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Q&A: Nicholas Kirkwood on sustainable footwear and staying on his A-game

First appearing on the footwear scene back in 2005, British luxury shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood quickly took the industry by storm with his sculpted, architectural designs that combined unconventional materials with high craft and cutting-edge technology.

His unexpected, daring designs gained him a celebrity cult following, from the likes of the late Isabella Blow, Grace Jones and Daphne Guinness, to today’s A-list celebs such as Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna and Sarah Jessica Parker. Kirkwood was also the first accessory designer to be awarded the British Fashion Council/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, and attracted a keen interest from luxury giant LVMH, who now owns a majority of his eponymous label.

Recently, Kirkwood was invited by Lane Crawford to visit Hong Kong to introduce a curated edit of his Spring Summer 2018 collection, along with a series of Casati pearl slippers in exclusive colourways. We took the chance to sit down with the designer and chat about how he manages to keep things fresh and stay at the top of the game, as well as his vision and thoughts for sustainability in footwear.

You studied fine art in university, so what was that lightbulb moment that made you realise and decide that you wanted to be a shoe designer?

When I was studying fine art, a lot of my friends were studying fashion at the same college at Central Saint Martins, and it was really during that time that I discovered fashion. I went on to work with a hat designer, and that was when I really fell in love with accessories and, in particular, shoes. I would be working at the shop, and these women would be bringing their shoes, bags and dresses in and we would try to find a hat for them. I saw these beautiful objects and I was like ‘Wow, they are quite fascinating!’ and I wanted to find out more, so I thought ‘Where can I understand and study them?’ That’s when I went to look into it. I kind of actually very nearly went into jewellery, I like that play between proportion and really working with hard shapes and design with aesthetics, but shoes just have this magical pull to me.

Nicholas Kirkwood
Just like an artist, you work a lot with shapes and form, and also negative spaces as well as innovative materials. Can you walk us through your design process? What’s the first thing you do when you’ve decided on a theme or idea?

It’s a bit like writing a song, sometimes you will start from the lyrics, and sometimes the melody. It’s the same as when you’re designing a shoe as well, sometimes it can be you’ve found this incredible fabric, or you have this idea of a fabric that you want to produce and how you are going to use that, as in some ways it’s going to dictate the design. Other times, you would have created a silhouette and you think ‘Oh, how are you going to fabricate this?’ So it always starts with the idea of wanting to make something special, and wanting to challenge yourself really.

Where do you get your ideas from?

If I had more time, I would just like to be travelling the whole time, but quite often it’s from some exhibitions or shows that I’ve been to, or maybe on my travels when I see a certain detail on a building. Something normally starts the collection, then I go ‘Oh, actually, hang on’, and almost start to just run away with it in a way, and get obsessed with some details.

Obviously I’m just sort of using Google and Pinterest the whole time to try and build up a moodboard, and almost never is there a shoe on my moodboard. It’ll be some artworks, or it’ll be a certain woman, or plenty of jewellery or some other details, anything but shoes really. It’s about how I translate that into a product. It might start with a theme and I get really invested in one theme. If it’s a theme, I would try to then twist it to mix it, and make sure something that pop ups on the other end is completely new and me at the same time.

So what makes a pair of shoes Nicholas Kirkwood?

I always like to create a certain amount of tension within my designs; the mixing of what would be classically seen as quite an unexpected kind of combination. Whether that’s something that’s very synthetic, like linen, or maybe I can combine it with something that’s industrial or very manmade and synthetic at the same time. That could be the tension. It could be something very feminine with something which might be classically classified as masculine, or hard looking. It could be unexpected combinations of materials or colours. A good example would be how I sort of hide the pearl underneath the curved heel.

nicholas kirkwood
Local style star Suki Wong demonstrating the Mira pearl pump by Nicholas Kirkwood.
I love that placement of the pearl!

Yes, so it’s not doing the obvious. You have this pearl, and normally you would see such a precious object, and think ‘Why not show it off?’ but I almost look at this backwards and think ‘Why show off?’ and I sort of hide it in a way so there’s a sense of discovery that almost makes it more intriguing. I hear this story about Andy Warhol and how he actually pinned very precious jewellery to the inside of his coat. Nobody else knew it was there but him, and that made him feel special. So if you carry around a massive diamond rock in your pocket, it would make you feel a little different, you know? No one knows it’s there but you and at the same time it’s sort of having an effect on you. In a way, this is what that hiding of the pearl is, it’s that special element of surprise and discovery when you do find it, and also that secret knowledge of ‘I know it’s there’.

Though you didn't end up being a jewellery designer, it feels like you still design like one.

Yes, there are a lot of jewellery-esque details in my shoes. The buckles for example, the many buckets that I use look like some sort of an elongated hexagon, but if you look closely, they are also multi-faceted. So you can see the general outline and shape from a distance, but you get up close and it’s that sort of attention to details that I think always has that kind of jewellery quality to it. It’s the little details that you don’t always notice immediately, but that really add to the quality of the design.

Nicholas Kirkwood SS18
Nicholas Kirkwood Spring/Summer 2018 collection
Have you ever had an idea that didn't work out?

Plenty. Sometimes it can even happen within a season, I’m like ‘Urgh, I couldn’t get it done in time and we’re almost there’ and we try again in the following season to really kind of perfect it. Other times, I kind of get to that point and I feel like it didn’t work out in time and I’m over it, and I’m already onto something else for the next season. I mean, that’s essentially what you’re doing, you can’t stop challenging yourself, and that has to be how design is. You do it to push yourself and take what has been done before (and know that it has been done before) but then say ‘Okay, how do I evolve that?’. The pure nature of experiment is some things will work and some things won’t.

