As ballet pump brand French Sole turns 25, its founder talks about its anniversary plans and a young designer she’s found close to home.
You’re said to be responsible for turning the ballet flat into a fashion classic - what gave you the idea?
I’ve worn ballet shoes from my teenage years, when they could only be bought from ballet suppliers. So, 25 years ago, I started selling them for charity. I’d buy ballet shoes from cancelled orders or end-of-line stock from suppliers in France and do charity fairs, partly just for something to do and mainly for myself - it was an excuse to have loads of pairs for me.
So it wasn’t initially a business idea?
No - it still isn’t really. It’s always been more like a hobby. I started doing mail order from my house and then, about 23 years ago, I opened a shop in Fulham. There was a queue around the block when we first opened. It all took off incredibly quickly as we had the market to ourselves for a good 10 years.
Now ballet pumps are everywhere - how does that feel?
Competition is a great thing; it inspires you to do more. The fact that ballet pumps are mass-market now makes mine look better, because they are the original and we only use the best Italian leather. Everything I do gets copied, but that’s the nature of the game.
It seems like you’ve saved a lot of women’s feet?
There still isn’t a week that goes by without people saying: “Thank God I’ve found you!”
Do you ever wear heels?
I very seldom wear heels. I’ve never understood it. I can see why for special occasions you would wear them, but why put yourself through hell, wreck your feet and look stupid.
Most women teetering in six-inch heels during the day look ridiculous.
A lot of your family work for the brand - that must make for some interesting meetings?
Yes, my husband does all of the finances, one son does our IT and another son runs [sister label] London Sole. I also have a nine-year-old granddaughter who thinks she runs the business.
She actually designed one of our most popular styles - the Valentine’s Heart shoe. She’s now demanding royalties! She’s quite savvy.
What has been your proudest career moment?
When Princess Diana bought 12 pairs - it was extraordinary. Kate and Pippa Middleton are some of my best customers too.
Where did the name come from?
It was a result of my first collection made in France and my husband’s favourite fish. There was a time I was thinking about ‘soul’ instead - but it was a spur of the moment thing.
Do you have a particular affinity with France?
No, although my mother’s family originate from French descendants. I love all things French and I adore French fashion - our first factory was also in France and we still use it.
And are you a ballet fan?
I was a ballet student aged four to 14 and it has been a lifelong passion.
Why didn’t you continue?
I went to boarding school and would have had to take special classes, so I just drifted away from it.
If you could design a pair of shoes and money was no object, what would you use?
It would be my favourite style, Constant, made in dove grey alligator skin with an 18-carat gold buckle set with black and chocolate diamonds.
This year is French Sole’s 25th anniversary - how are you celebrating?
We are launching an anniversary collection of shoes featuring our signature French poodles.
Can you tell us about the new store you opened in Leeds last month?
The Victoria Quarter in Leeds is a beautiful Victorian luxury shopping arcade and we felt it was a perfect fit - the surrounding stores all complement ours and target a similar customer base. I wanted to wait for a corner shop to become available, as I love corner locations.
Is there a reason for launching sister label London Sole in the US and not French Sole?
We had a trademark issue over there with a business that had a similar name. And the year we were opening in the US , France had just said it wouldn’t join the war in Iraq - so it seemed the right time for a name change, plus we needed to differentiate the line.
How is it different?
It’s aimed at a younger shopper and was created especially for the US market. There are lots of sandals and lower cuts. We launched it in the UK last year and it’s been hugely successful.
And you also have other lines too?
We have a few including a wedding label called Confetti, which is mainly bespoke, and in 2013 we moved the whole group under the label Starsoles International, which sounds a bit rude if you say it quickly.