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Ursula Mascaró

Although architecture almost lured her away from the Menorcan family business set up by her grandfather who made ballet pumps, it seems shoes are in the footwear designer’s blood

Being an aspiring architect from an island just off the coast of Spain is apparently very good training for a footwear designer; just ask Manolo Blahnik, or indeed Ursula Mascaró. Mascaró is the third generation of the Menorcan footwear dynasty to take over the helm of the Jaime Mascaró business - which was started 91 years ago by her grandfather, who made ballet shoes for local dancers - but it was no foregone conclusion that she would.

She studied architecture aged 18 and looked set to follow a completely different career path. It was only while working in the family’s footwear factory during the summer holidays that the seemingly inevitable happened; she was bitten by the bug. “I worked in the factory because I had to earn money,” she explains.

“And I would say to my father [Jaime Mascaró, who then headed the business], ‘I’d like a shoe with a buckle like this or a heel like this’ and he would say ‘you do it’. That’s how it started, it was not something premeditated.”

Her architecture training did not go to waste, however. Not only is her attention to detail, structure and stability evident in her shoes, but she designs the interior of the Jaime Mascaró stores, such as the latest on London’s South Molton Street where the Drapers interview takes place.

“I chose all the colours and carpets and I designed the shelves, so I didn’t waste my time,” she laughs, perched on a padded seat and gesturing to the pink and black, slightly boudoir surroundings.

The store is something of a dream come true for Mascaró, who has always harboured a desire to have a presence on what is dubbed London’s ‘shoe street’. Close neighbours include Kurt Geiger, Pied à Terre, Bertie, Nine West and Dune. Mascaró and her husband David Hill, who is a director of the business, had to wait a couple of years for a suitable site to become available on the street.

Before expanding into retail, the business started in the UK as wholesale 11 years ago. It now runs to about 100 accounts in the UK and Republic of Ireland, including Ruby Tuesday in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey; Wild Swans in Islington, north London; Kings of Kilkenny in Limerick in Ireland; and Panache in Cookham, Berkshire, and Marlow in Buckinghamshire.

Jaime Mascaró opened its first London store under the Pretty Ballerinas fascia - the ballet pump-inspired brand it owns - around the corner from South Molton Street on Brook Street in 2007. This was quickly followed by Pretty Ballerinas stores in London in The Royal Exchange in the City and Pont Street, Belgravia. The first Jaime Mascaró store opened on Marylebone High Street in 2007 and South Molton Street came a year later.

Pretty Ballerinas is headed by Hill, a former footwear industry journalist whom Mascaró “met on a bus” on the way to Milan leather trade show Linea Pelle 11 years ago. “David is the brains and I am the hands,” is how she explains their relationship for this part of the business. “For Pretty he directs what he needs and I design it, but in Jaime Mascaró, it’s me who’s the boss.”

Hill is unperturbed by the close proximity of the Pretty Ballerinas store and says the two shops don’t cannibalise each other, as South Molton Street picks up shoppers cutting through from Oxford Street to Bond Street, while the Brook Street store attracts the Mayfair set and, importantly, the high-spending clientele from Claridge’s hotel situated opposite.

“People buy very large quantities of shoes,” Hill says of Brook Street. “They buy every colour or three pairs of the same shoe to send to their different houses. Lots of famous people stay [at Claridge’s] and we’re the first store they see when they step outside. For them, £100 on a pair of shoes is nothing.”

Mascaró’s own Ursula Mascaró range was born 11 years ago because she wanted to create something more directional without detracting from the Jaime Mascaró mainline. “It’s one business but people like the two brands,” she explains. “Ursula is more funky and Jaime is more contemporary, modern classic.” Ursula Mascaró’s handwriting came into its own on the recent Celebration Collection, a range of glitter- and sequin-festooned heels and platforms, produced to celebrate the brand’s 90th birthday in 2008.

All three lines - the two Mascaró brands and Pretty Ballerinas - are made in the same factory in Menorca, which produces approximately 500,000 pairs of shoes a year.

