealth, Kennedy and her brother, a schoolteacher who has previously taught English in Peru, focused their full attention on perfecting their shoe design. Ix Style (pronounced “eye ex"—the Mayan word for water) officially launched last April, and has already been picked up by Anthropologie, Shopbop, and Citizens of Humanity for the spring/summer season.

Like the original huarache sandals, Ix Style’s designs are beautifully handcrafted, and feature woven strips of leather in bright, poppy colors. Kennedy’s personal favorite is the multicolored sandal (pictured, above), made in a traditional Mayan color pattern. The shoes cost $89 per pair, and the company introduces new colors each year. This year, they're rolling out denim and neon huaraches, followed by a children’s line this spring and handbags in the fall.

Keeping Lake Atitlán in mind, Ix Style donates a portion of the proceeds from sales to two organizations that help provide clean drinking water to children in Guatemala. The first, Asociación Puente, helps install water filtration system in people’s homes, and the second, Charity Water, builds wells in impoverished villages, helping a different country each quarter (they’re currently stationed in Cambodia). “The greatest pleasure we have is turning on a faucet without thinking about how others around the world have to walk many miles a day to collect contaminated water," Kennedy says. "It's something we all take for granted."