A new breed of female shoe designers is emerging in London to challenge established names such as Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin.
Featuring heavily on the catwalk at London Fashion Week was the footwear of Charlotte Dellal, the half-Brazilian, half-English designer behind the label Charlotte Olympia (prices from £485). Her designs are characterised by towering heels, bold colours and vivid animal prints. Dellal, who is inspired by the glamour of the 1940s and 1950s, says: “Only a woman knows what it feels like to put on and wear a pair of high heels, and every style is tried and tested by me.” She opened her first store in London’s Mayfair in July after building up a strong list of international stockists, including Net-a-Porter.com, Joyce in Hong Kong, Podium in Moscow, and Browns, Harvey Nichols and Dover Street Market in the UK.
One of the more established London-based designers is Beatrix Ong, who in 2002 launched her eponymous business, featuring classic and feminine styles (prices from £200). In 2008, her company received a significant lift when Harold Tillman, British Fashion Council chairman and owner of Jaeger and Aquascutum, invested in Ong’s label.
Belinda Earl, Jaeger chief executive and a director of Beatrix Ong, says: “As the trend for women investing in luxury accessories continues to grow, so does the numbers of females embarking on careers as footwear designers. Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin seem to get the bulk of the attention but they have been in the business considerably longer than women like Beatrix.”
For years, male designers have been producing creations for women but now sisters are doing it for themselves. Natalia Barbieri, who set up London-based brand Bionda Castana with Jennifer Portman in 2007, says: “We are women designing for women.” Barbieri describes her shoes, many of which rise above the ankle (they’re called “shooties” in the US), as “edgy, without being tacky”. Her shoes sell for upwards of £400 in Browns, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, as well as on a new UK website, Youngbritishdesigners.com. In an attempt to boost overseas sales, Bionda Castana is taking its shoes to Paris and will feature at specialist accessories show Premiere Classe for the first time next month. “All the top buyers from Europe, Russia, the far east and the US come here,” says Barbieri.
Georgina Goodman, who has been described by Blahnik as the “future of footwear”, is known for her trademark platform soles and for placing the words “Made in Love” on every pair she makes. She has a flagship store on Bond Street in London, where her shoes cost from £300.
As an example of the strides women have made in this field, in June, Goodman was admitted as a freeman into the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, one of the oldest livery companies in the City of London. Women have only been admitted into this company in a senior capacity since 2002, according to John Miller, its chief executive or “clerk”. Miller says another well-known shoe designer Linda Bennett, founder of LK Bennett, is also an honorary liveryman. The livery company plays a philanthropic role, helping with shoe and bag design scholarships at specialist shoemaking colleges. Miller says: “These days the students winning footwear scholarships are predominantly women.”
Indeed, many women graduates of such colleges have gone on to launch collections of their own and then to open London stores. Cleo Barbour, for example, graduated from Cordwainers College (now part of the London College of Fashion) in 2008, and at the age of 25, opened her Cleo B store on Ebury Street, London, in March. Wedges make up a large part of her art deco-inspired designs, which sell at from £210.
One advantage that women shoe designers have over men is that they know what it’s like to walk in high heels. UK-born designer Chrissie Morris says the challenge for her is to design a beautiful shoe that is functional too. Her shoes, which again have an almost art deco feel, sell for more than £1,000 in stores such as Dover Street Market in London, Kirna Zabête in New York and Boutique 1 in Dubai. Her distinctive and intricate work features a mix of colours and luxury materials such as stingray, an exotic leather. “On some level, women design for themselves. At least I do.”