The age-old question of what women want is one step closer to being answered, thanks to clever clogs cordwainer Nicholas Kirkwood. For the last 13 years, the German-born designer has been delighting shoe lovers with sculpturally arresting creations made to light up any outfit. His instantly recognisable heels might be a staple at fashion and film’s biggest events – screen siren Freida Pinto recently slipped on the shimmering silver Penelope sandals for the 32nd Film Independent Spirit Awards – but you’re as likely to see his inimitable pieces on the street as you are on the red carpet. The simple truth is, women are drawn to his innovative approach to shoe design.
Since launching in 2005, Kirkwood has brought brilliantly bold footwear into the spotlight, introducing distinct silhouettes and clever details that have inspired innumerable copycats. Who brought the cone heel to a pavement near you? Nicholas Kirkwood. Who inlaid pearls into the curved instep of high heels? Kirkwood again. Who sliced the classic mid-heel height to give pretty pumps a stronger, more contemporary appeal? You get the idea.
From the label’s inception, Kirkwood has had a circle of seriously fierce supporters backing his standout styles; think Daphne Guinness, Grace Jones and the late Isabella Blow. Within just a couple of seasons, the Kirkwood name had gained a cult following as the brand to know for full-throttle footwear made for women with a stylish point of view. It’s little wonder that his eponymous label eventually caught the eye of luxury behemoth LVMH Group, leading to a partnership announcement in the autumn of 2013, and prompting a rumbling of excitement about what this (no longer) little London brand might have in store.
We caught up with Kirkwood a few days after his autumn/winter 2017 presentation in Paris – where he debuted the brand’s first pure sneaker style – to get a glimpse into his world of luxury shoe-manship and discover how he brings his designs to life.
How did you start in the business, and did you ever see anything other than shoes in your future?
I started by doing a fine art foundation course at Central St Martins and then decided to sign up to Cordwainers [Technical College] to do a course on how to manufacture shoes. It was from there that I designed my first collection and made the shoes by hand on my parents’ kitchen table. I did also think about designing jewellery, something that I revisit as an idea quite often actually.
What did winning the Accessory Designer Award at the British Fashion Awards in 2010 (and again in 2012 and 2013) mean to you, on both a practical and personal level?
This kind of recognition really does fuel your ambition. I have always been driven but now I demand more of myself. I’m always looking to create the best quality and product that I can and to use innovation wherever possible.
Your shoes are often described as “architectural” and “sculptural”. Is this something you actively work on, or is it a more organic process?
I try to inject a strong sense of creativity into my work … it’s about playing with shapes and forms to create something new. I like to mix organic lines with very architectural shapes. I find that design becomes really interesting when two opposing aesthetics come together; it’s often from tensions that the best designs emerge.
What inspires you each season?
Inspiration can come from many different areas of life, from architecture and sculpture to a scribble that I found in a sketchbook from years ago. Sometimes a fabrication or even a specific heel shape will influence the silhouette of a shoe.
Talk us through your design process.
Designing a shoe is usually quite a natural progression. I tend to design the upper part of the shoes first, then decide which heel and platform structures they work best on. This also allows me to add in new heels and new constructions later on in the design process as I see the collection coming together. Then all of my shoes are produced in two artisanal factories in Italy.
As you say, your shoes are handmade in Italy. how did you go about selecting the factories that you would use?
Finding the right factory was one of the hardest things for me, and one of my biggest achievements. I went to a lot of different fairs in Italy and it was all about trial and error and finding the right factory that could work with me. I really wanted someone who would see innovation as exciting, and not too much of a challenge.
What do you think of how digital advancements are affecting fashion – from 3Dprinting and beyond?
I always try to push the boundaries and experiment with new techniques and technologies where possible. I’ve recently bought a 3D printer for the office, which I am loving. It’s great to see a prototype that I have just designed arrive on my desk two hours after creating it! I of course still sketch too, but always on my tablet. Beya Bespoke is also something we have just launched on our new website. It’s an innovative customisation project that I worked on with a London-based technology company – Platforme – that provides full 3D digital customisation, enabling customers to create their own bespoke shoes.
Do you spend any time on the shop floor, seeing what customers want and how they’re reacting to styles? Does this inform your designs?
It’s so important to know what my customers want and how they react to new styles; at the end of the day they really are the most important part of the brand. I try and meet customers and speak to the sales teams in every city I visit.
What shoe style have you designed that you’re most proud of?
I couldn’t possibly choose. It would be like asking someone who their favourite child is!
You’ve worked with several big names in fashion – Erdem, Roksanda, Fendi and more. What has been your most memorable catwalk collaboration?
That is a tough question, but I would probably say Rodarte. The things we did together were quite extraordinary. I have always loved doing collaborations, quite often it allows me to design outside of my own box.
LVMH came on board with the brand in 2013. How much has changed in terms of your day-to-day activity since then?
Partnering up with LVMH has been transformative. They are a brilliant support network and it has opened up opportunities on a global scale. You get to learn the best practices from other brands and I have been lucky enough to work with the most creative and innovative people.
What’s next for Nicholas Kirkwood?
I have a lot of exciting things coming up, but at the moment I am currently working on a really exciting collaboration with an Italian accessories brand (that isn’t shoes!) for September this year … so watch this space!