To witness Katy Perry rummage through a garment rack is perhaps catch a glimpse of what it’s like to whip up a hit pop song.
She seeks out a hook, searching for everything and nothing in particular: a strong shape, a flash of color, a cheeky print, a retro hint or a film reference, some sort of spark to get the narrative going. A riff that will be both clever and universally appealing, provocative but friendly to all ages. Above all, it has to be fun — both the song and the look.
The pop star is on set for her FN cover shoot in L.A. in mid-May, standing outside a glam-packed green room with her stylist, Tatiana Waterford. Wearing a gray tracksuit and baseball cap, she continues to deftly work her way through the clothing racks, stopping every so often to look back at a cart filled with shoes. Most people build their outfit with footwear as the final punctuation mark. Perry starts with shoes and works her way up.
Just a few months ago, the superstar announced that Katy Perry Collections, the footwear brand she launched in 2017, is all hers. After a nearly six-year partnership with Global Brands Group Holding Ltd., the star purchased the brand outright after Global Brands Group USA Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the summer of 2021.
“I was faced with the choice of fading away into obscurity with this line that I have worked so hard on for five years and that is just coming out of its infancy and finding its strengths — or just leveling up,” Perry told FN at the time of the announcement. “I decided to take complete ownership and level up, find great partners, develop my team and put into practice all of the education I have learned — and just be that CEO boss bitch that I want to be.”
Now, it’s all on Perry. And while the move comes at a challenging time in both footwear and fashion, the 37-year-old star has proven — as one of pop music’s biggest names for nearly 15 years now — that she knows how to make hits.
The star says her obsession with shoes goes back to her childhood, but her professional interest seems to have followed a parallel and intertwined track to her music career. “When I got to L.A., I went to this club every Thursday night called Star Shoes,” she recalls. “In the window, there were all of these gorgeous shoes from the ’40s and memorabilia-type shoes.” That’s where she would sport her favorite pair of flats (a thrift store find) done in a Dalmatian print with bendable ears, whiskers and a tongue flapping over the pointed toe — which would ultimately inspire the entirety of Katy Perry Collections. “I would wear these shoes everywhere around L.A., and the amount of people who would stop me was by the hundreds. That is what solidified the dream of having my own shoe company.”
Her 2017 launch came after a three-year period of self-education and research that included trips to factories in Italy along with courtships from major brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Vince Camuto. When Perry finally signed with Global Brands as a joint venture, the artist tapped her longtime stylist and friend Johnny Wujek (now one of her costume designers) for co-creative direction, alongside veteran footwear designer Selena McCartney.
“I was grateful for the time as a co-venture [with Global Brands], because I learned so much,” says Perry. For the label’s next chapter, she and McCartney, the brand’s design director, are reexamining past designs to inform future collections. “I want to bring it back to its true soul, which has a little bit more personality, a little more kitsch.”
For instance, a pair of Loewe spring ’22 sandals outfitted with nail polish bottles as heels recently reminded Perry of all the avant-garde shoes she has created over the past six years, from cigar stilettos to lemon slice jellies. “We would create all of these amazing, insane shoes and of course some of them were unrealistic because of the costs and the minimums. But it doesn’t mean that they weren’t good ideas,” she says.
The success of every release now lies with Perry, who says she is ready to take a few more risks.
“When you’re dealing with other people’s money you have to keep a set of rules in mind because it’s a business, but when you’re taking all of the risk, you don’t have to be responsible for everyone else,” she says. “That’s great, too, because when you win, you win really big. When it doesn’t work, you’re the only one that has to let yourself down. It’s a pivotal moment to roll the dice.”
To help keep the odds in her favor, Perry has pulled in Gene Berkowitz as the brand’s president. The footwear heavyweight’s resume includes Ralph Lauren, BCBG and Camuto Group, and most recently he spent nearly a decade as division president of Steve Madden’s Steven line. Berkowitz describes sales from the Katy Perry spring ’22 relaunch as “robust,” and has lined up Nordstrom, Macy’s, Zappos, Amazon, Belk, Verishop, QVC and Von Maur as retail partners for fall ’22, in addition to the brand’s own site, which relaunched in late March.
As for the product, Perry’s goal is crystal clear: “I want to make shoes for my fans.” And while the star says she’s looked up to designers like Charlotte Olympia and Sophia Webster for their sense of whimsy in the luxury market, she knows that keeping her price points affordable (spring ’22 is priced from $39 to $129 while fall ’22 ranges from $59 to $169) will help keep her fans interested — and avoid the notorious pitfalls that other celebrity designers have encountered.
“I want to be an option for personality shoes at a great price point,” says Perry. “When you want to try something, you’re not going to want to break the bank. I understood that my fans couldn’t always afford a $450 to $750 shoe.”
