Ever since the 28-year-old British designer launched his namesake footwear label in 2005 to both critical and commercial success, he has been in demand. In May, Italian fashion house Pollini hired Kirkwood as its accessories director. And Alberta Ferretti has tapped him to design its footwear collection for spring ’09.
For the 60-year-old Pollini, which is looking to dust off its image and attract a new generation of customers, Kirkwood is charged with designing the brand’s footwear collection and overseeing its handbag line. He will work alongside fellow Brit Jonathan Saunders, who has replaced Rifat Ozbek as creative director.
The project is very important to Kirkwood. “This is an opportunity to reinvent a brand,” he said, noting that he has been given complete creative freedom by Pollini parent Aeffe SpA. “It’s a great challenge.” His first footwear collection for the brand, totaling more than 100 styles, will be unveiled next month at FFANY in New York.
And while juggling two major collections on top of his own budding business is a big job, the laid-back Kirkwood is taking it all in stride. “The most important thing is that each line has its own identity,” he said. “I can feel the difference in the identities, so the designing comes naturally, as opposed to drawing a shoe and figuring out where that shoe is supposed to go. It’s quite simple.”
Still, he admits it doesn’t leave him much downtime. “All I do is sleep and work right now,” said Kirkwood, who bounces between his design studio in London and Pollini’s headquarters in Gatteo, Italy.
FN: When were you first approached by Pollini?
NK: It was in October 2007. I was in Paris, and they called me and asked if I was interested. So I went to meet with them and found that the project was an entirely new rebranding effort. I would get to [dictate] the shop fit, design, advertising, marketing and all of that. And Pollini had a new clothing director, Jonathan Saunders, so the whole package could be reborn.
FN: What is it about this partnership that interests you as a designer?
NK: It gives me the chance to create an entirely new image instead of working within an image that has already been created by others. This is an opportunity to reinvent a brand, which is much more interesting than to go in and design in a way that someone else has already established. It’s a great challenge. [Pollini] is really willing to change. I have all the creative freedom to change everything — the last, the heels, everything.
FN: How do you balance your own design sensibility with the heritage of the Pollini brand?
NK: I do want to keep some sort of reference to Pollini’s 60 years of [history in the] business, but the whole thing needed to be rejuvenated. It’s not going to look like my collection, but it won’t look like past Pollini collections either. The company was in a situation where it was about to close the brand and [the choice] was either [shutter it] or totally reinvent it — and they went for [the latter]. For spring, you’ll see a lot of color, which Pollini hasn’t really explored in the past. There’s a balance of delicateness and bigger shapes. Some parts are quite angular and others more gentle.
FN: How would you characterize the brand that Ozbek left you with?
NK: It just felt old. It was staid, and the color palette each season seemed to be the same. There was no freshness on that end. Now, I have full creative freedom, so there is nothing holding me back. I’m not trying to make a collection that sells in the same way. The company knows they are taking this risk, so there is no pressure to keep their old customers happy, which is liberating. I’m definitely aiming for a younger customer. The new customer will be more fashion conscious, so there are patterns that are quite intellectual and patterns that are quite unusual. The collection is the way I want it to look. There’ve been no suggestions as to what I must do.
FN: What were your reservations about signing on to the project?
NK: My only reservation was that I didn’t want to work for a company that didn’t want to change. In its current state, Pollini is not exactly the most fashion-savvy brand. But after meeting with them and hearing their vision of what they wanted, which was an overhaul of the whole brand, it was exciting.
FN: Do you work closely with Jonathan Saunders?
NK: We work closely together on the branding of the company and the [accessories] looks for the [runway] show. We have a similar vision for the brand. His stuff is really clean with nice shapes and lines. And I think he was a good choice [for the creative director post]. What we both will bring to the brand will look like it’s coming from one place.
FN: What will the strategy be for reintroducing the brand to the industry?
NK: We will try to target key retailers in order to lift the brand perception. We are aiming to get into the top department stores and specialty stores that you’d want to be in. I don’t want to name them until the collection is picked up, but we will need these stores in order to have that new customer base, and then the others will follow.
FN: What has it been like working for a corporation for the first time?
NK: It doesn’t feel that different. I don’t see loads and loads of people. I deal with people I have to deal with on certain aspects of the collection. Pollini’s factory is bigger than what I’m used to. The infrastructure is quite interesting. It’s a learning experience, as well. [The work process] is so organized. It’s organized with timelines and all that. When it was just me working on my own collection it was more just, “OK, I have three weeks left, so, go.” It’s been a good influence on my own line.
FN: How have you approached the collection for Alberta Ferretti?
NK: There is a spirit with her clothing already, and there’s a real image there, so I want to stay pretty true to that vision. I’m not trying to make the shoes look too different from what they had been before, but it will be my take [on that spirit]. My first season is spring ’09, and we’ll see how things go.
FN: What can we expect from the Nicholas Kirkwood collection for spring?
NK: I am trying to make my collection a little bit bigger with a few more SKUs. I also am going to make it more complicated and [introduce] different patterns and shapes. We have a new heel that’s a totally new shape. I’ve done a 110-millimeter heel without a platform because platforms are so overused and now shoes look so low without them. I wanted to add in some simple shoes, including a pump and a slingback, to cut out more of that middle ground.
FN: Do you think independent designers need to take on outside projects to keep their own lines going?
NK: It certainly helps financially. It gives me some sort of security, which does mean that I can be a little more experimental with my own collection. The timing [of the Pollini partnership] was really very good because it had just started to cross my mind whether I should look for investors. But I wanted to stay away from that for a little bit because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do. It’s very handy that this all came at the right time.
FN: Do you see a time when all these projects might eclipse your namesake brand?
NK: The last thing I would do is retire my brand. That’s what it’s all about for me. I’ll always find a way to keep my brand going.