One overcast afternoon in late June, Paul Andrew arrived at the Viceroy Hotel in New York during a nonstop week of travel.
The designer had just returned home after a trip to Los Angeles, where he presented his resort collection to several top Hollywood stylists and press. Andrew was back in the Big Apple for 48 hours to meet with Tory Burch, who is mentoring him as part of his CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund prize package. Then he was off to Paris to preview pre-spring with buyers in his elegant showroom near Notre Dame and host a consumer event at Colette.
While it might sound like a grueling schedule, this pace has become typical for the designer during a critical moment in his career.
“It feels like I’m going from fledgling designer to someone who is more known,” Andrew told FN in an exclusive interview. “I’m not an established brand by any stretch, but all of the sexy buzz isn’t the same as when I launched. Now, it’s really about the product and sustaining growth. And that’s exciting for me.”
After debuting his collection for spring ’13, Andrew quickly became one of the industry’s most in-demand rising stars, juggling his fast-growing collection with an astounding 11 outside gigs.
His work with New York design legends, including Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg and Vera Wang has been instrumental in his journey, he said. Andrew was part of Karan’s team for 10 years before he launched his own line and has worked for Calvin Klein, Narciso Rodriguez and Alexander McQueen.
“They all have such a different point of view and aesthetic, and it keeps me on my toes,” said the Britain-born Andrew, whose father’s work as an upholsterer for Windsor Castle, the residence of Queen Elizabeth II, inspired him to become a designer. “Part of what I’ve learned is that you can’t just launch a collection with staggeringly high runway shoes. You have to have balance if you’re going to create a strong business.”
Von Furstenberg believes he’s well on his way. “Paul is a true talent and really understands shoes,” she said. “He pays a great deal of attention to fit and women’s needs in general. He’s a total pro and will be one of the shoe designers who has an impact.”
Von Furstenberg, who is president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, was just one of the powerful fashion names on the panel that chose Andrew as the first-ever footwear winner of the much-buzzed-about CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund competition last November. “Diane was instrumental with her support, even before the Fashion Fund. I consider her so dear. In a way, she is like a second mother to me,” Andrew said.
The award “changed everything,” according to the designer. “It’s amazing how the world is really aware of that competition. It dramatically increased my brand awareness and put me on the radar of titans in the industry who may not have necessarily known my name before.”
Burch is one of those titans. Andrew said his mentor has already had a major impact on him. “Tory is such a unique designer and also the most intelligent and smartest businesswoman I’ve probably ever met,” Andrew said. “She advises me when I think I haven’t gone in the right direction with something. Tory’s main nugget of advice is to focus on what’s really going to help the business and my margins. Editing is not my strength, and I have an inclination to add too many SKUs,” he admitted.
With those lessons in mind, Andrew travels to Italy every 10 to 15 days to oversee design and production in his factories. “I’m so incredibly hands-on. I love it — that’s what I enjoy most,” he said. “I’m working with artisans who have been making shoes their entire lives. When I started, I challenged the way they were molding the lasts and proportions of the arch and the construction.”
That passion for craftsmanship helped Andrew attract immediate attention from top retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman.
“I recall vividly my first [encounter] with Paul,” said Linda Fargo, SVP of the fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman. “As soon as we walked into the hideaway location in Paris where he was showing, we knew there was [something] there. I was fortunate to be with our president, Josh Schulman, who has a special radar for footwear. We both got a feeling that happens rarely with these explorations. Paul had shoes that straddled that golden crossroads of being both editorial and commercially viable. He has continued to evolve, but this DNA we saw on our first encounter has remained a pitch-perfect balance of trend and emotion, with a strong core business.”
Fargo added that Andrew’s personality is also part of his power. “Paul happens to be an elegant and genuine person and is a natural magnet for the social aspect, which is also key to growing any business now,” she said.
With Fargo and other retailers in the designer’s corner — his number of accounts has increased by 53 percent since the November Fashion Fund win — Andrew said his challenge now is to evolve the structure of the company. “We’ve grown significantly. Because of that, I’ve taken on new employees — someone who is overseeing the financial side of the company and a couple of additional assistant designers,” said Andrew, who stated candidly that it’s often difficult for him to step back. “I will admit that in the beginning, it was something of a challenge for me, because it’s my name on the shoes. I feel like I need to be in control of every aspect, but part of being a good manager is when you know your limits and true level of expertise,” he said. “I hired people who are experts in each of these fields. It’s only going to behoove me in the end to let go a little bit.”
Now, the designer said he has the opportunity to think about a long-term strategy for his brand. After debuting a temporary space in London on the second floor of Donna Karan’s shop earlier this year, further international expansion is in the works. He is plotting more pop-ups, with the potential for a branded store down the line. “Every designer’s dream is to have your own store and your own environment. You are able to showcase your brand in the way you envisioned it. When I do it, it will be a little shoebox of a store and an intimate space, where I feel a closeness to the product.”
Andrew also has talked openly about his desire to launch men’s, but only when the timing is right. “[While working for] other designers, I did handbags and men’s shoes, so that’s something that interests me — when I’ve managed to perfect the fit and quality of the women’s shoes.”
Andrew — who collaborates with Tanya Taylor, Rosie Assoulin and Emilia Wickstead, among others on the runway — said outside projects have helped pay his bills along the way, since his business is self-funded. But as he takes his collection into fresh territory, the designer understands that he might have to limit external work. “I’ve had to step back from a couple, which was the advice presented to me during the Fashion Fund experience. Ironically, I was collaborating with two people [on the judging panel],” he said.
Andrew added that while he has benefited greatly from the advice he’s received, he’s determined to stick to a path that’s all his own. “It’s about doing this in a considered and slow way. I don’t want to rush into anything and have it not be successful,” Andrew said. “I don’t want to be a shoe designer who’s here today and gone tomorrow. This is a business that’s going to be here for a long time.”
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in print 07/27/15]