John Lobb’s Paula Gerbase On Modernizing The Men’s Brand

Paula Gerbase is putting a new spring in John Lobb’s step.

Since joining the British men’s footwear brand as artistic director in 2013, the designer has been revamping John Lobb’s classic identity, introducing more casual categories with an eye to attracting a younger customer.

The label’s spring ’16 collection, priced from $1,410 to $1,633, features new lightweight styles, as well as expanded colorways of its leather-and-suede plimsoll sneaker that was introduced last season.

“It’s about listening to the customer who wants to wear John Lobb more often,” Gerbase told Footwear News. “Adding the plimsoll or new driving styles gives [our customer] an opportunity to have shoes for any occasion.”

Still, while Gerbase is introducing sporty casuals, dress looks remain the core of the collection. The brand’s welted shoes are produced in Northampton, England, and non-welted styles are made in Italy.

John Lobb Spring '16
The Ferris suede chukka boot for spring ’16.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

Born in Brazil and a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins design school, Gerbase — who also oversees her own ready-to-wear line, called 1205, which shows at London Fashion Week — said she saw the role at John Lobb as an opportunity to fuse a modern approach with her background in classic tailoring. “In a way, it was like coming home,” she said. “I started on Savile Row, and then I left to start my own brand, but it felt like the right moment to start working with a design house that shares the same values I do.”

Established on London’s Regent Street in 1866, John Lobb began as a bespoke bootmaker, creating styles for a roster of exclusive clients. In 1976, the brand was acquired by Hermès Group, and in 1982, it introduced its first ready-to-wear collection, quickly landing on the feet of such high-profile customers as Andy Warhol and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Today, Gerbase is helping John Lobb capture new retailer attention. The brand is also expanding its own retail footprint with a flagship set to open this summer in Miami.

“When you say ‘English shoes,’ you immediately think of John Lobb,” noted Tom Kalenderian, EVP and GMM of men’s and Chelsea Passage at Barney’s New York. “Paula is infusing a fresh, modern approach into classics with a dedication to luxury and quality. Her simple, super-chic sneaker is one example of why you don’t need many sneakers — just the right one.”

Here, Gerbase talks about updating classics, reviving archival styles and keeping up with the fast-moving men’s market.

What initially attracted you to working with John Lobb?

PG: The challenge. I’m quite curious, [and] I’m always interested in learning. [Also], I’m a true shoe geek. I’ll find something humorous, like using a derby detail on an oxford shoe, when everyone around me doesn’t.

What’s the inspiration behind the spring ’16 collection?

PG: Going into the archives this season — all the way back to the 1900s — it became apparent that there was a lot of movement present in John Lobb that hasn’t been explored for a while. I found a certain modernity and sense of adventure and sport that I didn’t imagine I would find. There were boat shoes, riding boots, golf shoes.

Did that lead to any new styles? 

PG: I worked with our Northampton factory to develop hyper-lightweight welted shoes. They’re completely unlined suede, and when you’ve
got them on, it feels like you’re in slippers. There’s also a new trio of saddle shoes. And we’re introducing a driving shoe this summer, which touches on this idea of movement.

You’ve brought a youthful quality to John Lobb’s classic appeal. How has the team reacted to your vision?

PG: It’s been an interesting challenge for [the factory] to create something that doesn’t come naturally to them. But they’re willing to let me challenge them, which I think is really rare, actually. It’s never just about repeating or re-launching styles. It’s about going to the essence of what each archival piece is about and then interpreting that in a modern way.

Each shoe has a 190-step production process. Does that limit the design possibilities?

PG: Every single step has someone who is a real expert on it, so it’s been about highlighting certain steps. For example, we did a storm welt last winter, and that’s about celebrating the Norwegian welt, which is the most waterproof welt you could have. It helps knowing the steps and the people who do the steps — that’s how I learn to use them for new styles.

Your first collection had a major sneaker focus. Will that continue?

PG: The Levah is a plimsoll that was based on an archival tennis shoe from the 1930s. It was clear that the customer was craving this kind of style — something you could wear in the city without feeling too casual. We’ll offer it for spring in new colors. I was just in the store the other day, and it [had] sold out.

Do you feel pressure to reference runway trends in your designs?

PG: Definitely not. I don’t look at fashion at all, actually. I read a lot. I go to galleries and museums. I spend time walking outside. I’ve never felt the need to look at other people’s work because what’s right for one brand isn’t right for another. My mood boards are always very abstract. It drives people crazy.

John Lobb Spring '16
The Harbour dress shoe for spring ’16.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

What’s your take on the direction of the men’s market?

PG: Menswear is quite exciting right now. There’s a lot of freedom and interesting new brands coming up. Men are shopping in different ways, and they’re more sure of who they are. That’s what I’ve always loved about menswear — it’s about individuality. They study what suits them and experiment with their uniform.

As a woman designing men’s shoes, do you seek feedback from male friends?

PG: I actually wear them — I’ve always worn men’s shoes. To me, they’re much more interesting than women’s shoes. The quality doesn’t even compare. We also have a fit model whom I’ve worked with for a while, and our pattern-cutter in Northampton test-drives [the shoes]. Among all of us, everyone wants to get their hands on the new collection. The main fight this season was over the featherweight shoes.

Is Europe still your biggest market?

PG: Europe is a big market, [but] John Lobb also does well in Japan; we have very loyal customers there. They’re extremely educated, not just about fashion and product but about construction.

The brand has been selective with its retail placement. Will you sell the upcoming collection at any new stores?

PG: We’ll have the full offering in our own stores. We’ll continue with our exclusive wholesale partners [including Barneys New York]. They’ve been excited about the newness. There’s not a huge number [of retailers] simply because the product needs to be in the right space.

Why did you choose Miami’s Design District for the newest John Lobb store?

PG: There seems to be a lot of energy there, and there was a customer [base] there expressing a desire for John Lobb. I’ve been working on windows this week for the store launch — I’m going to bring a bit of Cornwall to Miami.


[Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in print 07/13/15]

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