He’s the best of British shoemakers, obsessed with quality and womanly styles. So can his first standalone store in London propel him towards global designer status?
Halfway through the interview with Nicholas Kirkwood, we hear girlish squeals coming from members of his team in the studio. Confused and concerned, the talented footwear designer steps out of the meeting room to investigate. He returns, embarrassed and none the wiser. “Someone called Nicki Minaj was on the phone,” he says, unsure of who she is.
The fact that the hottest name in rap right now wants to wear Nicholas Kirkwood puts the brand into context: it’s super-cool, not to everyone’s taste and sits in a niche of its own. Equally, the fact Kirkwood is clueless to Minaj’s identity is significant: genuinely cool brands don’t seek celebrity approval; the celebrities come to them.
Not that the man behind four-inch python heels is an in-your-face extrovert. Kirkwood is initially shy and appears younger than his 30 years. When asked to name the most significant breakthrough moment in his career, he doesn’t say securing Harrods as a stockist or winning numerous awards. Instead, it was “finding the right factory”.
“Spring 08 was the first collection I produced after finding the right factory in Bologna. It’s not an easy thing to do as they don’t always want to take on new people. But this factory understood the way I wanted the shoes to look and I was reasonably happy with the collection - there were a couple of shoes that came out nice,” he says, with the glass-half-full attitude that is typical of a perfectionist.
Until then, Kirkwood had been making the shoes himself - by hand.
“I didn’t sell any and the buyers probably looked at the shoes and thought, ‘What the fuck?’,” he laughs, referring to the height of the heels, which at that point were even higher than they are now. “So I pulled it back a bit, but the DNA is still there and the uppers haven’t changed - it’s just the heels aren’t so high.”
Heel height will be important in Kirkwood’s autumn 11 collection too, as he attempts to build the brand to eventually reach the scale of a Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik. “We are venturing into the mid-height,” he says, with mock trepidation. “We need to build the collection, so it’s silly to have a shoe brand that only does really high heels. I want to get out of a little niche and be an accessories brand, with bags and sunglasses.”
He estimates it will take at least another five years to become an international accessories brand, but he is already making headway with the opening of his first standalone store on London’s Mount Street, which is due to open early next month. “From day one, I always wanted to open my own store,” he says. “For an accessories brand you can’t really do a [catwalk] show, so a shop allows you to present yourself in your own way. It’s also a good testing ground for product -you get direct responses from customers about problems and what they like.
“I’m not sure if [my] stockists are delighted [about the shop opening] but, in theory, it should make the brand bigger, which will help their sales. Every single [one of a retailer’s] top five
best-selling brands have stores within a mile of their stockists,” he says by way of justification. So confident is Kirkwood of the store’s potential that he plans to look for a second store in New York in the next six months, with a view to opening in a year’s time.
A fine art
But retail isn’t completely to his taste. When asked which footwear retailers he admires on the high street, Kirkwood starts to list the attributes of Salvatore Ferragamo, explaining it is one of the few brands still using traditional width measurements for its shoes. That’s not really ‘high street’ though, is it? says Drapers. “I’m trying to avoid your question,” he laughs. “I’m not a big fan of China-made products so I can’t really praise any [high street retailers].”
It’s an attitude that must have frustrated the four retailers that approached Kirkwood about collaborations - retailers he declines to name. “I’m trying to represent a craft, but it’s being cut away from me [by the high street],” he explains. “It’s way too early and could be detrimental to the brand. I would do that way down [the line] for one season, make loads of money and never do it again.”
It’s clear that craftsmanship is at the core of Kirkwood’s business, and he is concerned by the direction the footwear industry is heading. He believes Italy is the only country where quality shoes can be manufactured, but fears the standards are slipping there, too.
“The younger generation don’t want to learn the craft, so fewer people are being trained. [Shoes] will still be made in Italy, but by more and more foreigners [coming into the country],” he says. “It’s already affecting the quality. If you look at a vintage shoe from the 1950s and 1960s, and you look at the stitching and thread count, the needles are much thinner, so it looks perfect. Even machines can’t do that sort of stitching now. And people’s perception of quality is changing [because of this]. If a designer brand tells you this is a quality shoe, you believe it, but put it against a vintage shoe and you’ll see the difference.”
Balancing the costs
Kirkwood adds that manufacturing and raw material costs have been rising for the past five years - by as much as 40% in some cases. Although he won’t go into specifics, he says that, as a result, his wholesale prices have gone up too.
“My margins are lower than they should be but they’re getting better the more volume we do. You price yourself where you want to be [in the market] and work backwards. If I used a standard mark-up, I wouldn’t be in these stores,” he says, highlighting the precarious situation young designers can find themselves in and the power of the retailer. Kirkwood has some 80 stockists around the world, including Harrods, Browns, Dover Street Market and Selfridges in London.
His business became profitable 18 months after he set it up and has been growing at about 60% year on year. After initial bank loans, he now owns 90% of it.
And his advice to designers who want to follow in his footsteps? Kirkwood looks back to his early days, working
for milliner Philip Treacy. “If you’re going to say something, say it with conviction. So many things out there are created solely for a commercial purpose. You need to build a business, so youneed a balance, but think about how you can make a difference.”
2011 Opens first standalone store in London
2010 Wins British Fashion Award for Accessory Designer of the Year
2009 Opens concession at Dover Street Market, London
2008 Accessories designer at Italian brand Pollini; wins Emerging Talent for Accessories at British Fashion Awards
2007 Wins AltaRoma/Vogue Italia Award for Accessories Design
2005 Launches own brand
2002 Drops out of Cordwainers College, London
1999 Shop assistant, Philip Treacy, London
1998 Fine Art foundation course, Central Saint Martins College