Retail prices for all three ranges vary from about £89 up to £300 for boots. Mascaró, however, is quick to point out that all the value is in the shoe. Since the business is vertically integrated, sells direct and does not spend on advertising - though it does invest in PR - the price of the shoe can be calculated on what it costs to make alone. “The price is in here,” she says, tapping the sole of a boot. “One boot is £300, but all the value is in the boot, there’s no agent in between. The £300 is based on the leather, materials and lining.”

Jaime Mascaró is one of a wave of Spanish footwear brands, including Chie Mihara, Pedro Garcia, Maloles and Pura Lopez, to have claimed the middle market between mass-produced high street and designer footwear.

What Jaime Mascaró can do, that other mass-market brands may not be able to, is insist on certain quality measures (such as calfskin linings to ensure the feet don’t sweat) and innovate with new manufacturing techniques. The latest development is a spongy sole called Flexi-Wedge.

The idea was based on the growing use of footcare company Scholl’s Party Feet gel pads, which can be stuck to the sole of high heels for added comfort under the ball of the foot. Jaime Mascaró technicians incorporated the gel in the sole of the shoes instead. “When you make the shoe, you only make room for the foot and not room for the foot and the Party Feet. It’s good when you have thin feet and want to fill the shoe, but otherwise it will be too tight,” explains Mascaró.

It is a simple but ingenious idea and leaves the wearer with the impression they are walking on air. But in typical Jaime Mascaró style, it didn’t occur to the brand to market it. “We were at a Milan shoe fair and one buyer said, ‘it’s very bendy this shoe,’ and one of the technical guys said, ‘oh yes, we’ve done this thing’, but nobody thought to mention it.

I said, ‘let’s give it a name, let’s explain it,’ and they were like, ‘oh no, that would be showing off,’” laughs Hill, who got his own way and the Flexi-Wedge brand to go with it.

The business has 46 stores globally, most in its native Spain, and talks are in progress over tie-ups in Asia. There are no immediate plans to open any more in the UK. “For the moment we have to resist,” says Mascaró, referring to the global economy. “At the moment, thinking about opening something is scary.”

But just as Mascaró’s father changed her mind about becoming a footwear designer, so Hill may well change her mind about stores. He says: “There’s no point being too pessimistic. If we find the perfect store, then we’ll open it.” And if Mascaró can’t find it, she could always design it herself.

CV

  • 2008 Opens second Jaime Mascaró store on London’s South Molton Street
  • 2007 Opens first of three Pretty Ballerinas stores in London and first Jaime Mascaró store in Marylebone, London
  • 1992 Launches her own Ursula Mascaró range
  • 1989 Starts work at the Mascaró business

Q&A

Who is your fashion mentor?
I love Vivienne Westwood because she is crazy and sexy. I also really like Azzedine Alaia. He’s very exclusive but his clothes work with you and are very simple and tasteful. He does a few pairs of shoes a season, which I also like.

With some [fashion designers who make shoes] you think ‘what have they done?’ but his are very tasteful.

What has been your proudest achievement?
The Celebration Collection [for Mascaró’s 90th birthday]. The shoes are fun, with glitter and sequins, but they’re elegant and you don’t look like a clown walking down the street. Elegance doesn’t have to be ‘look at me everybody’.

What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
Our moccasins have sold very well over a long period of time and then it would be our loafers, but in the UK it would be the ballerinas.

How do you set about designing a shoe?
The main thing is the last; that’s the foundation. I buy all the leathers in Italy and I wear all the shoes. For me that’s really important; I’ve got three kids and I’m running around all day.

Which is your favourite retailer?
In London, Selfridges and Browns are very nice, and I also like to go shopping in Notting Hill. I really like All Saints, it’s a bit like the Mascaró of clothes - it has good designs, it uses good quality fabrics and it’s a good price.

What would be your dream job outside of fashion?
I would love to be an international architect. I also still very much like doing art. My sister is an artist and it’s great because when you’re an artist nobody depends on you and you’re free, and that’s a beautiful feeling. We have 200 people in the Mascaró factory and I feel very responsible for them.

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