On a mild Thursday evening in London last month, Lady Gaga performed at a private Mayfair nightclub in front of a star-studded audience. But the neighborhood’s most talked-about event was held a few blocks away, where an equally eclectic crowd descended upon Nicholas Kirkwood’s new boutique on Mount Street, the city’s über-hot luxury retail destination.
Sure, there were celebrities in attendance — Freida Pinto among them. Nadja Swarovski was there, too, along with top editors, models, stylists, photographers, gallery owners and even one of Kirkwood’s competitors, Charlotte Olympia Dellal. The designer’s proud parents showed up, as well as the little girl from the neighboring flat upstairs who put on her best party dress to get a glimpse of the thigh-high, Swarovski crystal-encrusted roller skates showcased at the front of the stylish store.
It wasn’t your typical fashion fête. Then again, Kirkwood isn’t your typical fashion designer.
His footwear is bold and futuristic. Yet he is unassuming and traditional.
He draws inspiration from art. Others often use a Hollywood muse.
He’s a media darling. But he’s never tweeted and he loathes public speaking, especially television appearances.
For Kirkwood, the shoes are the celebrity.
“I’m a bit boring, and I’m not into self promotion. It should be about the product, not me,” the designer said last month during an exclusive interview in New York.
Some might call him a little old school, but many more call Kirkwood the future of luxury footwear.
“Nicholas is the real deal,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, EVP of designer merchandising at Nordstrom and founder of the Jeffrey boutiques. “He has an energy that is distinctly his own. His shoes don’t look or feel like anyone else’s, and he’s not building his business like anyone else.”
It’s been almost seven years since the 30-year-old unveiled his first collection, which he crafted by hand at his parents’ antique dining room table. Kirkwood has already navigated his nascent business through a brutal recession and overcome production issues.
Along the way, the prolific designer has been charged with reinventing the classic Italian fashion house Pollini, where he was named creative director last fall. And he’s redefined the runway shoe with show-stopping styles for emerging labels such as Rodarte, Erdem and Peter Pilotto. (All of those collaborations have now evolved into co-branded collections.) As if that’s not enough, Kirkwood recently made waves in the art world with his funky Keith Haring-inspired pop-art shoes. And now, he’s involved in the rebirth of Paco Rabanne.
“I don’t know how he does it all,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Fifth Avenue. “He’s enormously talented. When you look at all the [different elements] of his shoes separately — the heel, the platform, the unique materials and details on the uppers — you go, ‘huh?’ But somehow, he’s able to create these shoes that have amazing breadth and dimension, yet still maintain great proportion and great femininity. Creatively, he’s got it all. And his business is starting to get some fantastic momentum. He and [business partner] Christopher [Suarez] are an important pair who will become formidable.”
It’s been a long time since a young shoe designer stirred up this much excitement. And while there’s no question the high-end footwear world is still ruled by the shoe kings — namely Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik — and accessories powerhouses such as Jimmy Choo, Kirkwood is closing in on that very-exclusive club.
Does the British phenom have what it takes to make the leap from rising star to superstar?
“Absolutely,” said Frasch. “And I normally wouldn’t say that.”
“We consider Nicholas a star who will be very big and important,” added Neiman Marcus SVP and Fashion Director Ken Downing.
Barneys New York also is banking on Kirkwood and plans to expand its business with him come fall.
“Nicholas is an imaginative, innovative and nuanced designer. Barneys loves that creativity in footwear,” said Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and EVP at the retailer.
While Kirkwood appreciates the vote of confidence from retailers, he said he’s much less enthused about being compared to other designers. More and more often he’s being touted as “the next Christian Louboutin.”
Kirkwood has said it before, but now he says it more forcefully. “I don’t want to be the next anybody. I’m happy for Christian, and it’s amazing that someone in the luxury shoe business can be that big. He’s the No. 1 brand in every single store you go into. The last time that sort of thing happened, in terms of someone dominating in that way, was probably with Ferragamo.”
Kirkwood paused for a few seconds before raising his voice another notch. “So yes, it would be great to aim at someone like Louboutin, but I don’t want to be the next Louboutin. I need to do this my own way.”
That’s been Kirkwood’s mantra from the beginning.
At an early age, “he was always very artistic and very much into music,” said his mother, Wendy Kirkwood. “But he would turn up to his classes with the wrong books!”
After moving around as a child and later attending boarding school, the young Kirkwood studied fine arts at Central Saint Martins. Soon after, at the age of 18, he began working with London milliner Philip Treacy in 1999. (The two met on a skiing trip to Switzerland.)
