An interview with shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood

The shoe designer talks about his bold, skyscraper heels

Rob Greig

London-based Nicholas Kirkwood, 32, opened his first shop in Mayfair last May and his second in New York two months ago. For London Fashion Week, the designer known for his bold, skyscraper heels is creating shoes for Peter Pilotto, Erdem and his former boss Philip Treacy. He launches his first men’s shoes in January next year.

You started your career with milliner Philip Treacy. How did that come about?

‘I’d been doing my foundation course at Saint Martins and I met Philip Treacy on holiday. When we got back, I started work experience there and ended up staying for five years. Women would come in and they would bring the dress, the shoes, the bag. At that time there were really amazing things going on with ready-to-wear with Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, but in footwear, everyone was knocking off Manolo Blahnik. There were a lot of pointy kitten heel mules, but back then people didn’t seem to be pushing the boat out as they were in womenswear or hats. I went to Cordwainers [the shoemaking college], did the course and decided that’s what I wanted to do.’

What was the single most important lesson you learned from Philip Treacy?

‘Don’t be mediocre. If you are going to do something, do it with conviction. Don’t water down your ideas just to please the masses. In some ways it’s better to have a passionate following from a few.’

You were lodging with the late fashion stylist Isabella Blow when you started out. Did she instill that in you?

‘She had so much enthusiasm for newness. She was definitely very encouraging. She was always in Philip’s shop, we knew each other very well. She really wanted to see people do well, sometimes very selflessly. She would offer help and not need anything in return. It’s a shame. I only made her one pair of shoes –she passed away quite soon after I started out.’

What is your opinion of Londoners’ footwear?

‘Sometimes during the day, I think that people could make more effort. It’s not as manicured as New York where you’ve got to have the perfect hair and perfect new shoes. London tends to be more casual.’

How do you feel about the ‘greige’ court shoe trend?

‘I feel that it’s a very easy option. It’s fine to have it – I make them too. I just try not to focus the collection on them; we don’t tend to sell that many of that type of shoe. I think it’s just as easy to wear a shoe in a nice colour. There are things women can wear other than the ballet pump – a type of slipper, or a little Oxford brogue, or flat-but-pointy shoe which is very easy to wear but has the fashion element.’

Since opening your shop, what have you learned about your customers?

‘In general, people come in to buy something a bit more exotic but quite often they might also buy a pump for a more run-around day shoe – hopefully not in beige. We are doing a mid-heel and there’s a slight move towards easier-to-wear shoes.’

Have you ever tried to walk in a heel?

‘I did once. It was very difficult. But then somebody told me how to walk in them – to imagine you aretip-toeing – and suddenly it became a lot easier. Some women are so used to wearing heels that their calves have shrunk a little bit.’

How does London aid or obstruct you?

‘London’s a great breeding ground for creativity in a raw kind of way. You can have an idea and just do it, and the next day, without having to work out all the business stuff first. In London the ideas come first. People coming out of college want to go into the industry because they want to design. For the time being, I’m going to stay here.’

Who would you like to wear your shoes?

‘I’d quite like Cate Blanchet. I think she’s got a real presence; a very interesting look. Tilda Swinton wore my shoes to Cannes and she’s great – she has a really strong sense of identity.’

Is there anyone who wears your shoes who you wish wouldn’t wear your shoes?

‘Argh, yes! Celebrities on the cover of glossy celeb magazines, usually something to do with “The X Factor”. I hate it when I see someone like that wearing them. But I’m just being snobby.’

Any tips for aspiring shoe designers?

‘Learn your craft as much as possible. I’m still learning, the 60-something men in my factory are still learning. You never fully master it. The most important thing is: go and work for somebody first.’