Cover Story: How Tabitha Simmons Juggles Growing Shoe Biz, Styling Gig

When she’s home in New York, Tabitha Simmons relishes her morning routine. She rises at 6:30 a.m., preps her sons Elliot and Dylan for the day and drives them from her Chelsea townhouse to school on the Upper East Side. “It’s my only constant,” the stylist-turned-designer said on a recent spring afternoon as she relaxed in her sitting room while sipping PG Tips tea. It was a rare moment of respite for Simmons, who had just wrapped FN’s cover shoot and was due to attend a Chanel party for the Tribeca Film Festival that evening.

Simmons is the kind of busy where plans must be made weeks in advance and will likely be changed a few times before she commits to a final date. There are a lot of scheduling conflicts, assistants and PR reps to get through first. Take one look at her Instagram account, the runways during fashion month or the pages of Vogue and it’s easy to see why. While shoes are one of her great loves, Simmons has other affairs (lots of them) to attend to as well.

“It varies for me, from one day being on set to the next day helping to cut up shoes abroad,” said the in-demand stylist, who regularly spends her days shuttling between Vogue’s offices at One World Trade Center (she’s one of the magazine’s go-to contributing editors) and her label’s offices a quick bike ride from her home.

It’s been six years since the designer launched her namesake footwear label with an unnamed British partner, and much has changed since then. After some initial growing pains, Simmons dramatically evolved her collection and is hitting her stride in a competitive luxury market. “I’ve been really lucky,” she said on the duality of her work. “Shoes have such a long lead time,” she said, citing six-week leather orders and four-week sampling turnarounds. “I fill in those blanks with editorials and everything else.”

Tabitha Simmons
Simmons’ surrounded by her designs.
CREDIT: Geoff Barrenger

While it may seem at first that she’s being pulled in too many directions — from shooting Kendall Jenner to styling two nonnas for a Dolce & Gabbana ad — all of these elements imbue Simmons’ work. But she admits that as the brand has grown from a side project into healthy business that’s  carried at about 60 top-tier retailers worldwide, she’s had to scale back on outside projects.

“I used to do consulting for other designers, campaigns, more shows. But now, in Paris it’s just my shoes, Milan is [styling the] Dolce & Gabbana show, New York is Tory Burch,” Simmons said. “I’m not spreading myself too thin any more. That was hard for me. I’d worked to have all these amazing projects coming in, but my label means so much. I’m more focused, and my shoes are more focused.”

Customers are drawn to a Simmons’ style, such as the best-selling Reed heel, Leticia sandal or Nash bootie, not just because they’re fetching, but also because shoppers want to walk in the designer’s enviable shoes. It helps that high-flying friends such as Karen Elson, Miranda Kerr and Lily Aldridge serve as unofficial brand ambassadors. Consistent press coverage, some of it within her own editorials, has also intensified the spotlight on the brand.

As a result, the designer stacked up a slew of accolades early on, including FN’s Launch of the Year in 2009, a British Fashion Award in 2011 and a CFDA Swarovski Award for accessory design in 2012. She was also a runner-up for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award. “I would recommend the program to any new designer,” she said.

While Simmons studied Fine Arts at Kingston University in her native England (she grew up in Cambridgeshire) and put in time hoofing around as a runway model, she has no formal footwear training and employs an in-house designer. “I’ve learned on the job,” she said. “When I started, my approach was very much like a fashion editor. I didn’t know anything about merchandising, competitive prices or about fighting with factories to make sure the shoes arrive on time. Those have been big learning curves.”

Indeed, while buyers from Net-a-Porter to Bergdorf Goodman were immediately smitten with the collection, sticker shock and the brand’s aesthetic about-face from season to season were continued criticisms. “I first saw her line at the Meurice Hotel in Paris,” said Justin O’Shea, buying director for Berlin-based MyTheresa.com.

“The collection was very small and very beautiful, but I remember going, ‘Fuck, your shoes are so expensive,’” he recalled of the looks, which started at $800, with many ringing in at more than $1,200. “I didn’t know if we were going to sell them, but she was one of those rare brands that makes you stop and have a look, like when you walk past a Ferrari shop,” he said.