So is the challenge mostly time?

Quite often it’s time, yes, absolutely. Because Fashion Week is at a time and that’s when everybody goes and buys your collection, so there are restrictions. Other times, you can make it work but it just costs too much. As much as it might be beautiful or really interesting, if it costs three times the price then it’s not that interesting anymore to most people. Or it might be a structural restriction, where it looks beautiful but if you wear it too often it might break. There are so many different things, but actually in some ways, having those restrictions kind of forces you to see how far you can push it as well. Sometimes there can be things that will be on the edge, whether it’s safe and if it’s gonna break, and you make that decision and think ‘Is it special enough to risk it?’

You started your brand over a decade ago, that’s a very long time to be at one job. Have you ever felt like you’re stuck and caught in a loop?

I’m still designing shoes, but at the same time, I love to do other projects. I worked on a project with Bulgari, and it was my first experience of designing a bag. I’ll be going into jewellery soon, and so I’ll apply that aesthetic again onto another product. So it’s only a loop if you make it a loop, you know?

How do you keep things fresh?

Constantly evolve what you’re doing. I think you’re only caught in a loop if you’re doing the same thing. When you give up that hope of always challenging yourself, or if you just feel almost too comfortable in the way everything is, thinking business is going great. You need to keep yourself on the edge.

Nicholas Kirkwood SS18
Nicholas Kirkwood Spring/Summer 2018 collection
Can you tell us about your Spring/Summer 2018 collection?

The collection is called ‘An Impression of Stolen Space‘, and it really revolves around this idea of removing parts of the elements of the picture and allowing your mind to complete the image. Whether it’s taking out the corner of a heel, and letting your mind fill in the gaps, or having the monolithic of the shape of a blocky heel, then inside we highlight that negative space. I just feel like we’re given a lot of information nowadays, sometimes too much information, and that suppresses a certain amount of the element of imagination. This collection really explores that sort of theme, and also there’s a sort of minimalistic, early ’90s aesthetic to it.

Are you looking to branch out into other products, or are you happy with one-off opportunities for now?

So as I mentioned, starting jewellery is my next one, which I’m going look at maybe later in the year. Also I’d love to apply my aesthetics to other products, you know, it could be furniture — that can be in a collaboration — or otherwise sunglasses. There are so many types of accessories, so essentially if it’s a shape that has some sort of a function and it’s a hard object, it’s something I can apply my aesthetics to. It could even be a building or it could be a car or whatever, it’s only the scale that’s changing. Whether it’s jewellery or a skyscraper, essentially it’s a shape, you’re working on how that shape makes you feel. If it’s something like ready-to-wear, then it’s very different. You’re looking at a soft, moveable shape, so it’s a different way of considering design.

Bulgari x Nicholas Kirkwood
Bulgari x Nicholas Kirkwood handbags
So you've never ever considered doing fashion at all?

No, not ready-to-wear. I mean, I thought about it when I was at college, and I thought no. I did do a course at Central Saint Martins which is part of the foundation, but I was just way too impatient to sit there sewing, and I just hated hand-sewing so much and it just put me off there. I do love to look at it, at how women interpret it, but I think for ready-to-wear it’s a very different thought process really.

There’s been a growing awareness in sustainability in fashion; as a shoe designer, do you feel that’s something you can contribute to?

Yes, we’re actually making a massive step forward in that. Next season, we have many materials that are sustainable, whether they’re recycled, organic or bio-degradable. For the season after that, we’re going to take this step even further.

I really want to be a part of this conversation, I’m working with our suppliers to really help them become better, and help them evolve. So many of the materials that we come across, they’re not just quite there. There’re an organic velvet that I saw, but it just doesn’t have the same lustre as the standard velvet, so we work with that supplier to help them develop and work out ways to overcome them. We’re getting this across all our suppliers.

Actually one of our classic styles is a pair of fully sustainable shoes, the linings are biodegradable and it has low environmental impact during production process; the sole is recycled and so is the heel. I think there’s so much more to be done than that, and I’m sure there are organic or sustainable shoes brands that already exist, but their design approach has always been that the product looks sustainable, or it looks a little bit hippie. For me, sustainability is really going to be something that lasts, and it will last, but it’s got to be sustainable as a given, it can’t dictate. The spirit of the design can’t be to look sustainable.

It’s the same as when electric cars came out, they all look a little bit like disabled vehicles. Then Tesla came around, and said ‘Hang on, why does an electric car need to look like that? Why can’t it be a sexy sports car?’ There’s no reason it can’t, and then suddenly every electric car started coming out like that. They haven’t thought that ‘We’re making an electric car’, they think ‘We’re making a sports car that also happens to be electric.’ That’s exactly the same mentality that we need to approach for sustainability. I’m trying to make beautiful, modern looking shoes that just happen to also be sustainable.

Q&A: Nicholas Kirkwood on sustainable footwear and staying on his A-game

Cindie Chan

Style Editor

Fashion blogger turned editor, Cindie has spent over seven years covering all things stylish in the digital world. When she’s not busy poring over the latest covetable releases or attending the most talked-about fashion events in town, you’ll find her enjoying some precious downtime with her newborn son and sweet dog Rosy.

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