Knowing her customer is par for the course for someone who has commanded the pop music limelight amid the music industry’s streaming revolution. Similarly, as the fashion industry becomes further segmented, the star’s cultural potency becomes even more crucial. When her brand first launched, Perry had yet to sign on with “American Idol.” Now, she has access to one of the country’s most captive audiences and a built-in platform to show off her personal style, shapeshifting from latex dresses and cargo pants to “Little Mermaid” costumes with a comedic intimacy to her audience that is reminiscent of Lucille Ball. Fans can count on Perry to push the envelope but keep things family-friendly; to experiment with out-there looks but always retain a thread of pop culture familiarity.
Many in the fashion industry have also come to expect Perry’s personal style to err on the side of costume. Ahead of this year’s Met Gala, Tom Ford lamented the event’s fashion evolution, singling out two of Perry’s past looks (both of which were designed by Moschino’s Jeremy Scott). “You didn’t have to dress like a hamburger, you didn’t have to arrive in a van where you were standing up because you couldn’t sit down because you wore a chandelier,” Ford told Time magazine in April.
When Perry stepped on the red carpet on May 2, she was decidedly more demure, wearing a custom one-shouldered black-and-white Oscar de la Renta gown accented in black floral lace and chiffon with sheer gloves, paired with clear Aquazzura sandals.
“I wanted to take it somewhat seriously. There would have been a world where I would have done something like Billie Eilish — I loved the sleeves,” says Perry, who has attended the event for nine years and running. “I wanted to be more modern, to almost look like the underpinnings of the era, as if you took one of those dresses and X-rayed it. I think it was a step in the right direction and it kept people guessing. It’s about keeping people on the edge of their seats and surprising them.”
Regardless of her motives, Perry’s fans probably would have preferred the hamburger or chandelier. Fashion already has the ultra-serious, from Demna Gvasalia’s normcore perversion at Balenciaga to Ford’s own glam-luxe world of bespoke tailoring and sexy gowns (many of which Perry has herself worn). But when it comes to the average person, it’s more often Perry’s cartoonish ensembles that make headlines.
“I decided once you show up as a cheeseburger to the Met and conquer the theme of ‘camp,’ you can do anything! I feel like that is peak,” Perry says with a sense of pride. “We all know that women are not just one thing. That goes for me with my fashion personality. I’ve taken a satirical approach to fashion. I’ve always had fun with it, I’ve never taken it too seriously.”
Perry’s blend of fun, whimsy and satire also courses through her Las Vegas residency, “Katy Perry: Play,” which debuted in December and runs through October. Onstage, the star can be seen prancing in red latex chaps with a mushroom hat; wearing a metallic mini dress made of crushed beer cans; or playing Alice in Wonderland to a gigantic toilet.
Her footwear collection is something more like camp-lite, with seashell-shaped kitten heels, floral sneakers and sandals decorated with daisy- themed beads (no doubt a nod to her nearly-2-year-old daughter, Daisy). As a millennial, Perry has been especially savvy at translating her generation’s penchant for ’80s and ’90s nostalgia: The brand’s best sellers are an array of themed jelly shoes.
That millennial brand of pining for the past has also inevitably circled back to her music catalog, especially as many of her hits have reached the decade mark, solidifying into anthems for a generation that is now looking back at their 2010s young adulthood.
“Enough time has passed where people are telling stories of that time,” she says. ”Once I got onto the scene in 2008, it was basically 10 years of just going, going, going and putting out tons of music and things were bursting. It’s nice to be able to be a part of that time and to keep putting out music in such a popular way. I am so grateful for all of it — the peaks, the valleys, the ups, the downs, all of it is a blessing.”
The kitsch and camp are Perry’s calling cards, but they can also at times obscure her tenacious activism. Both she and fiancé Orlando Bloom are UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors. And over the years, she’s advocated for gun reform, voting, LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights, including abortion. “More than ever, I believe that it shouldn’t be governed by men. Women should have a right to their own bodies,” she says.
Within the brand, Perry says her biggest mission is to move the needle on sustainable design, focusing on making her bestselling “geli” sandals out of fully recycled materials (currently only 25% of the style is recycled plastic).
“When I had my child, I thought to myself, what is the world going to look like when she is 35? Will she look at me and ask, ‘Mom, did you do your best to leave me and my generation something livable?’ I have a personal responsibility, and in general we all have that responsibility. Everyone loves to argue in politics. But we might need to first solve the fundamental crisis that is going on, which is the environment. There is no other subject that is more important.”
In 2019, Perry launched the Firework Foundation, with the goal of empowering children in underserved communities to tap into the arts. Its programming includes a summer camp that the star herself attends, supervising workshops on songwriting, music production and choreography — and most recently, sketching and design classes through L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
“The strongest cause is the one that is the most relatable. When you try to do corporate virtue signaling, people are like, eh, yeah right,” she says. “I want to buy a great product, and if they have a great cause that they are contributing to, then I feel even better.”
Back on set, Perry has swiftly cycled through four looks, balancing kitten heels on her head and gamely stepping out of seamless paper. With only minutes to spare before heading to a fundraising event for the Firework Foundation, Perry finalizes her look for the evening: a Girl Scout-themed khaki mini-dress, which Waterford will quickly decorate with patches before she departs. Camp Katy is officially in session.