The rock ‘n’ roll cobbler, a legend in the world of designer footwear, was this week honoured
with the Drapers Footwear Lifetime Achievement Award to mark half a century in the industry
He’s Jimmy Choo’s hero, he makes Kate Moss’s shoes, he trained Joseph Azagury, and defined an era in the 1970s with his acid-trippy wedges and platforms.
Terry de Havilland, now aged 72, has some serious shoe-making achievements under his belt, and was this week honoured with the Drapers Footwear Lifetime Achievement Award 2010, to mark his having worked in the industry for half a century this year.
De Havilland is rather overwhelmed by it all, which when you consider he spent the 1960s and 1970s hanging out with the cool set, drinking and taking all manner of drugs with the likes of Led Zeppelin, is something of a surprise. He openly admits that while he has vivid memories of his heyday he can’t remember the sequence of events in his career. “Talk to Liz [his wife]. She knows when things happened,” he says.
A ‘crazy’ life
Liz, who he married in the mid-2000s, is clearly as much of a driving force behind the current Terry de Havilland operation as the man himself. While she is a creative, working painstakingly on prints and embellishments on De Havilland’s designs, she also mans the laptop and the phones and in her spare time is working on a couple of books about the couple’s “crazy” life. She punctuates the interview by reminding her husband of some of his biggest achievements.
“I got into the footwear business almost by accident,” explains De Havilland. Although his father and mother both worked as shoemakers - his father eventually opening his own factory in Hackney after being inspired by the Greek shoemakers then making handmade shoes on the streets of London - De Havilland never really had much interest as a young man in following in his parents’ footsteps.
However, in the 1960s he “did a bit of work” for his father and just by chance he found some five-tier wedges his father had been making in the 1940s in the attic. He decided to do a test run and recreate some of the designs with a more outlandish edge.
“I was taking a lot of acid at the time,” explains De Havilland. “I made a few pairs up and put them on the market. It totally exploded. We were selling them for five guineas.”
Tragically, shortly after the initial success of the wedges, his father was electrocuted in the factory and passed away. “There I was in a little shoe factory with no dad,” says De Havilland.
But with the responsibility of taking over the family footwear business came sex appeal. “It was quite appealing to be able to say I was a shoemaker,” he explains, referring to the access it gave him to women.
“I enjoyed making shoes for women,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I started to love it. It was an interesting thing to be a creative shoemaker and young and hot-blooded.”
Although his father was no longer around, De Havilland set about making more of his flashy metallic wedges, selling them in Sue Locke, a boutique on London’s King’s Road.
“I made Sue Locke a few shoes. Annie Traherne, the fashion editor of Queen magazine, came to the opening [of Sue Locke] and discovered me. That kicked off the whole thing,” he says.
In 1972, De Havilland opened his store Cobblers to the World, also on the King’s Road. “We made a TV advert standing outside the Opera House in Covent Garden. I don’t remember doing it but it was shown on ITV in the break of News at Ten.”
The ad helped the store take off and it became something of a celebrity hangout in the 1970s, attracting the likes of Bianca Jagger and Angie Bowie, and other famous names who came to get their shoes handmade by De Havilland in the basement.
The heady heights of the 1970s came crashing down in the following decade when Cobblers to the World went bust. The closure of Cobblers marked what was to become a rough period in terms of business for the talented footwear designer, whose styles simply went out of fashion.
De Havilland opened a firm called Kamikaze Shoes, which focused on the latest pointed punk styles, but this too folded in 1989. Ever the comeback king, he returned with a new firm called The Magic Shoe Company, which made alternative street styles and fetish gear.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that the De Havilland name re-emerged and recaptured the imagination of the consumer in a similar way to the 1970s. This was partly down to one of his 1970s metallic platform shoes having been interpreted by luxury house Miu Miu.
While the De Havillands couldn’t sue Miu Miu parent company Prada - “How could you sue a massive company like that?” asks Liz de Havilland - the BBC did decide to make a documentary about the designer and the alleged infringement, which brought him significant publicity.
