Luxury footwear loves its ladies. And like Tabitha Simmons and Charlotte Olympia Dellal before her, Alessandra Lanvin is hitting her stride.
The designer’s highly artistic Parisbased shoe brand, Aperlaï, garnered buzz from the get-go, with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Lively, Kate Bosworth and Jessica Alba wearing designs from the debut collection at various red-carpet events.
A passionate collector of shoes, Lanvin is married to Hubert Lanvin, the grandson of namesake fashion house founder Jeanne Lanvin (Hubert’s parents, Bernard and Maryll Lanvin, sold the company in 1990). Alessandra launched Aperlaï three years ago when she was expecting her son, Victor Lanvin, now 2, and named her parent company Victor-L Sas for him.
“I was pregnant and wearing tons of beautiful but very uncomfortable shoes. I wanted to create something that was very graphic, like a sculpture, that you could actually wear,” said the designer, who is half Italian, half Turkish (Aperlaï takes its name from an ancient Lycian city located in southern Turkey). “Also, I was always complaining about shoes that were not taking into account a woman’s legs and the way she walks. If you are not comfortable, you walk like a robot — boom, boom, boom.”
As a result, Lanvin said she likes to use hidden platforms on her designs. Even simple flat sandals have pads for shock absorption, and heels never go above 9 centimeters.
Before entering the shoe business, Lanvin, née Guerrera, was a headhunter at A.T. Kearney, specializing in executive searches in fashion retail and luxury goods. There, she was exposed to movers and shakers from the footwear world.
These days, the art history buff often uses artists, sculptors and designers as inspiration for her line. Odes to Picasso, Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove have surfaced in past collections, with one of the label’s signature triangular heels sparked by cubism. For fall ’12, Spanish artist Joan Miró and American sculptor Alexander Calder are among the main muses, with Jackson Pollock’s influence seen on an exclusive paint-speckled patent leather panel in one style.
Aperlaï is distributed in about 50 stores, including high-end department stores and such boutiques as Kirna Zabête in New York, Opening Ceremony in Tokyo and Dover Street Market in London.
Here, Lanvin shares the challenges of starting out and her hopes for Aperlaï’s future.
What was your first big break?
AL: The first season, we had all those beautiful ladies wearing the shoes. It created a buzz, which had a big impact on sales. It was great for me. They are opinion leaders, trendsetters. You’re always asking yourself, “What I’m doing — is it nice?” If they like the product, [then it] has some interest.
What has been the biggest challenge in breaking into the luxury footwear business?
AL: Consolidating and working on the relationships with suppliers — production, production, production! The little factory I work with is very small with, like, 50 employees. It is one of the top companies in Italy’s luxury footwear industry, working with brands such as Bottega Veneta. They are very good at working on specific [technically complex] products, and that is the only way to get a truly unique product.
What markets present the most opportunity for Aperlaï?
AL: Right now, we are focusing on the U.S. market, first of all because we have had good results up until now. It was the first market to be interested in us, to follow us. The clients have been supportive and loyal. We have repeat business with them, sales are growing, so we should go forward with that. Now we plan to start developing the Asian market. With the clients there, what I like is that they pay a lot of attention to the details and really ask questions. They are interesting to work with. I’ve had special requests from China for lower heels. Whereas 7 or 8 centimeters may suit Europeans, for Asians who have smaller feet, 7 centimeters is a lot.
Do you have plans to branch out beyond footwear?
AL: We are looking to launch a line of clutches for spring ’13. They will complement but not match the shoes; they will be like little sculptures, minaudières. We also will do a special men’s edition of the Gatsby [signature loafers]. We’ve had several partners of clients ask if they can have a pair, so I’m going to start working with an artisan specializing in men’s shoes. I would love to wear my Gatsbys and have my husband have the same pair.
Since starting Aperlaï, how has your own style changed?
AL: Now, I always start with the feet [laughs].