Growing up, Charlotte Olympia Dellal wanted to be an actress.
From a young age, she was enthralled with the glamour of Old Hollywood and became obsessed with the style of 1940s and ’50s screen sirens, namely Rita Hayworth.
“I love how she looked. I died my hair red because of her,” the designer, now blond, said from London last week.
But then Dellal — the daughter of wealthy London businessman Guy Dellal and Brazilian model Andrea Dellal — got a front-row view of the electrifying fashion world, and she wanted to be part of it.
“I liked the backstage element of it all, seeing everyone at work,” she said.
While she didn’t end up pursuing Hollywood, Dellal, 30, is poised for stardom of a different kind. As the very visible face of her 5-year-old footwear label, the designer has quickly established a reputation for shoes that marry a retro spirit, modern sensibility and quirky humor. For instance, her whimsical pre-fall ’12 collection centers on a Russian nesting-doll theme.
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Dellal’s imaginative designs and distinctive vision have made an indelible impression on retailers, and she now finds herself among a small group of young talents who are changing the face of luxury footwear. That’s not an easy feat in an industry still dominated by a few big-name designers.
“Charlotte is the name to watch. She is the future,” said Ken Downing, SVP and fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “She finds the perfect mix of feminine and refined, with a cool-girl edge that gives her collection a very personal and singular voice.”
“She has brought a new and powerful breath of fresh air to the collections,” added Kurt Geiger CEO Neil Clifford. “She is totally original in her design thinking.”
The designer herself has the kind of presence that demands attention. With her glamorous style and palpable ambition, Dellal relishes the opportunity to bring people into her unique world.
“Much in the way that Tamara Mellon represented Jimmy Choo, Charlotte is the perfect ambassador for her company,” said Helen David, GMM for women’s wear at Harrods.
Case in point: After Dellal wore her quirky “kitty flats” — velvet skimmers with a cat face sewn on the upper — celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Katy Perry and Alexa Chung snapped up a pair.
“She’s chic, stylish and always inspires major shoe lust, whatever style she is wearing,” said Holli Rogers, fashion director for Net-a-porter.com.
And Dellal is clearly not afraid to stake her claim.
For example, when asked about the resurgence of the single sole, she responded, “I don’t like to make my shoes seasonal. I do have single soles in the line, but I’m known for platforms. It’s important to keep your brand aesthetic and not change every five seconds. For me, I always want to wear a super-high heel.”
As passionate as she is about her design, Dellal also is serious about turning the label into a global luxury player.
To help make it happen, she recently brought in former Halston CEO Bonnie Takhar — who also spent time at Jimmy Choo — for the newly created role of chief commercial and merchandising officer. “She has [an expertise] I don’t,” Dellal said. “She’s helping me take the business to the next level.”
Dellal’s latest act will be her first New York store, set to open uptown in February. She also is expanding her wholesale assortment and debuted her first pre-fall collection earlier this month, when she also unveiled her “Runaway Bride” line and “Secret Closet,” a collection of signature styles.
“I’m growing slowly, but surely,” she said. “I want to build a brand with longevity.”
Why was now the right time to set up shop in New York?
COD: We’ve already been focusing on the States, so [expanding into retail] was a natural step. A lot of shoppers in my London store are American, and we send many shoes from our online site to the U.S. market.
Why did you choose 65th Street, just off Madison Avenue?
COD: I looked downtown — personally that’s where I sometimes go shopping in New York — but the brand is more uptown, and from the feedback I’ve gotten, New Yorkers shop there more. I chose a location just off Madison Avenue so I could be with the right neighbors but not next to them. [Similarly, in London], I’m just off Bond Street. It’s not a trek for people, but I like being a little hidden. It’s more intimate, more personal.
You’re also expanding your wholesale business. Which retailers are your most important partners?
COD: When I first started, I fell in love with the Bergdorf Goodman shoe salon. I liked the old-fashioned sensibility. So I had my heart set on Bergdorf and Neiman Marcus, and now [I’m growing] with them. But you have to be able to deliver to those kinds of retailers. My teething stages were in Europe. I’ve been building up to this. America’s a massive market.
You were an “it” girl in London before you launched your line. Did that help you gain exposure?
COD: I wouldn’t say I was an “it” girl. I went to [Cordwainers] and then I started interning. I wasn’t out partying. I was always studying and working. And I knew I wanted to have my own business, so I [focused on that] right away.
Many young designers struggle to get funding, but you had support from your family early on. How much of an advantage was that for you?
COD: My father helped me, and I was very fortunate. But I had to have a plan. I’ll never forget him asking me whether it was a business or a hobby. I said from the beginning that I wanted to build a business. I love designing shoes, but you have to [want to do] all aspects of it.
Describe the Charlotte Olympia woman.
