What do you get when you mix inspiration from Diana Ross and The Supremes and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” with a tropical environment? The spunky backdrop for Sophia Webster’s spring ’17 showing.
Since the British designer entered the shoe scene four years ago, she’s become known for her whimsical styles and presentations to match.
But make no mistake. Like Webster herself, her shoes have grown up dramatically over the years. On Sept. 19 at London Fashion Week, Webster is set to unveil a multifaceted collection that looks a lot different from her 2012 debut offering of girly, whimsical looks. “Flats and styles that are more comfortable [such as block heels and sneakers] have definitely given us a real opportunity to diversify what we do and our offering,” she said. Core styles such as the best-selling Chiara butterfly heels and Lucita wedges have also been updated.
Webster spoke candidly about the progression of her line, reflecting on product lessons learned early on when she was a student at Cordwainers at London College of Fashion and when she interned with Georgina Goodman. “All I wanted to design was high heels, and I was throwing everything on one shoe,” said Webster. “Georgina told me, ‘You’re shoe and separate it into 10 shoes.’ For me, I do have a lot of things [going on], so understanding how to get a balanced shoe — that’s a good lesson. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t.”
After graduating, Webster went to work for Nicholas Kirkwood. He helped the protégé pave her own path. “Nicholas and his [former] business partner [Christopher Suarez] being in my corner is a great thing,” she said. “To have people come out and say that my line was special, it definitely stood out and people did take notice.” (Kirkwood and Suarez both still have a financial interest in the business.)
Like every young designer, Webster experienced growing pains during her first few years as she and her husband and business partner, Bobby Stockley, worked to refine Brazilian production and establish strong retail relationships in a challenging climate. The label launched handbags for the spring ’16 season, and it operates a growing kids’ collection, which is often worn by the couple’s daughter, Bibi.
The focus on diversifying her collection has been paying off. During a particularly difficult year for many fashion players, Webster has seen wholesale orders grow 40 percent in 2016 compared to last year. Her digital business has also taken off, and Webster now has a new passion project: the label’s first brick-and-mortar store, in London’s upscale Mayfair neighborhood.
“Obviously, we do so much with our website and social media,” she said, “but it’s all through our phones and computers. To interact with customers in real life [at the store] is great.”
As thrilling as it is to have her own store, the duo acknowledged that it was a challenge to juggle all three components of the business. “With e-commerce, we are experiencing triple-digit growth year-over-year,” said Stockley. “Obviously it won’t grow at that rate forever. We are [figuring out] the ratio of brick-and-mortar to e-commerce. Within the U.K., we can replenish our stock in 24 hours, which is a huge thing. Wherever we look to open stores next, we want to continue that momentum.”
As Webster plots new moves, she is forging ahead with some critical funding from the British Fashion Council, which awarded her the annual BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund prize earlier this year.
“The win was a bit of a marker. I don’t think we’ve properly stopped to take it all in,” she said. “It’s exciting; the fashion fund is such a good thing.”
As part of the program, Webster has been working with Paul Smith as her mentor. Smith is someone Webster has always admired — a designer she feels “has stood the test of time.” “We’ve been speaking to him about how you scale a brand, while keeping the qualities that are unique to you and special to you,” said Webster. “We are making sure that the team, however big it gets, understands what those [traits] are.”
Smith believes that big things are ahead for the 31-year-old designer. “[Sophia and Bobby] are clearly a well-balanced pair and in a strong position to grow the business and do well,” he said.
Webster is using the prize money — which amounts to 200,000 pounds, or $265,000 at current exchange rate — to fuel that expansion. She has been able to staff up and is in the process of moving to expanded headquarters. “We’ve built a team of 38 people. I had so many ideas, and we had to hold back a bit for quite a while,” she said. “Now we can execute what we want to do, such as laying out our international business plan — that’s special.”
“We have a stronger foundation from when we first started,” added Stockley. “We were constantly running uphill, and now it feels a bit more structured. We have the right team — from production to design.”
The group is particularly focused on driving excitement at the new store with exclusive product initiatives and VIP events.
“It’s a buy-now, wear-now [retail] landscape, and it’s opportunistic. [We are learning] what consumers want,” Stockley said, noting that the store manager is charged with collecting customer data to better serve them. “The exciting thing is the future of retail is in front of us.”
The couple’s emphasis on creating a strong customer experience also extends to their wholesale partners, which include Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Matches Fashion and Level Shoes. At Level, for example, the teams have worked together on several exclusive projects, including a bridal collection and a special capsule for the Chiara style. “Every season our business [with Sophia] continues to grow. Her designs are fresh, feminine and fun. These are traits that make her unique in the market and truly distinctive,” said Alberto Oliveros, head buyer at Level.
The business has also benefited from a sizable celebrity following. “Every now and then, you hear Sophia scream [when she spots a celebrity in the brand],” quipped Stockley.
Within the first month of the store opening, Taraji P. Henson from the TV series “Empire” shopped there — and she posted Snapchat videos while trying on the product.
For Webster, the most exciting celebrity moment came when Gwen Stefani wore the designer’s shoes in the singer’s “Misery” video. “I’ve been a fan since high school,” Webster said.
Stylist Jessica Paster has worked closely with Webster’s team since the brand’s inception, and she outfitted Emily Blunt in Webster’s shoes for this year’s Academy Awards. “When you have shoes that are super-fun, a lot of people will want to collaborate with you. Sophia offers something different than a classic shoe,” Paster said.
Celebrity shout-outs get prime placement on social, where the brand has been communicating with consumers from the beginning. Webster has more than 800,000 Instagram followers. “It’s a way to convey our ethos and our message and what we do. We also tried to be early adopters on Snapchat,” said Webster. “I’m a real person and not a faceless brand. That makes the brand easier to relate to.”
Many of Webster’s fans relate to her role as a mother: She regularly features Bibi on her social channels and said motherhood has changed her as a leader. “It’s made me better at managing a team,” she said. “You have this different perspective to life. It helps with time management.”
Webster also talked about other female designers who have children and are running their own businesses. “Charlotte Olympia Dellal, Tabitha Simmons and Chloe Gosselin — I have a lot of admiration for [fellow mothers in the industry].”
Even in a competitive market filled with talent, Webster and Stockley are banking on their point of view to propel the brand forward. Level Shoe’s Oliveros said he is confident in the future of their business. “In three short years, Sophia has managed to become a player with a number of global accolades and one of our most valuable brands,” he said. “Her future is bright.”
Looking ahead, Stockley said that growth plans are certainly in place, but the duo is being careful not to sprint: “We are trying to get better by making the brand and the production as good as possible.”
For her part, the designer is feeling confident with a larger team behind her, the first store up and running — and the BFC backing in place. “It’s exciting,” Webster said, “and now the possibilities are endless.”