Designer of the Year: Nicholas Kirkwood

For the past seven years, the fashion elite enthusiastically embraced Nicholas Kirkwood and helped fuel his rise to footwear stardom. But the designer reached an even wider audience in 2011, thanks to an expanded offering, more famous fans and his first branded boutique, in London.

And Kirkwood continues to turn up the heat: A second store is slated to open on New York’s Washington Street early next spring, followed by the launch of an e-commerce site within the year.

“The goal is to make the business run more smoothly,” Kirkwood said. “It’s a bit like the duck on water cliché: It’s calm on top with the legs wildly moving underneath the surface.”

Now stocked in 130 doors, including major U.S. players Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, the 31-year-old’s collection has captivated the industry.

“Nicholas likes to challenge our perception of design,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks. “He has a great eye for proportion and balance, but he won’t be boxed into a corner. If you think he’s the guy who does great platforms, then next season he’s off them. He keeps us on the edge of our seats.”

Fashion- and art-world fixture Julia Restoin-Roitfeld compares Kirkwood’s designs to fine art, saying each pair is one of a kind. “But the best thing is, they are also very comfortable, which is hard to achieve: style, height and comfort,” she said.

Previously known for “distinctive architectural heel shapes and mixed-media designs” — according to Eloise Taussig, Bergdorf Goodman’s VP & DMM of women’s shoes — Kirkwood’s expansion into more-commercial styles, such as simple pumps, mid-heels and flats, has fueled growth this year.

“[When] he diversified into other categories and heel heights, the collection really caught our attention,” said Daniella Vitale, chief merchant & EVP at Barneys New York. “Nicholas has incredible vision, and it’s nice to bring that creativity to every classification in footwear.”

Pedder Group President Peter Harris noted that Kirkwood’s strong point of view and broader offering have boosted his business at the Lane Crawford and On Pedder shops over the last year. “Within five years, we would like to be operating a Nicholas Kirkwood store in Hong Kong, with plans to expand into other cities,” said Harris.

Kirkwood’s designs also have made an impression on celebrity clients, including Beyoncé, Julianne Moore, Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Freida Pinto. But perhaps the best example of his wide appeal came last month: Both Lady Gaga and Pippa Middleton wore Kirkwood’s designs on the same day.

Pinto praised Kirkwood’s raw talent and diversity as a designer. “I love that every collection is always different from his previous one,” said the actress and model. “Nicholas is so respected on the fashion circuit that [now] it’s hard to miss his name.”

And Kirkwood continues to make a statement on the runway, through collaborations with Erdem, Peter Pilotto, Prabal Gurung and the newly reborn Paco Rabanne.

The London-based designer also is credited with helping to refresh Italian accessories brand Pollini, where he has been creative director since last fall and garnered attention for his classic silhouettes with modern details and pop colors.

For spring ’12, Kirkwood will bow his second jewelry capsule collection for Swarovski, while a small men’s footwear offering and handbag line are on the horizon for his eponymous brand. Together with business partner Christopher Suarez, Kirkwood remains focused on the future.

“Nicholas and Christopher are very smart about what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it,” said Frasch. “Their business savvy is way beyond their years. And Nicholas has proven to young designers that you can be talented and successful without major financial backing.”

Kirkwood first claimed Footwear News’ Designer of the Year award in 2008, but the past year has been one of his best. “It’s been a good year as far as keeping up the momentum,” he said. “Now I have to sort out how we can take it to the next level.”

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