Tabitha Simmons Looks to the Past to Bring Her Brand Into the Future

On Dec. 4, Tabitha Simmons will be honored with the Designer of the Year Award at the FN Achievement Awards (watch the livestream here). Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 3 print issue about how she has built her following. 

This year, a set of photographs from 1917 England broke records at an auction in London, fetching 10 times more than the estimate. Known as the Cottingley Fairies, the portraits were taken by two young sisters who used paper cutouts and hatpins to portray themselves with the mythical creatures, setting off a centurylong debate on the legitimacy of the images — and the existence of fairies.

It was just the sort of thing that gave Tabitha Simmons inspiration, and the photos served as a foundation for her fall ’18 collection, which featured delicate fairylike feathers on sandals, Victoriana lace-up boots and flat military styles that read as both antique and modern.

It has been almost a decade since Simmons debuted her brand — a move that earned her the 2009 Launch of the Year award from FN — but elegance, femininity, whimsy, a sense of history and, yes, a few endearing eccentricities have remained steadfast threads in her footwear designs throughout an inevitable rise.

Weston Wells; Tabitha Simmons;
Tabitha Simmons
CREDIT: Weston Wells

Her influences often veer toward British traditions, and lately, they have become more specific, such as with the Cottingley Fairies and through an ongoing partnership with a nearly 300-year-old English silk mill to develop exclusive specialty fabrics in delicate floral prints and jacquards. “I love Victorian, feminine things, Edwardian things. I really do pull a lot from my English roots,” said the designer as she sat down with FN over a cup of tea (milk, no sugar) in her Upper East Side apartment.

That personal element to her brand is widely recognized. “Tabitha is not only a gifted designer of shoes, she’s also a wife, mother, fashion editor and businesswoman,” said Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, where Simmons works as a contributing editor. “She elevates everything she does — and not just because she is in heels.”

Throughout her design career, Simmons has had a mission to create footwear that is as modern, elegant, versatile and hardworking as she needs them to be for her own life. “Women are getting busier,” said the multitasker, who, in addition to her brand and Vogue duties, continues to style Dolce & Gabbana’s runway shows. “Like with me: [I have] a baby, two teenage boys; I’m styling and also running a shoe company. We want something to wear during the day and carry on through to the night. I put my shoe on, wear it, and I’ll be in it until I come home.”

Simmons has always had one advantage over her male counterparts in that she can personally test all of her shoes to provide direct feedback to her factory near Florence, Italy. “I’m still a baby in the shoe industry, getting my identity,” said Simmons. “I want to be able to say [to the customer]: ‘This is our shoe, and this is how it feels.’”

Lately, she and the brand’s CEO, Norah Atterbury (a Gucci and Jimmy Choo alum who in August was promoted to the position, from director of sales), have been putting more emphasis on those tried-and-tested collections. They’ve shifted their strategy to carrying over more evergreen styles — like the pointy-toe Hermione flat or the hiking-inspired Bexley boot — to keep loyal customers in their shoes season after season. Case in point: The majority of Simmons’s 100 wholesale partners now carry a version of the Hermione.

Weston Wells; Tabitha Simmons;
Tabitha Simmons
CREDIT: Weston Wells

The brand has grown in recent seasons with advice from Coach CEO and president Joshua Schulman, who mentored Simmons after she won the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Accessory Design in 2012. “As an editor, she was always moving fast from one season’s trends to the next. I suggested she slow it down and tell an ongoing story where one season builds on the next,” said Schulman. “It’s rewarding to see how the brand has evolved and gone from strength to strength.”

One of those strengths is a steady stream of collaborations that have proved successful in the Instagram age. This year, Simmons continued her ongoing partnership with Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz to create feathered mules and sandals, mules and pumps for resort ’19. She also teamed with Laura Vassar and Kris Brock of the burgeoning womenswear label Brock Collection to create romantic kicks for their spring ’19 line, and during Paris Fashion Week in October, she feted a capsule collection of footwear and ready-to-wear with Equipment.

“It took me a few years to start again on collaborations,” said Simmons, who first worked with J.Crew on a capsule of moderately priced shoes in 2012. “But if it feels right, then why not?”

Indeed, if the shoe fits, Simmons will wear — and design — it.

Click through to view celebrities who love Tabitha Simmons shoes.

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