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Grounded fashion

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 5, 2013

His elaborate red carpet-ready shoes have adorned the feet of celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman and Beyonce. But not all stars are equal in the eyes of Nicholas Kirkwood.

If you are "having a child with a certain rapper called Kanye West", for instance, the British shoe designer does not want you wearing his shoes.

Kirkwood, 33, was referring, of course, to reality TV star Kim Kardashian during his interview with Urban last month. He was in town for the launch of his fall/winter 2013 shoe collection at On Pedder at Scotts Square.

Known more for her ample bosom and curvy bottom than her acting chops, Kardashian's skin-tight outfits, even during her pregnancy, have been derided by critics. She has also landed on many worst-dressed lists.

Kirkwood says: "Generally, I'm happy with the people who wear my shoes. People like Tilda Swinton and Julianne Moore, for example, are cool and fashion-forward. But I can't help who gets photographed wearing my designs."

One celebrity whose style he does admire is Marion Cotillard.

The French actress, who is an ambassador for Dior, is often on international best-dressed lists.

He says: "Sadly, she has yet to wear any of my shoes. I really love her classic French look and she is such an icon."

While he is grateful that his creations are favourites with celebrities, the chubby-cheeked designer also wants to appeal to "real'' women.

So, alongside his show-stopping vertiginous designs are lower-heeled shoes, including flats.

The move to include sensible shoes in his repertoire, he adds, is a conscious effort to expand his client base. But sensible does not mean boring or old-fashioned.

Instead of chunky square heels, for example, Kirkwood's shoes feature triangular mirrored heels to balance the classic silhouette.

"I just thought they looked cool and modern," he says of his graphic and architectural lower-heeled shoes. "I also did not want them to be scaled-down versions of my high heels. So, the technique used in producing them is quite different as well.

"The new heel height, coupled with my signature design aesthetic, is quite approachable to most women."

This strain of practicality is evident even in his most fantastical shoe designs. It is also what sets Kirkwood - the only son of a retired British soldier and a homemaker mum - apart from his peers who tend to prioritise form over function.

While he says his super-high heels are necessary to show his point of view and aesthetic, he tries to make them more comfortable by adding softer pads and expanding the shoe width.

Shoes can be sensible, Kirkwood says, but they also have to make one feel special.

"You can't just buy shoes solely for comfort or practicality. If that's what you want, then just wear gym shoes.''

And, even though he has created many interesting styles, he refuses to make sneakers with heels. To him, there must be a certain intellectualism to every design.

"I think adding heels to a pair of sneakers is just unnecessary accessorising. It's too whimsical and there's no design element to it."

His love for statement-making designs started when he was a teenager.

A fine arts graduate from the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Kirkwood cut his teeth in the industry by interning for famed British milliner Philip Treacy. He met the 45-year-old hatmaker during a ski holiday in Klosters, Switzerland, in 1999.

Two years into the internship, Kirkwood decided to become a shoe designer.

He recalls: “I watched Philip work on his statement hats and I realised that there wasn’t anything like that in the shoe industry.”

In 2001, he enrolled at the London College of Fashion’s prestigious Cordwainers College to learn shoe-making but left one year into the programme to work full-time with Treacy, designing shoes to accompany Treacy’s hats during London Fashion Week.

In 2005, he launched his eponymous line of shoes in New York during New York Fashion Week.

Recognition of his talent was swift.

The following year, he won the Vivian Infantino award for emerging talents at the Annual Footwear News Achievement Awards in New York, which recognises the best in the footwear industry.

In 2008, Kirkwood won the Footwear Designer of the Year award at the same event. Last year, he picked up the Accessories Designer Of The Year at the British Fashion Awards, beating out jewellery designer Katie Hillier, as well as his mentor, Treacy.

Today, his label is stocked at some of the biggest multi-label luxury department stores worldwide, including London’s Harrods, New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue and Joyce in Hong Kong.

Kirkwood has also collaborated with up-and-coming designer labels Rodarte, Peter Pilotto and Erdem by creating shoes to go with their ready-to-wear looks. And in 2011, as a mark of his arrival, he opened his first stand-alone store in London’s Mount Street in Mayfair, putting him alongside top names such as Christian Louboutin and Marc Jacobs, who also have stores there.

He attributes his current success to the invaluable lessons he learnt while working for Treacy. Among them were a commitment to originality and a hatred for mediocrity.Kirkwood says: “Being in his studio was my first exposure to the world of designing. There were never pictures of other people’s hats or looks that he wanted to emulate.“Everything came straight out of his head and onto the sketch pad. That’s also how I work as a designer. ”

The only time Kirkwood put up reference pictures was when he was designing his debut men’s shoe line last year.

He notes: “Men are more about subtle differences, so I’m not trying too much to re-invent the wheel like I do with women’s shoes.”

The six-piece men’s range, which was shown in January (2013)in New York, features classic styles, including brogues and Oxfords.

“I can create new shapes and silhouettes but, to be honest, I don’t think that will work for men. I don’t think I’d even wear those kinds of designs myself,” he says, breaking into a laugh.

“I think I’m designing for the men of the women who wear my shoes. So, it’s less about the exquisite designs and more about making something classic appear cooler.”

His proudest moment to date, he reveals, is winning the British Fashion Council/British Vogue Designer Fashion Fund award earlier this year.

“I’m incredibly honoured that I’m the first accessory designer to win this award. Previously, it had been given to ready-to-wear designers. I think it’s a big pat on the back for my work.”

As part of the win, Mr Kirkwood received £200,000 (S$391,200), as well as a mentorship programme under some of Britain’s leading industry insiders.

Indeed, Kirkwood is fast becoming a household name. Many say he could be the next Manolo Blahnik or Louboutin.

But the man remains grounded.

“I’d like to think I’m at their level but I think there’s still more to be done. I just have to keep working at it.”

rohai@sph.com.sg


5 STAND-OUT DESIGNS BY NICHOLAS KIRKWOOD

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The suede frill pump

First created for his fall/winter 2012 collection, this style features the signature Kirkwood “motion platform’’ which he says makes shoes more comfortable to walk in. Celebrities spotted wearing this style include American actress Sarah Jessica Parker, American singer Britney Spears and British actress Naomie Harris. It costs $1,650 from On Pedder.


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The neon graffiti pump

This pair of silk-satin pumps is one of the more whimsical designs from Kirkwood’s spring/summer 2013 collection. It features a hidden platform and a graffiti-inspired motif and has been worn by American actress Jada Pinkett-Smith and American singer Solange Knowles. You can get it for US$650 (S$826) at www.net-a-porter.com.


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Graphic print sandal

Shown on Peter Pilotto’s spring/summer 2013 runway last September during London Fashion Week, these baroque-print sandals with woven leather and beads gained a lot of media attention. Trade journal Women’s Wear Daily named them its Accessory Of The Day during the paper’s coverage of the shows. You can get it for US$1,161 (S$1,475) at www.net-a-porter.com.


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Suede pump

This simple 5-inch suede pump with pearl trim was designed for multi-label accessories boutique On Pedder and is sold exclusively in Singapore and Jakarta. It costs $1,090 from On Pedder.


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The black-and-pearl slingback

Kirkwood impressed critics and buyers in 2009 with this slingback style which had the front of the sole balanced on a string of pearls. He later named this feature the “floating pearls’’ platform and continues to work this motif into his current collections. American actress Jennifer Lawrence and British actress Felicity Jones are fans of this style. This model is no longer available.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 5, 2013

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