While most Brits relished an end-of-May bank holiday last Monday, Nicholas Kirkwood was in Paris, holding court at a strategy session with his new partners from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
The meeting capped off a frenetic weekend, but that’s not unusual for the busy designer. On Friday, he was in Italy, putting the finishing touches on some spring ’15 styles. On Saturday, Kirkwood was at home in London, toiling away in his Mayfair studio, sitting down for an interview with Footwear News and squeezing in a visit with his No. 1 fan, his mom. Then he arrived in the City of Light on Sunday morning for meetings with an embroiderer and screen printer.
The 33-year-old has kept up a dizzying pace since launching his namesake collection nearly a decade ago. “I’m actually ahead with my work right now, so I might be able to take the August holiday off for the first time,” Kirkwood said over drinks at The Groucho Club, a longtime London social haunt. “But I don’t know what I would do with myself. I would probably panic and start working on pre-collection.”
The designer’s tireless work ethic, raw talent and huge ambition were all major factors in luring LVMH. “We shared the same vision of what luxury was about [and understood] the level of excellence and passion needed to build a brand,” said Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and CEO of LVMH Fashion Group.
Last September, when the company took a majority stake in Kirkwood for an undisclosed amount, the union became one of the most buzzed-about fashion acquisitions of the year. Never before had the luxury-goods giant, known for powerhouse labels such as Louis Vuitton, Céline and Givenchy, seen so much opportunity in a young, independent women’s footwear designer.
For Kirkwood, the acquisition opened a new chapter in a dramatic story that has been full of both exhilarating highs and painful lows.
“I could go on forever about all the things I should have done differently as I was building the brand,” said the candid designer. “I would have tried to raise some cash to have employees at the start, as opposed to doing every single job. I would have learned more about manufacturing and merchandising early on. I certainly would have managed my time [more effectively].”
Armed with those lessons and the valuable expertise of LVMH, Kirkwood said he is now determined to make the difficult leap from emerging talent to luxury mainstay.
“I [lived through] the time of being a young designer and all the things that come with that. But I’m growing up now,” he said.
Even prior to the deal, Kirkwood and his CEO, Christopher Suarez, looked hard at every aspect of the business. It had become increasingly complicated and multifaceted as Kirkwood expanded the collection, branched out into men’s shoes and opened stores in London, New York and Las Vegas.
To support the expansion, the duo needed to strengthen their management team — a major reason LVMH’s organizational expertise was so attractive.
After the marriage came to fruition, Kirkwood and Suarez moved quickly to make hires. In the past seven months, they have added a commercial director, CFO, PR and communications director and U.S. commercial manager. To strengthen the business in the all-important U.S. market, they also brought in former Bergdorf Goodman exec Sally Ross in a consulting role.
“For so long, we were almost like a family-run business with one person often doing five jobs. We needed to transition into a more structured organization,” Kirkwood said. “Of course, that process has its teething problems as well. But ultimately, it’s going to be good. A lot of things are starting to come together.”
Behind the scenes at Kirkwood’s Mount Street headquarters in London, the new team has been crafting a fresh product strategy, which will begin to take shape for spring ’15. The cornerstone of the plan involves building a stronger core collection, consisting of proven items that stretch across categories, heel heights and colors. “After we became retailers, we noticed how important it was for our wholesale partners to have commercial-driven styles on repeat offer,” Suarez said, adding that a new inventory replenishment program will help reinforce the importance of the core selections.
Kirkwood — who will open a permanent showroom in New York this year, followed by one in London in 2015 — noted that a stronger bread-and-butter assortment also allows him to take more risks on his fashion-driven styles. “I am so passionate about the statement pieces and now I don’t have to panic if those things don’t sell,” he said.
The designer added that he is energized by the opportunity to focus more on his creative endeavors now that he has better business support. “Before, I was stressing about a lot of different aspects of the company,” he explained. “Now it’s more about making sure the collection develops the way it should. I can take a step back and think about how to make things stronger and better.”
For their part, retailers said the new product initiatives are already evident. “The spring ’15 offering has both cake and frosting — commercial drivers as well as emotional, artisanal shoes,” said Cody Kondo, omnichannel SVP and GMM of women’s shoes and other accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue. “The brand is on a journey to becoming a pillar brand as opposed to an emerging or fringe one.”
