“If you burn brightly, you can burn yourself out quite quickly,” said Rupert Sanderson. “If you take it slowly, you never age.”
It is a philosophy that the British designer has always embraced. Since 2001, when he launched his namesake collection, Sanderson has built his business quietly and carefully by focusing on classic, elegant designs. That’s not always easy in an industry defined by trends of the moment and a fashion cycle that continues to speed up.
“It’s a bit confusing when in the course of an hour you can have a meeting about a collection that has just been delivered to stores, followed by a conversation about spring-summer that’s about to emerge,” quipped the designer. “Then, all of a sudden, I have to start thinking about pre-fall. But as long as I’m told what to do, it’s fine. We just need a structure and, you know, I’ll survive.”
The London-based Sanderson is also confronting a new challenge: the aftershocks of Brexit. But the designer believes he is well positioned to weather any major impact.
“We are a European business, buying and selling in euros. We also sell the wholesale domestically in euros,” explained Sanderson, who produces his collection in Italy. He noted that while prices might be increased in the long term, there has been a short-term benefit given the decline of the pound in the period following the vote in late June. “We’ve had a cracking couple of weeks because tourists in the city just got richer,” he said.
The designer, 50, sees even more opportunity in the Asian market, where the business has shown significant growth in the past five years even as other companies have stumbled. The brand operates retail stores in Hong Kong’s major luxury shopping malls, including Elements, Landmark and Harbour City, as well as in Shanghai’s IFC mall in mainland China. Sanderson said his partnership with Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Bertrand Mak has allowed him to better understand Asian consumers, who are increasingly drawn to smaller high-end brands that focus on craftsmanship.
“We’re not necessarily designing new shoes every season,” Sanderson said. “We’re doing what old Italian luxury brands used to do: focusing on exquisite quality, fit, styling, consistency and branding. Those are the things the Asian market gets excited about. So we’ve been building quite a traditional, old-fashioned business in a very exciting new market.”
Sanderson said he has always been fascinated by the typical Asian consumer, who “almost exponentially becomes twice more sophisticated every year.” Social platforms in China such as Weebo have also helped Sanderson expand his reach.
“Our Asian customers sought us out; they know about the brand and what they are looking for. There’s a core of consumers who buy almost like the French do, each purchase being an investment,” added the designer, who plans to continue expanding his business and opening more stores in the region. “That’s the customer I relate to.”
Sanderson also intends to use his Asian stores to test new categories, including handbags, but he wants to be careful about doing too much.
“If you do multicategories,” he said, “you have to do them through your own retail to control the merchandising.” Unlike the traction the company quickly gained in the Far East, Sanderson has had more difficulty entering the American market, explaining that the small scale of his company and the lack of a partner did not allow him to establish a major U.S. presence.
While having a large stateside business isn’t a priority, Sanderson clearly understands the power of cultivating celebrity relationships. He makes frequent trips to Los Angeles to court stylists and celeb fans, among them Solange Knowles, Olivia Palermo and Blake Lively. At home, the firm expects to keep the focus on its wholesale business.
Lisa Aiken, retail fashion director at London-based Net-a-Porter (one of Sanderson’s main retailers), said the designer’s dedication to classicism appeals to the e-tailer’s global audience.
“Our customers love Rupert Sanderson’s less-is-more philosophy. He designs with perfect precision, focusing on the line, material, shape, silhouette and comfort,” explained Aiken. “The point-toe flat has become one of his signatures, and other bestsellers include the patent ‘Bedfa’ and fringed-leather styles, which can be worn for the day or evening.”
For fall ’16, Aiken pointed to the designer’s block-heel sandals in satin and velvet and crystal-embellished pumps and flats as the key pieces in Net-a-porter’s footwear edit. Sanderson is particularly excited about one of his pre-fall designs, a pair of his flat pointed-toe pumps updated with a print of a couple kissing created by Italian graffiti artist Anna Laurini.
“I like the idea of taking a shoe that’s elegant and delicate and [adding] something that has been sprayed on the front of a building,” said Sanderson, who often takes inspiration from the street. “The expression of it is very high-end, but it’s a rather inclusive image that has been sprayed all over London.”
As he prepares to unveil his spring ’17 collection, Sanderson is also benefiting from the backing of a new high-profile fan. The Duchess of Cambridge has worn the designer’s Malory and Calice pumps several times during the past few months. “It is a nice and privileged thing to quietly be able to make a pair of shoes for the future Queen of England,” he said.