After a few seasons, Simmons realized that to build a larger — and lasting — business, she needed to bring in outside expertise. Luckily, two important people came into her orbit. The first was Josh Schulman, who she met on a plane when he was president of Jimmy Choo. Later on, she requested that he formally mentor her through the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund program. “Her taste level and approach are unique,” said Schulman, now president of Bergdorf Goodman. “Immediately, I saw a lot of potential and wanted to help. She just needed to create consistency in her collections.”

Tabitha Simmons shoes
Left: Simmons’ Issa bootie. Right: The Bow pump.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

The designer welcomed the honest feedback. “The mentorship I got was priceless,” Simmons said of the relationship, which continued after the designated CFDA period ended.“It helped me in terms of merchandising and also about building a core.” Simmons elaborated on that point at this month’s FN CEO Summit in Miami: “I’ve learned that you can’t get rid of your best-selling styles just because it’s a new season,” she said of her fashion editors’ eye for what’s next.

Now, core styles such as the Early flat boot, Eva bootie, Bailey sandal and Hermione Mary Jane might get seasonal tweaks while remaining important signatures. O’Shea attests that this strategy has enabled him to expand his partnership with Simmons. “I have increased the amount of her shoes on the website, and we are having the best season we’ve had,” he said. “The work she’s done in achieving her look while bringing it a little closer to reality is allowing her to compete with major brands.”

While she discovered the importance of a strong core assortment, Simmons — who’s vying for the CFDA Accessories Designer of the Year award next week — also realized that it can take the market time to catch up with her forward eye. Take her pointed Alexa flats, which kick-started the silhouette’s resurgence. “At first, no one picked it up. But I brought it back and I stuck by it, and finally people came around,” she said confidently.

Tabitha Simmons Shoes
Left: The Maggie boot. Right: The Augustine pump.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

Today, the style is often copied but never quite replicated. “I’m not going to lie — I’ve walked past a [pointed flat] that was very similar to mine for $80,” she said in mock horror. For fall ’15, she’s offering a more rounded shape.

Simmons’ good sense applies not just to the whittle of a toe, but also to her team. On the advice of Schulman, she brought on a CEO, Irina Topuria, who has a background in management consulting. “The product was great, but I knew we could do a lot better with the business structure,” Topuria said.  “My first task was getting our prices sorted [out].”

The Dolly laceup and Sebille ankle-strap espadrille, for instance, now open the collection at $395, with heels starting at $695. “Before, I just made shoes I liked, and I didn’t understand the numbers side. Now, I’m much more clued-in,” Simmons added, noting that she and Topuria review sell-through sheets and production status reports every Monday. “Irina and I say we live to fight another battle.”

While Simmons’ approach may be that of a consummate student, her brand is graduating, with a new e-commerce site, expansion into small leather goods and further retail growth. So it might be time to pay it forward. At the FN CEO Summit, 19-year-old Italian wunder-kind Nicolò Beretta of Giannico, asked to be introduced to Simmons. “I’m a follower of hers. She’s just so talented, so chic,” Beretta said. “I want to ask her if she would consider mentoring me,” he said, beaming at the very thought. Simmons took an immediate interest and will soon view Beretta’s collection.

In Her Shoes
A few members of the designer’s celebrity fan club and a sampling of her stylist gigs.

Cara Delevingne
Her go-to bootie, the Eva, is now a collection signature style.

Alexa Chung
Simmons’ best-selling pointed flat is named for the “it” girl.

Tabitha Simmons Shoes
From left: Cara Delevingne, Simmons’ Alexa flat, Alexa Chung.
CREDIT: Getty Images, Courtesy of brand.

Fall ’15 Collections
Simmons styled Tory Burch and Dolce & Gabbana.

@tabithasimmons
Simmons often shares her shoes with followers when she’s on set.

Tabitha Simmons Stylist
From left: Dolce & Gabbana fall ’15 runway, an Instagram shot from Simmons, Tory Burch fall ’15 runway.
CREDIT: Getty Images, Instagram.

 

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