As Kirkwood refines the line, he also is focused on improving the flow of merchandise into stores. “Stores aren’t as forgiving now. We can’t be late with our deliveries,” he said.
Under product director Stella Antoine, the company worked with its five Italian factories to boost efficiency across the supply chain. For example, Suarez said, the firm delivered 67 percent of the pre-fall orders to retailers by the end of May, compared with 27 percent at the same time a year ago.
That is good news for his retail partners, who said that LVMH will undoubtedly help strengthen operations further. “The support clearly will provide Nicholas with a high level of manufacturing competence, which will have a strong impact on his business with respect to timing, deliveries, pricing architecture, merchandising and [new] category opportunities,” said Peter Harris, president of Hong Kong-based Pedder Group.
Kirkwood is particularly excited about devoting more time to his fledgling men’s business, launched last year. To prove his ambition in the category, the designer plans to hold a presentation during London Collections: Men, set for later this month.
Kirkwood also is plotting additional category expansion and believes there are many opportunities beyond shoes. “Bags will be the next thing I will work on, and [I can envision] sunglasses, small leather goods and jewelry even,” he said. “I love the exactness of jewelry, the precise measurements. You get an element of that in shoes, but in jewelry, you really have a perfect product.”
On the retail front, the company has been experimenting with pop-up stores in Miami’s Bal Harbour Shops, at Isetan in Japan and at Printemps in Paris. And Level Shoe District is set to debut a Kirkwood pop-up later this year.
Level’s GM, Rania Masri, said the designer continues to be a standout for the retailer.
“Every season we plan exclusives with Nicholas and are proud to have limited editions that are only available in a few stores worldwide,” Masri said. “This is key for our global consumer, who wants to be unique.”
Overall, Kirkwood said he is eager to reach a bigger audience through ramped-up PR and marketing efforts, including a possible move into the social media arena, an area he has been reluctant to embrace. “There’s a way to do it, but not necessarily the obvious way,” said the designer, who has a Facebook page but has never visited it. “I don’t think I could live with myself if I started tweeting things like, ‘Look at these great shoes that just came in.’ I’ve always found that vile.”
The designer has always done things his own way, and as he gears up to mark his 10th anniversary, he has been reflecting on his journey so far. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go over the years. It’s not the easiest business by any means,” he said, “but I’m lucky I came along at a time when smaller brands were getting noticed more. Department store shoe floors got bigger. Shoes became much more prevalent in fashion shows. Now, they’re the leading accessory.”
He’s clearly bullish on the future of the industry, but where will the designer himself be 10 years from now?
“Hopefully not dead, or in jail or rehab,” he joked. “No, I would like to be zenning out on some mountain top knowing that everything is going swimmingly.”
KIRKWOOD ON …
The rebirth of single soles:
“I started trying to do single soles years ago, but no one wanted to buy them. It was frustrating. Finally, the industry came around. It’s a good thing. Designers are focusing more on the uppers, the details, the proportions of the heels. Before, you could get away with being a little bit clumsy as long as you had a more statement platform. We’re forced to look more at quality now.”
Being called the next Christian Louboutin:
“I’ve never thought of myself that way, but of course it’s very flattering. It’s not like people are saying I’m the next Crocs.”
His first call after signing the LVMH deal:
“My mom. She would have killed me if I called anyone else first. … She wears my shoes pretty much exclusively now, except when she’s in her winter boots.”
The person he would most like to see in his shoes:
“[The late] Marchesa Luisa Casati. She lived life to the max and was very much about having a great time. That kind of glamour is what people should aspire to today.”
His reluctance to introduce sneakers:
“I would love to do sneakers and I will at some point. With a brand my size, the danger is that if a trainer took off, I might become more known for that than the product I am really passionate about. But designer sneakers aren’t just a trend; they’re here to stay.”
His dream collaboration:
“[The late designer] Elsa Schiaparelli. She explored the surrealist movement in a way that was so new and impressive for her time. For example, the shoes she did with hair on them — that had never been done before.”
The success of former design assistant Sophia Webster:
“It’s fantastic. From the first time I met her, I knew she had something that no one else did. She had her own style, which was very different from mine. I knew with the right help, it could be something special.”