Hubert Burda Media

Touch Wood

As the reigning king of statement shoes, NICHOLAS KIRKWOOD tells Firdaos Pidau why he finds “cutesy-ness” annoying and why chasing after the impossible keeps him creatively alive

Touch Wood

What was your earliest memory of shoes?
It was probably my mum's Ferragamos. I remember that little buckle with the bow and she used to wear those religiously. That was my first consciousness about shoes.
What exactly got you into shoe design?
I used to work for Philip Treacy (the milliner) for five years and that was really my first introduction to accessories. I spent my time there working in the shop and I see these ladies bringing in their shoes, clothes and everything. That was when I started falling in love with shoes. Isabella Blow would walk in everyday with her Manolo Blahniks and I was fascinated by them.
During that period, you lived with her. How big an influence was she to you?
She really supported the idea of me going into footwear and she was such an advocate for The New and The Next. When I was working with Philip, we would talk about me not knowing what to do and when I settled on shoes as the route that I sort of wanted to take, she'd ask me: “How's it coming along?” She was actually the one who introduced me to Manolo Blahnik when I was still a student. It's a bit of a shame that she's not around now as I'm sure she would be supporting me more.
What have you learnt from Philip Treacy that can be applied to shoe design, or design in general?
He was such a precisionist, so I think it's his attention to detail and really his pursuit for perfection. As a creative, you're creating a product and you're always trying to chase the impossible, and that's what keeps you alive and going forward.
Who is the Kirkwood Woman?
She is a woman who appreciates a certain modernity and knows the trends but not necessarily follow them to a tee. She's more likely to be creating her own look.
You were famously quoted in the UK Telegraph that you only own three pairs of shoes. Has that changed with the advent of your menswear collection?
(Laughs) No, now I have more! They haven't arrived yet, but when they do, I'll probably have about 23 pairs suddenly.
What is your design process like?
It's a process — it's not like I wake up one morning and suddenly say, oh that's a shoe, let's design it. It's very rarely like that. It always starts with a big stack of papers and a cup of tea, and it's really just a lot of doodling and Googling. Then I may suddenly start to see a lot of shapes and see them evolve. Then I'll start to get obsessed with something, such as a certain architect, which then leads me to start researching on the history and seeing all his different works and…it's a very organic process.
You've mentioned before that you won't do “in-between” shoes and absolutely no kitten heels. Yet we're seeing low-heeled shoes this season.
When I first started, I think it was more like the name or the idea of a kitten-heel that kind of annoyed me. It was the cutesy-ness of it — the fact that it was called a “kitten”. I've always hated that and I thought there was a certain hardness that was missing. Even though in my very first collection, it was very hard and sculptural in a way. But I did have a height that was like a kitten-heel height, but the heel wasn't like this little one. It was very sculptured, almost in an Anish Kapoor way. And I think there are elements from that very first collection that you can still see in my work today. It's an evolving process and some of the core DNA definitely remains.
What design ethos do you live by?
In general, I try to keep to these minimalist, sculptural shapes. I also mix different materials together (lace or rich, classic materials), but they balance out to still achieve a clean silhouette.
It is not easy to come up with something instantly recognisable. What was the inspiration behind your trademark trapezoidal platform? Were you planning for it to be iconic?
Not really. That was actually a take on my very first platform, which I did back in 2007-2008, which was the first sort of backwards platform. I like there to be a certain movement within the product even when it's standing still, an almost aerodynamic feel to it. And I think that to me, I like the idea of it coming off of a march — that was the idea behind the platform in the first place.
Are there any shoes that you would never design?
Probably lots. I never want to say never because I've said never before and I ended up doing it. But I probably won't be doing ballerinas anytime soon, like your classic ballerina shoe. I'm trying to develop something else now that is almost like a replacement to it, which has all the benefits but doesn't look like one.
So you're not entirely fond of softness?
No, I am fond of softness. I think it's just the combination of the roundness, softness and complete lack of shape that I'm not fond of. But I think there's a way to do it, not to say I'll never do it.
Like right now, you are doing in-between heels.
Yeah, but I'll probably never make Crocs — that one I can say “Never!” (laughs)
You seem to enjoy collaborating with many designers, having done so with many brands.
It allows me to be able to sometimes do things I wouldn't normally do in my own collection.
Just like the platform sandals you made for Meadham Kirchhoff — that's quite a departure from your usual aesthetic.
Exactly. It's really fun to make something that's completely out there, because a shoe like that would never be in my own collection. I would never do fluffy things with embroidery and in those kinds of proportions. But at the same time, in a creative way, it's a great “release”. It kind of allows me to do stuff outside my own box.
Are there any designers you would love to collaborate with?
Probably more menswear collaborations, particular someone who is new. It's a new category for me, so I think next season, that is something I would try to do more of.
What is one misconception that you'd like to clear as a shoe designer?
I'm not a foot fetishist! I get asked that a lot.
What other surprising things do people not know about you?
If I am really concentrating, I can do the Rubik's cube. On a good day, I can do it in five minutes, but on a bad day, I can't do it at all.
If you were a shoe, what would you be?
A pair of Converse All Stars.
Really?!
Just because it's easy-going — you can put it on in any situation and it works.
Nicholas Kirkwood designs are available at On Pedder, 6 Scotts Road, Scotts Square, Tel: 6636 3060