Nicholas Kirkwood is on the path to shoe greatness, step by step
Nicholas Kirkwood is on his way to joining Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo in the pantheon of shoe gods.
At 33, the London-based designer has an identifiable architectural style (dynamic designs with triangle heels and boomerang-shaped straps), a bevy of famous fans, awards and an investment from international luxury goods powerhouse Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy.
“I’m more ambitious now than I’ve ever been,” he says over lunch at the Sunset Tower hotel recently, still nursing a hangover from his first “proper L.A. party” the night before, an introduction to the Hollywood swirl that drew Emma Roberts, Jake Shears, Rachel Zoe, China Chow and others.
“He is the talent that the footwear industry needs,” says Elizabeth Kanfer, senior fashion director of accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue, where the collection is sold. “He has artistic ability, but he’s able to take his vision and translate it into something that you can actually wear.”
“His designs are quite unique: they are very modern and glamorous but never obvious, often with a touch of humor and references to art, architecture or design,” says Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and chief executive of LVMH Fashion Group. With the group’s new investment in Kirkwood, Roussel sees “an ambitious vision of a premium luxury brand based on footwear and having the ability to expand in many directions.”
Kirkwood has momentum all right. In business nine years, he recently expanded into men’s shoes, opened his third boutique (this one in Las Vegas) and plans to go live with U.S. e-commerce later this month. Most shoes in his collection sell for $395 to $1,500, but some special pairs can run $2,995 or more.
Not bad for someone who didn’t get the shoe bug until he was 19.
A military brat, Kirkwood was born in Germany but spent most of his childhood in London. His mom wore classic Ferragamos (“the ones with the bows”), which seems appropriate because, if anyone, Kirkwood reminds me most of Salvatore Ferragamo (inventor of the cage and wedge heels) in that his shapes are like modern objets d’art.
Kirkwood appreciates the comparison. “He really changed the times,” he says of Ferragamo. “And his ideas still affect fashion now.”
After studying fine arts at London’s famed Central St. Martins school, Kirkwood was introduced to the world of accessories. He started working for Philip Treacy, the celebrated hat maker, whose whimsical designs have been worn on runways, by the British royal family and by the late fashion editor and muse Isabella “Izzie” Blow, from whom Kirkwood rented a room.
“How Philip looked at hats, the function and form of them, really inspired me,” Kirkwood says. “But I wasn’t going into hats, because I couldn’t compete with that. I also used to love Izzie’s Manolos she’d wear every day. Everyone was knocking off Manolo at the time in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I loved shoes and thought perhaps there was a different route. And being around Philip’s hats, which had a very sculptural, architectural feel about them, started me thinking about that.”
So he enrolled in a shoemaking course at a specialist college.
The first shoe he ever made was for a friend, an ex-ballerina with tiny size-4 feet.
“I handmade them myself, so it took forever,” he says. “They had squared angles on the sides and on top, distorted corset lacing on the sides and were purple patent leather with a clear section. I put wire inside the bow to make it stand up.”
Using a loan from the bank and from his mom, he produced his first collection and presented it in 2005 at a Paris trade show.
“I didn’t sell a single pair,” he says. “But I caught a bit of press. And I was able to use it to find a factory in Italy.” He also met his future business partner, Christopher Suarez. By the second season, they were selling to Harrods. And the media attention led to other kinds of lucrative opportunities, which helped them finance their line.
Kirkwood began designing shoes for designer runway shows, first in London, where he made shoes for Erdem and Peter Pilotto among others, and then beyond. His most famous collaboration may have been with L.A.-based Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s Rodarte, which lasted six years. For the Rodarte runway shows, he designed light-up-stilettos, shoes with heels that looked like Chinese wood carvings and melting candle wax.
“It was a good payoff,” he says. “And I didn’t want to do high-street collaborations,” referring to cheap-chic collaborations. In 2008, he was tapped to design Italian footwear collection Pollini, a post he still holds today.
From Day One, his approach to designing his own collection has been about strong, sculptural lines.
“You’re doodling away, sometimes on the back of a napkin, and you see a shape and get focused on that. Or sometimes it’s a fabrication or theme that dictates silhouettes,” he says of his technique.
He’s drawn inspiration from several artists, including British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (“that balance of soft, organic shapes combined with straight lines”), Jean Arp and Donald Judd.
“I didn’t think about how I would compete, I just thought about how I wanted to make shoes that were different and had an edge to them,” he says. “It’s what’s accepted by the public that makes something become a signature. That’s how you find your identity.”
Over the years, he did develop a number of recognizable signatures, including curved heels; pearl embellishments used in interesting ways (on the sole of a shoe, for example); and a notable disdain for the ubiquitous ballet flat.
“That would be like selling out,” he says. “Our version is a soft leather, pointed toe loafer that you can crush up and put in your bag. It’s more special.”
London has been a large part of his success.
“I don’t think if I’d started in Milan I would be where I am today. The beauty of London is that it’s open to innovation. There’s so much support for designers and designers supporting each other.”
Despite not having an office in L.A., he has gotten a lot of celebrity attention. His favorite moment was during the most recent Oscar season, when Cate Blanchett was photographed wearing the same pair of Kirkwoods two days in a row.
It’s no wonder LVMH came calling.
“It was at the time we were starting to speak to potential investors,” Kirkwood says of his meeting with Roussel and Delphine Arnault, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton and heir apparent to her father, LVMH boss Bernard Arnault. “We were hesitant because we didn’t know if what they were looking for was what we were looking for. But it was,” Kirkwood says. “They were looking for someone with a point of view who, with the right help, could be much bigger.”
An increase in funds is helping Kirkwood make more hires, fulfill demand for his product and think about new categories, such as handbags.
“It’s an incredibly invested market dominated by establishment houses,” he says of the bag business. “So it’s even more crucial you have a DNA that can translate across, so it’s not just making bags to make bags, but making bags that would be recognizable as you, and tied to the shoes. It’s been challenging for some other shoe designers, so if it’s not right, I’ve got to wait.”
Still, it’s starting to sink in that his dream of having a Manolo-sized brand may just come true.
“That’s what I always wanted,” he says. “I wasn’t driven by the size, but more about wanting to create.”