“I can definitely see how Nicholas has been influenced by Philip in the way that he takes such a sculptural approach to design and uses so many different materials, from rubber and straw to wood, crystal and plastic,” said Nadja Swarovski, VP of international communications and creative director at Swarovski, which will bow a second jewelry capsule collection with Kirkwood for spring ’12.
The crystal queen met Kirkwood while he was working for Treacy, around the same time that Kirkwood got to know the late fashion icon Isabella Blow, who rented him a room for a while.
“[Isabella] was always so supportive and encouraging of anyone who was doing something new,” the designer said. “I made a pair of shoes for her at the very beginning, but I wish I had gotten to make more for her.”
While he was working his way up at Treacy, he attended Cordwainers to learn shoemaking, although he dropped out after a year. But by then he had found his calling and set out to fill a void in the market for statement shoes in 2004. “It seemed like people were only making kitten heels and mules,” Kirkwood said. “I wanted to build a different kind of brand.”
The designer attended Premiere Classe in 2005, and it was there he first met business partner Suarez. “We were the only two people there wearing sunglasses inside,” Suarez joked. “I was there to see some other designers, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw this tiny space. It looked like a gallery almost. So I went over, and Nick was slouched down in a chair in the corner.”
The pair exchanged contact information and started working together sporadically, joining forces permanently in late 2006. The union was a critical step for Kirkwood, who had struggled to lay a real foundation for the brand.
“My No. 1 piece of advice for fellow young designers is to try not to do it all yourself. At the beginning, it can be quite lonely. You’re invoicing, doing the sales, calling customers. It’s hard to stand back and know whether you’re doing the right thing. To have someone to talk things through with, that’s extremely important,” Kirkwood said.
With the two men in step, everything began to change for the better in 2007. Kirkwood won the AltaRoma/Vogue Italia Award in July of that year, which gave him renewed momentum heading into the spring ’08 season. It also provided some much-needed exposure and sparked new opportunities, which led to an even more necessary infusion of cash to fund the business.
Kirkwood was named accessories director at Pollini in early 2008 and made such an impression at the brand that he was elevated to the post of creative director last fall.
“It’s an exciting prospect to be given the opportunity to change a house like that,” Kirkwood said. “Fall ’11 was really formative. We got it right — or at least a lot more right than it was before. I’ve really been looking at Pollini’s heritage and what it’s been famous for in the past, and then trying to create a modern interpretation of that. It’s not about completely reinventing the wheel.”
Where he has been reinventing the wheel is on the runway, where he’s rolled out co-branded designs with Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy since spring ’09.
Remember this spring’s perfectly sculpted gold platform wedges? Or last year’s melted candle-wax heels? Or the thigh-high bondage boots from 2009? They are all Kirkwood/Rodarte concoctions.
“I think of him as an artist who happens to use shoes as his canvas,” said Visionaire co-founder and editor Cecilia Dean, who introduced the designer to the Mulleavy sisters.
While he still goes wild with his collaborations, Kirkwood has started to integrate more commercial looks into his main line.
“I’ve really started to work on how to make a basic shoe, but make it in a very identifiable way,” Kirkwood said. His spring ’12 collection will feature more flats and mid-heels, a departure from the first few seasons when his heel options were high and super-high.
“Category-wise, he’s grown significantly over the last few years, but he’s still been able to retain that strong Kirkwood aesthetic. That’s a lot harder than people think,” said Rebecca Farrar-Hockley, Kurt Geiger’s buying and creative director. “And that’s helped him stand out from his competitors.”
Kirkwood hopes his new store will also give him an edge.
“As an accessories brand, I can’t do a runway show. So it’s quite difficult to project an image sometimes,” he said. “This will be the first opportunity for people to see the collection in a much bigger way, in a surrounding we created.”
Plus, the boutique is connected to Kirkwood’s roomy new offices.
“We will be able to get firsthand feedback from customers, instead of just hearing what they think through our retailers. The store is going to become a crucial tool for developing the collection,” he said.
The London space is just the beginning. Kirkwood is close to signing a lease for a second shop in a yet-to-be-disclosed location in New York and is now plotting retail growth in southeast Asia and the Middle East.
But the process won’t be easy, according to Farrar-Hockley. “He’s going to learn how to be a retailer himself and about all the dramas that come with that,” she said. “There’s a steep learning curve, but he’s conscious of that.”
Even with many of the ingredients for growth, Kirkwood says there’s still something missing.
“Everybody believes we can make this happen — and we have a lot of industry support — but the general public still isn’t aware of us, unless they’re avid fashion followers,” said Kirkwood. “I want people to see a girl walking down the street and say ‘those are Nicholas Kirkwoods.’”
How does he plan to get in front of more consumers?