COD: That would be an easier question for a male designer because he is describing a woman who is in his head. My shoes are very much a part of me. But I like to design for women of all ages, strong women who want shoes that can go from day to night. I’m not trying to make anything crazy. I want to make something special.
You debuted pre-fall for the first time this month. What prompted you to make that move?
COD: We got to that level where retailers were asking for it. We’re at a point where we can do four collections a year. And with our retail stores, it felt like we needed to have more collections.
You also just launched a bridal collection, which is full of unexpected styles and colors, including icy blue, lipstick red and leopard. What kind of opportunity do you see there?
COD: I made my own shoes when I got married, and during that time it hit me that there was a space for more bridal shoes in the market. [Most of what was out there] was white and silk peep-toe styles. I had been doing custom-made wedding shoes and not once was I asked for white. I wore leopard-print shoes for my wedding. I don’t think anyone saw them, for the most part, but when I sat down or lifted my dress up, you could see that flash of leopard. [What I like] about my bridal shoes is that you can wear them for your wedding, but you can also wear them after.
Would you ever venture into other categories — maybe men’s or kids’?
COD: Never men’s. I can say that wholeheartedly. My men’s shoe would be a classic shoe, and that doesn’t need to be redone. I always said that if I had a little girl, I would do mini-versions of my shoes, like my mini-fruit shoes.
You do have two young boys. How do you juggle running your business with motherhood?
COD: [Sometimes you ask yourself], which do I nurture more? I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, but I make it work. I’ve got my office next to my house, so sometimes [the kids] come in with me. I’m also lucky enough to have both my mother and mother-in-law here in London.
The fashion industry is still somewhat dominated by male designers. Why is that?
COD: I don’t know. You see more women in jewelry and bags. But most of the people I buy from are women. Women know what women want. I know what it feels like to wear high heels. All these male designers must have a woman behind them, either a muse or just someone who’s there. How can a man design for a woman and not have a woman to help him?
You made your own clothes for your spring ’12 presentation. Do you envision becoming a lifestyle brand down the road?
COD: It’s important [to convey] a feeling. I like people to get where I’m coming from and that’s sometimes hard with accessories. That’s why I did the clothing. It was about designing something that complemented the shoes. I’ve done clutches, and hats, gloves and hosiery for the same reason. With the store, we’ll have more opportunities [to have more products]. But I’m first and foremost a footwear designer.
The label she looks up to:
“I admire and love Prada. It’s a big global brand, but it hasn’t gone too corporate and it’s still got soul. It is still very much Miuccia Prada.”
Her biggest footwear influence:
“Manolo Blahnik is the designer I grew up with. I had a dog called Manolo once, and I used to try on my mother’s Manolos. I have a lot of respect for him. I know he doesn’t like a platform, so he’s completely opposite from me in that respect. But, like me, he does do special shoes [with a humorous twist]. And they are always elegant.”
Her first big break:
“In America, it was a piece in Vogue. After that, I noticed more retailers coming in the next season. It [helped set the stage]. I noticed that winning the Footwear News Emerging Talent award was also a big moment.”
“I’d love to work with Giambattista Valli. And there are a lot of artists and non-fashion people I’d like to collaborate with. [Home purveyor] Fornasetti is one.”
The allure of New York:
“I’ve been going to New York since I was younger, so it’s not a new city to me. But every time I go, I still feel like I’m in a movie.”
“I love ‘All About Eve’ and ‘Gone With the Wind.’ My favorite movie is ‘Gilda’ with Rita Hayworth.”
Her Brazilian roots:
“I am half Brazilian — my mom has always reminded me of that. I was just telling her how much I feel at home when I’m in Rio de Janeiro. It’s just one of those places I love. I am very adamant that my children speak Portuguese.”
Finding the right factory:
“No one wants to tell you how to do it, but I believe I’ve found a good one. You have to find someone who believes in you and who also understands you. With a lot of my shoes, you just have to get where I’m coming from.”
The best advice she’s ever received:
“Less is sometimes more. My mother told me that.”
Her own unique style:
“I’ve got a uniform. I love the 1940s and ’50s and timeless fashion. I discovered what I like and what works. I’m not a big shopper and I look for particular things. I love Prada and Miu Miu, Sonia Rykiel and Giambattista Valli. It’s not necessarily about trends, and it’s the same way with my shoes.”
The celebrity equation:
“I don’t throw shoes at celebrities, but I can’t deny it’s important. It’s about finding the right celebrities for the brand. For me, one of the first [big gets] was Sarah Jessica Parker. She wore my Dolly shoe.”
Teaming up with designers for the runway:
“I’m not doing as many shows this season. I like to see my shoes walk down the runway, but I have to prioritize. I’m doing more of my own collections now and opening the store.”
What to expect from the fall collection:
“A lot of sparkle. More eveningwear. For me, fall is nighttime and has that extra bit of glamour. Spring is daywear and wedges and espadrilles.”