Headquarters: Chelmsford, England
Designer training: Henrietta Rose Samuels, the British designer behind Hetty Rose, spent the year after high school deconstructing and experimenting with shoes, before earning a degree in footwear design at London’s Cordwainers College. While at university, she gained a one-year study placement with designer Georgina Goodman, and then further honed her skills in London and Italy working for handmade shoe specialists.
Background: About five years ago, while traveling in Japan, Samuels was so taken with vintage kimono fabrics that she left her clothes behind, filled up her suitcases with the panels and began to experiment in her workshop. “Since the fabrics are one-offs, they can’t be reproduced,” she said. “So when I find something gorgeous, I have to do it justice by making it into something wonderful.” She now makes yearly fabric-shopping pilgrimages, largely to Kyoto, where she haunts the Sunday morning markets on temple grounds.
Design philosophy: To make an environmental statement in an aesthetically pleasing way, Samuels’ handmade shoes combine uppers made of exquisite reclaimed, recycled and vintage kimono fabrics with handcrafted wooden heels, recycled leather and natural leather soles.
Signature: Samuels is best known for her high-heels. “The designs are simple yet provocative, with color being the overriding attraction,” she said. They’re perfect for women “who crave authentic and individual products.”
Made-to-order appeal: “Made-to-order shoes have a special feeling attached to them that can’t be found in off-the-shelf footwear,” Samuels said. She involves customers in each step of creation, so the shoes become a more meaningful product to the customer. “Also, there is no waste produced as the shoes are made for a purpose and for an individual.”
Effects of the recession: “I’ve found more clients seeking something that will be transseasonal and an investment buy,” Samuels said. For many, she added, unique shoes that offer years of mileage “override a fast-fashion alternative that might not be as lasting.”
Retail range: $425 to $825
Designer training: Caroline Groves trained in leatherworking, then “did a proper, old-fashioned apprenticeship” with bespoke shoemaker Bill Bird in Gloucestershire, England. After 12 years, she became a partner in his business in 2000, before starting her own.
Background: Groves’ interest in sewing techniques and her passion for leather reaches back to her family, who were all craftspeople. As to bespoke, she said she sensed opportunity in a niche market. While London has a tradition of bespoke makers for men’s shoes, women went wanting. “It’s much more unusual to find a bespoke maker making high-heels,” Groves said.
Design philosophy: “I don’t purport to be a designer; I’m a bespoke shoemaker, which for me means I don’t design a seasonal range.” Everything from the design consultation and last making to the numerous fittings and sourcing of materials is done with one client in mind. Nothing is chosen from a catalog or a pre-designed range.
Signatures: Textural combinations and patchwork designs are Groves’ forte. Her trademark silhouette features a 2 1/2-inch boulevard heel, an open toe and scalloped sides, adjusted to the client’s taste. Groves often references historical sources and gathers inspiration from vintage shop finds.
Made-to-order appeal: “My best clients come back to me again and again, so it’s an ongoing relationship. Sometimes I’m able to spot materials in advance, or see styles I know a particular client would really like to have.” One downside is the risk of the unknown. “There may be a difference between what [the customer is] wishing for and how I actually interpret it.”
Effects of the recession: Groves’ business has remained steady despite the economic downfall. She usually has a waiting list since working solo means her production ability is limited. Well-heeled clients are keeping up their orders, she said, but customers with orthopedic or size problems who “stretch themselves to afford the service” are visiting less.
Retail range: The first pair starts at about $2,715, but lavish requests, such as buckles specially made by a jeweler, can drive prices past the $4,000 mark.
Vanessa Noel Haute Couture
Launch: Fall ’09
Headquarters: New York
Designer training: Vanessa Noel has been a mainstay in the footwear world for more than two decades, designing for everyday women and celebrities alike.She was inspired to become a designer when, while studying fine arts and architecture at Cornell University, she did an interpretation of portraiture through shoes. “I decided I wanted to explore my desire for designing shoes,” Noel said.
Background: From the time Noel opened her first Manhattan store 23 years ago, customers requested custom bridal shoes. In recent years, clients also have visited Noel’s showroom above her store to have non-bridal shoes specially made. That has laid the groundwork for her Haute Couture collection, launching this fall. The line features shoes crafted from translucent alligator, a process developed with a jeweler in which the skin is coated in platinum, 24-karat gold or any precious metal.
Design philosophy: Noel sees a shoe as “an extension of your body. No matter how amazing it is, I don’t want it to overpower your overall look,” she said. “Everything should flow together.”
Signatures: While leopard has become a signature, “it can’t be all leopard in patterns,” Noel said. Some customers are drawn to Noel’s exotic skins, while others praise her delicate touch with fabric or her semi-precious stone detailing.
Made-to-order appeal: Customers can order one-of-a-kind shoes, but they must wait for the result — especially if custom lasts are made — and oftentimes must pay more. Admittedly, making custom shoes is a “tremendous amount of work,” Noel said, but she still adores the process. “It is not mass market, it’s not commercial. It’s very artistic and very soulful.”
Effects of the recession: Noel has seen a noticeable uptick in bespoke orders since the downturn. “It’s stopped the mass commercialism shopping and made people focus on wanting things that are maybe more emotional,” she said.
Retail range: Prices start at $800, with exotic skins and extras priced accordingly.