10 Questions: Camilla Skovgaard

Camilla Skovgaard didn’t set out to do shoes.

The Danish designer instead got her start creating couture clothing for the wives and daughters of Dubai sheikhs, and only began to consider footwear when she saw the women hiding shabby shoes under their long, luxurious gowns.

“All the clothes were handmade — every single crystal sown on by hand. It was the terrible shoes the ladies put on at fittings that had me raising my eyebrows,” Skovgaard said. “I couldn’t understand it.”

When the designer, 35, returned to Europe in 2000 after seven years in the Middle East, she enrolled at Cordwainers College in London and began fostering a career in high-end footwear.

Now armed with a master’s degree from The Royal College of Art and a growing roster of runway collaborations with the likes of Emilio Pucci and Matthew Williamson, London-based Skovgaard is positioning herself for international growth.

Saks Fifth Avenue was the first retailer to snatch up her eponymous line when it debuted in 2006. Since then, Skovgaard’s Italian-made shoes have been picked up by more than 50 stores in 15 countries.

U.S. sales of the collection, which retails from $315 to $700, were up 300 percent last year compared with 2007. International sales were up 200 percent. Skovgaard said it’s a trajectory she hopes to continue despite the dismal economy. “[It’s so] contrary to the current market situation,” she said. “[I’m] enjoying growth when we are supposed not to.”

Skovgaard, who is making her WSA debut this month, recently sat down with Footwear News to talk about the challenges of breaking into the high-end market, her motivation and why she focuses on her own design vision rather than what’s hot in the fashion world.

1. Did anyone encourage you to get into fashion?
Erik Mortensen of Balmain was my real motivation. I sent him my sketches when I was young and received a beautiful handwritten note of encouragement from him. I still have it, neatly stored in a plastic folder.

2. What was it like designing for the Gulf sheikhs’ wives and daughters?
They spent a fortune on clothes, jewelry, having their hair done and perfume, but their shoes were almost an afterthought. When I mentioned it, they said that since their dresses are always floor length, no one would see [their shoes]. I wasn’t even educated in footwear back then, [but] this was what eventually made me start paying more attention to shoes.

3. How did you make the move from clothing to shoes?
I happened to read about the Cordwainers shoe college in an Arab newspaper. I was at a crossroads after seven years in Dubai and approaching my late 20s. I was only meant to stay in Dubai one year to earn some money [before coming back to] start university. The craft of shoemaking greatly appealed to me, [and I felt it was] time to get the degree I wanted.

4. You’ve said you understand designing shoes better than clothing. Why is that?
Shoes are, in their own way, something complete in themselves. This is also why Cinderella loses a shoe and not a hairpin or a handbag. And this is what makes footwear so fascinating — it’s a composition of technical function, structured 3-D form, cut and balance. The topography of a shoe is so limited that designers have to show their magic on relatively few points of distinction — heel height, cut and shape being some of them.

5. How is your Danish culture reflected in your designs?
I really admire the longevity of Danish-designed furniture and lamps from the 1940s to 1960s. It’s as modern today as it was back then — proper design. [Similarly], I am more about form, materials, composition and style, not decoration.

6. Was it the same during your time in the Middle East?
There, it was all about decoration, [such as] Swarovski crystals by the kilo and in-your-face sexuality [hidden] under the abaya. My shoes, [however], have a fl uid-edged style and a more sustainable aesthetic. I don’t like when things [have too much] fashion. It may be very hot on the fashion page, but it also dates terribly fast, and frankly, you almost look like a fool — a fashion victim with no independent thought.

7. What challenges do you face as a younger label?
Factories, factories, factories. Without this, there are no legs for the business to stand on. On my journey, this has been the most problematic part. It’s taken me two years to get into my new factory. Financial and volume security is ultimately what will bring you more creative freedom at the factories. It’s a challenge to decide if you want to be on the editorial side of style and acclaim, or if you actually want to make money. Striking a balance between the two is, needless to say, ideal.

8. You’re exhibiting at WSA for the first time this month. What do you hope to gain from the show?
Exposure and meeting lots of lovely, happy, shoe-selling folks from all over America. What I like about the U.S. is that the buyers seem much more independent [and] will buy you if they like the product, whereas some other countries seem terrifi ed of [buying] something unless it’s been hammered blatantly in the press.

9. What inspires your work?
I’m not fond of talking about inspiration — it often sounds so cliché. I mostly design from a gut feeling, something I just somehow feel from inside — probably the culmination of many impressions stored in my head without my being aware of it.

10. Which country has the most fashionable women?
I must tip my hat to London. It truly celebrates eccentricity in all its forms. I like the French, too — that half-dirty-half-chic look they pull off. [But] with globalization via the Internet, the most fashionable women can be found all over. Instead of nationality, it’s about groups who adhere to similar aesthetics.

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