“Maybe we need to start investing in more celebrity dressing,” he said. “I used to think it was cheesy to say you cared about celebrities, but I know it’s important.”
While he’s not yet a red-carpet favorite, Kirkwood has gotten a big boost from major celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Sarah Jessica Parker, who are frequently seen wearing his styles.
“I have loved watching the rise of Nicholas,” Parker told Footwear News. “He’s an immensely talented designer and he is definitely one of my favorites.”
Kirkwood has seen the power of celebrity at work. “Look at Jimmy Choo. Everyone knows it, even the taxi drivers,” he said.
Jimmy Choo’s rapid rise has also shown Kirkwood how lucrative a hot brand can be. Its recent $850 million sale to Labelux Group certainly got his attention.
But don’t expect him to hang out the for-sale sign anytime soon. “I don’t think I would sell the business outright, at least not at this point,” he said. “Maybe it’s a series of steps, but it isn’t one big leap.”
To that end, the designer last year divested a 5 percent stake in the business to an industry investor, who has remained anonymous. (Kirkwood still owns a vast majority of the brand, while Suarez and Wendy Kirkwood also each own a small stake.) “This investor doesn’t just give us money; he helps us with the business,” Kirkwood said. “It was a strategic decision.”
While he declined to comment on the size of the business, sources pegged the company’s recent valuation at $35 million to $38 million.
“We have a lot more to do,” said Kirkwood, who hasn’t taken a vacation for the last seven years.
Men’s shoes and handbags are both on the agenda for the next year.
And would he ever consider launching a lower-priced diffusion line, a popular growth avenue for many luxury designers?
“The only way I would consider it is if Italy got so expensive that only the ultra-elite could buy product made there. But costs have already gone up so much, so I don’t see that happening. ”
Ready-to-wear isn’t part of the plan, either. “I just don’t think that would be the correct thing to do. It wouldn’t be believable,” the designer said. “It’s a whole category you need to study separately.”
While Kirkwood mulls his next step, industry players said he now must figure out what his business model should be.
“He’s going through a little bit of what Louboutin went through,” Frasch said. “Eventually, he brought in [COO] Alexis [Mourot] to oversee the supply chain and the organizational structure. Those kinds of things allow you to elevate the business.”
Yes, even the retail crowd can’t help but compare Kirkwood to footwear’s brightest star.
“Not that many years ago, the name Christian Louboutin wasn’t widely known,” said Neiman Marcus’ Downing. “He slowly started building notoriety and came on strong. Now people know those red soles from five miles away. As the customer begins to know Nicholas and other new brands, they will become loyal to them as well.”
Kurt Geiger’s Farrar-Hockley summed it up this way: “Louboutin has immense talent and skill and stamina, but he’s had a lot of good luck, too,” she said. “Nicholas has many of the same ingredients. Will he have all the luck? Who knows.”
Label lust: “I would love to build my brand like Hermès, but I don’t think it’s realistic. It takes 24 working hours to make each bag. That is true luxury. Hermès is really the only true luxury brand left.”
America vs. Europe: “It used to be that contemporary brands would come from America and luxury and designer brands would come from Europe. In the last few years, that line very much blurred. It’s very sad to see some of the big luxury companies making shoes in China. It would be more understandable if it was ready-to-wear.”
Social media: “I understand why it exists, but I just don’t think it’s very chic. It’s so self-promoting and cheesy. You’re not going to get Hermès or Alaïa tweeting. We have a Facebook page, but we don’t even manage it. I guess we should try to get it. It’s not even up to date.”
Dream collaborations: “From our generation, Alexander McQueen. He was such a visionary. From the past, Leonardo DaVinci. And maybe Jesus. We could make shoes for walking on water.”
On his first order: “It was Kurt Geiger for Harrods. I remember Neil [Clifford] and Rebecca [Farrar-Hockley] walking around Premiere Classe and stopping in. And then the buyer came back and bought it. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing, this actually happened.’ It was a great first step.”
The most expensive shoe he’s ever made: “The Keith Haring roller skates. We haven’t even put a price on them, but they would probably be more than 20,000 pounds. The most expensive shoe we ever sold was a knee-high suede-and-alligator boot. It was 7,000 pounds and we sold one pair. I should pull them out again. They would look great in our store window.
His alternate career path: “I studied fine arts in college, so I’d probably work in a gallery, or do something with industrial design, furniture or lighting.”
Decade hopping: “I’d love to have a time machine where you could bounce back and forth. I would have loved Paris in the 1930s. It was such an era of decadence and creativity. I love the 1980s as well. I was around, but I didn’t really live it. I love the music and the extreme looks, good and bad.”