“First of all I was furious, but then I started to think ‘what the fuck?’ Prada told us to think of it as a ‘homage’.
I thought, ‘don’t you pay homage’. I just wonder why they didn’t give me the gig to do the shoes. To be fair, I think Miuccia Prada probably thought I was dead, because Cher did when I met her in 1995.”
With the resulting publicity from the Prada/Miu Miu affair, De Havilland “got the gig” to design the footwear for the FrostFrench London Fashion Week catwalk show in 2003. “I brought the wedge back,” he says. “I hadn’t done it since the 1970s. I’d wanted to do it but I didn’t have the right vehicle.”
While De Havilland cites his catwalk comeback as one of the highlights of his career, just two years later he was at the mercy of a licensee having signed his name over with a five-year contract.
De Havilland was unhappy with his licensing partner almost from the off, claiming he instantly lost control of designs and was unable to manufacture the styles he felt were most commercial.
What followed was a period of little productivity for the designer as he focused solely on his couture designs and waited for the licence deal to come to an end, which it did at the end of 2009.
Liz de Havilland says: “What is so frustrating is that we were making all today’s trends like peep-toe boots years ago, and so we missed out on that.”
Now, though, he has a new licensing agreement with LXY, the firm behind Strutt Couture and Rio Ferdinand’s footwear brand, Five. Strutt also has a licensing deal with Zandra Rhodes. “This time it’s different. I control the design. I make a shoe and send it to them, then I see the samples and can check they have a good-fitting last and are comfortable. That’s so important,” says De Havilland.
Perhaps referring back to his boom and bust experiences through the 1980s and 1990s, De Havilland says: “I hate selling shoes and running a company and organising all of that. At the age of 72 I want to do the fun stuff. I don’t particularly want to do the marketing. Licensing gives me this ability.”
The Terry de Havilland brand is now backed by Simon Bentley, non-executive director at Sports Direct and former chief executive of Blacks Leisure, and Darren Spurling, who most recently ran the now defunct Sandcity surf division of Blacks Leisure and who coincidentally is a cousin of a long-lost son of De Havilland’s. There are connections like this all through De Havilland’s life.
So at the age of 72 and with so much turmoil in the latter part of his career, why hasn’t De Havilland retired? “There are so many things I want to do it’s ridiculous. I have an idea for graffiti shoes,” he enthuses, going off on a tangent.
“I quite miss the fact I should have been doing the D-Havz brand [De Havilland’s diffusion line, which launched in 2005] for a long time via the licensing too.”
“We [Liz and I] are talented people. We can always go on and make good shoes and that’s why we have survived and carried on.”
He is less optimistic for the next generation of footwear designers, though. “Students have so little hands-on experience of making shoes. They get taught to draw but eventually someone has to put a design into a last to make a pattern.”
He blames the demise of UK manufacturing for making it so difficult for the next generation. “It’s terribly depressing.
I would love to still have a shoe factory in the UK but there isn’t the infrastructure or the component makers here. The same thing is slowly happening in Spain and Italy. I wonder where it’ll all end up.”
His has been a colourful career and one which still has far to run. He is well loved by the UK footwear industry, which is willing him on to his next success. Fifty years in business and close encounters with characters as diverse as the Queen and the Pope (both decided at the last minute against having shoes made by De Havilland “probably because they Googled me”, he jokes) mean this shoemaker still has a final chapter to write.
“After all, life is stranger than fiction,” he says.
2010 Signs licensing deal with LXY
2003 Relaunches Terry de Havilland on the FrostFrench catwalk at LFW
1990s Focuses on street and fetish market with new firm The Magic Shoe Company
1989 Kamikaze Shoes folds
1980s Sets up Kamikaze Shoes
1979 Cobblers to the World closes
1972 Opens Cobblers to the World on London’s King’s Road
1962 Joins father’s shoe factory