Fourteen days before her London Fashion Week runway debut, Charlotte Olympia Dellal vividly recalled the high-energy catwalk shows she experienced at a young age.
“It was always so impressive and exciting to see something that was live and real. I remember the girls had so much personality, and they didn’t all look exactly the same. They were a little more free,” observed the designer, who held her first show last Friday. “It just felt like the right moment.”
Dellal has had a knack for good timing ever since she made her grand entrance onto the footwear stage in 2007. She instantly invigorated the market with her unique style and vision for a brand that was equal parts glamour and fun. Today, she continues to forge ahead with her distinct approach, even as the luxury market faces major changes and fresh challenges.
What stands out most about Dellal is her intense focus on details — whether she’s launching an imaginative collection, throwing an unforgettable dinner party or dreaming up an intricate presentation. “Charlotte is the queen of clever,” said Lauren Santo Domingo, cofounder of Moda Operandi.
For the designer’s fans — and Dellal herself — stepping onto the runway seemed like a natural move.
“I always have an underlying theme for every collection. In the showroom, it translates with the flowers I have or the music I play. Now it’s on a different level,” she explained. “Maybe my inspiration will come to life a bit more. I’m excited to see the shoes walk. As much as they’re objects, they look extra good walking.”
Of course, staging a runway show isn’t typical for an accessories designer. But Dellal hasn’t stuck to a traditional playbook in her career — and she’s determined to build her brand her own way. “My process is probably more like a ready-to-wear designer, and I always think about what the girls would wear even if I’m just showing shoes,” said Dellal, who titled her new collection “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” and was inspired by retro science fiction movie posters and comic books.
The designer emphasized that while her models are wearing Charlotte Olympia creations from head to toe, the emphasis is not on the clothes. “I’m not launching ready-to-wear,” she said. In fact, Dellal intended for the apparel to be understated, while the shoes and other accessories are crafted using colors and textures to make them stand out. And for fall, she continues to push the envelope by focusing on her signature platforms in a bigger and bolder way.
Hair and makeup also were a major focus for the designer, whose retro curls and red lips help define her own striking style. “I think of them as accessories, too,” she explained.
As Dellal prepared for the show — which took place at Roundhouse, a performing arts venue in Camden — fashion insiders were eagerly anticipating her turn on the catwalk. “Charlotte’s presentations are always more of a happening than a market appointment, so I couldn’t wait to see what she was going to do when she had a full-fledged show,” said longtime friend and Vanity Fair editor Derek Blasberg, who first met the designer 14 years ago, when they were at university in London. “What I think we liked in each other was a sense of fun. Not much has changed.”
What has changed dramatically for Dellal, 34, is the size and scope of her brand — and her family, too. “I always [measure] key moments in the business by thinking about which of my children had been born,” she said. “I started when I was pregnant with my first son,” said the now mother of three. “So my kids have grown as the business has grown.”
The company reported an average annual growth rate of 45 percent over the last four years. It now operates 10 stores in markets around the world, including five in the U.S. and two in London. The brand also has locations in Dubai, Hong Kong and Bangkok, and this spring will open its newest door in Moscow. “Being able to showcase my product in its own environment has been so important. It gives me insight into my end consumer, and I love visiting my stores,” the designer said, adding that opening her first shop in London’s Mayfair neighborhood six years ago was a milestone.
Another turning point? When she brought in Bonnie Takhar as president in 2011 to help take the business to the next level. Together, the duo has been forging ahead with a carefully crafted strategy, which must continually evolve amid new competition, fast-changing trends and global uncertainty.
Takhar, who previously held top posts at Jimmy Choo and Halston, has witnessed the seismic changes at retail firsthand. And she has noticed some particular patterns in Charlotte Olympia’s own business.
“Online, we are seeing customers shopping for iconic styles. They know what they want and what the brand is known for,” Takhar said. Still, physical stores invite more impulse buys, especially when shoppers have the chance to take in the full brand experience, she added. “So investment in stores remains relevant for us. But will we ever develop retail at the level that mature brands have? Probably not.”
For her part, Dellal is well aware that digital is a critical piece of the business and will only become more vital. “At the same time, I am old-fashioned in that I [prefer] things to feel real. You’re talking to someone who likes handwritten notes and not just email. There is an online experience, but nothing beats a real-life experience,” she said.
The designer’s top wholesale partners certainly agree with that sentiment. Nordstrom has positioned Charlotte Olympia in some of its best markets, most recently adding it to the mix at its Vancouver, B.C., location. “Charlotte’s collection adds a fun dimension and whimsical personality for the woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously,” said Anne Egan, Nordstrom’s VP and national merchandise manager of designer shoes. One example: the Zodiac-inspired Cosmic collection, which elicited a strong response from Nordstrom consumers.
Besides Dellal’s statement shoes, Egan said the designer’s endearing personality establishes an immediate connection with everyone she encounters. “Charlotte would be the perfect guest at your dinner party,” Egan noted. “She is interesting, creative, personable, worldly and fun.”
As Dellal and Takhar continue to cautiously grow distribution — the brand is 32 percent penetrated in wholesale channels — the designer also is broadening her audience through several buzzy collaborations.
Last week, she debuted her playful new capsule with Havaianas, which celebrates her roots — her mother, Andrea Dellal, hails from Brazil. And Dellal explored a completely different side of her personality when she teamed with lingerie specialist Agent Provocateur on a flirty new line. “From a personal perspective, I’ve always loved lingerie, and our brands share the same sensibility of femininity, glamour and playfulness,” said the designer. In addition, Dellal, who is well known for her love of old Hollywood and silver-screen sirens, also partnered with MAC on a retro-glam makeup line, due out this spring. “I love the beauty aspect of things — that’s what got me into fashion.”
Dellal only seems to get more energized with each new project. Not surprisingly, she has a sizable list for expansion, but she wants to be careful about going too fast. “It’s not easy to build a brand, and everyone does it a little differently,” she said. “This whole journey has been a high point for me, and we’ve done quite a few things. But I always look forward.”
For a closer look at Charlotte Olympia’s fall ’16 shoe collection, explore the gallery below.