“Fashion is apt to insist one year that you are nobody if you wear flat heels, and then turn right around and throw thousands of them in your face,” wrote cultural commentator Elizabeth Hawes in Fashion Is Spinach (1938). Despite having been written more than seven decades ago, Hawes’s ethnographic account of the fashion industry echoes just as relevant for today’s volatile pendulum. If sneakers were once restricted to sports performance, they now breed a culture of its own beyond the gym borders. Luxury behemoths and consumers alike are quick to eschew high heels for an emphasis on the chunky comfort that’s in vogue.

This exact sheep-like mindset is what Roy Luwolt, founder and artistic director of shoe label Malone Souliers and CEO of French fashion house Emanuel Ungaro, is up in arms against. When he founded Malone Souliers in 2014 with his then-business partner Mary Alice Malone (who recently left the brand in July), the duo wanted to provide a footwear equivalent to Savile Row’s tailored attention to detail. It introduced a niche unheard of to the female consumer: shoes with an option for bespoke that comes with a lifetime warranty.

“For the last century, we men have our Berlutis that can last us a lifetime. Even if they start opening up here and there, we can take them to a cobbler, get them fixed and then pass them on to our child, grandchild — but women never had that,” explains Luwolt. “Now with Malone Souliers, they do.”

 

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Individuality is at the crux of it all. The label’s signature sharp pointed toe, contrasted straps and curved arches are distinctive from a mile away. They’ve made notable appearances on the feet of women of all stripes — the likes of Meghan Markle, Lupita Nyong’o, Solange Knowles, Priyanka Chopra, Poppy Delevingne to Crazy Rich Asians’ Gemma Chan.

Asked to describe the DNA of Malone Souliers, Luwolt wielded a metaphor, likening Malone Souliers as “the quiet kid at the back of the classroom”. The brand is in its early stage, Luwolt acknowledged, but it doesn’t try to be what it’s not. What it is is a young brand that’s at once sophisticated (think: understated social media presence, zero advertising) and savvy (selective collaborations with like-minded brands) in its approach.

Following Malone’s departure, the label adopted a name extension: Malone Souliers by Roy Luwolt. Taking full control of the reins, Luwolt’s role has been expanded from managing director to artistic director. With a melange of experiences running the gamut of venture capitalist to brand strategist, Luwolt is well-versed in the doctrine of luxury.

That’s not all that’s new. In January this year, Luwolt premiered Absence of Paper, a sister line to Malone Souliers. It’s dedicated to fill the specific gap of accessible luxury white shirts. Each is priced at £295 (approximately S$525) and its first batch of collection is currently stocked at Harvey Nichols and will soon be carried by MyTheresa, Selfridges and Harrods. A conjoined presentation of the two brands is slated for Paris Fashion Week this coming October.

 

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Back in 2016, Luwolt and Malone made their first stop at Singapore’s Pedder on Scotts. Last week, Luwolt made his return on his own, months-fresh from turning a new leaf for his brand. The British-American artistic director had an intimate made-to-order session at Malone Souliers’ ephemeral Pedder on Scotts pop-up on 6 September.

Ahead of his appearance, we sat down with the artistic director for a tête-à-tête on the substance of individuality, what Absence of Paper is poised to deliver, and the importance of identifying the foot as one would a face.

Malone Souliers has very recently been renamed as Malone Souliers by Roy Luwolt. Why the change?

On one side of it, I was slightly forced, but then again not really. It’s more of an encouragement over the last few years of hearing “You’re not giving your consumers enough face op.” It’s very important when one invests in luxury items of any kind — it could be anything from a £50 toothbrush to a gilded match — to have a sentiment that you can hold on to, which reassures, clarifies and establishes precisely what that product is about beyond just being a manufactured item. That is what affinity is. It’s why you care more about your green jumper over your white t-shirt. When you can look at a product and feel, that’s precisely what that is.

How would you describe the DNA of the brand?

It’s the quiet kid at the back of the classroom, raising her hands only to ask questions, but not really giving any answers. She goes back, does her homework, comes back and has the best course. So we’re there, listening and observing — not just in terms of the teaching — but also our colleagues, counterparts and rivals in the classroom. We don’t sit in front of the class, because we don’t advertise.

We don’t spend all that money to make big boards — of course, I do press but it’s organic and editorial. It has nothing to do with a budget for advertising used to scream at people. We invest that budget into the product.

We have this insistence on higher cost of making, development and manufacturing — but it results in a fairer price than the majority of the world in terms of our parallels. You find us in generally 15-20 percent less in price. That allows consumers to have a further competitive reasoning as to why this brand that’s less known from other brands have been around much longer. Our DNA has really been attentive, more than anything else.

It’s been four years since you launched Malone Souliers. Obviously, you now understand your clientele better. What has been your most important takeaway?

You wouldn’t like my answer but it’s honestly just realising more and more that it is utterly important to listen to my team. I hire them specifically to kick my ass. If you don’t have the right people behind and around you, you’re screwed. Even though that isn’t very consumer-centric but if you think about it, it really is. It’s a domino effect on what the consumer gets. So I think it’s that attentiveness and responsiveness, really.

What’s first and foremost when developing a product?

The first thing we do is to ensure that we don’t forget what the market said for the last collection. So the first step is all about feedback. The next step is ensuring that we’re also innovating. I consider innovation as the result of research, so your knowledge bank is what gives you innovation. Otherwise, what you’re doing is experimenting, not actually innovating. Experimentation is unpredictable, whether it blows up or causes an allergy reaction, you’ll never know until it does. With innovation, we know this product full well and we fine-tune whatever is needed — more of this, less of that. Our feedback can be for one product but honestly, we sometimes use that to base an entirely new product on. I’m not talking about a silhouette or style, rather, the reason that silhouette is working.

What makes a Malone Souliers construction different from the others?

We build every millimetre to ensure that we achieve this sculptural support in construction. That may sound a little bit too ergonomic, but it’s actually a matter of understanding that you don’t hate what you get. We also get quite semantic about it, the elements like where the weight of the heels are placed, it’s very different from what the market is used to.

We’re very focused on minimalism. Look at the Maisie [a popular Malone Souliers mule style] for instance, when you wear them, they don’t feel crass. It feels very much like, “I looked at it, I felt something, I thought about it, I still felt something and I picked it up. And I want more.”

So there’s a hyper concentration on the product, and there should be. I don’t want people to just get the products flying off the shelves without having that based on considered decisions.

What’s your definition of the ideal luxury shoe?

It’s the one that’s for you; the one that pays attention to your own needs, your own unusual foot. I keep saying that every foot has just as much individuality as a face. If we’re able to recognise faces, why can’t we recognise them by their feet when it comes to product development? That’s just fair. For the individuality of the foot to be acknowledged by a brand is basically the answer to your question. You’re not forced to fit in. Rather, you’re being allowed to be fitted.

Who do you design for?

Individuality and choice. One of the reasons why I moved from the States a decade ago was, of course, to develop my venture capital fund business further — the shoes have yet to exist at this point — but it was also because I went to a large university and got a little bit jaded by how everybody wears Abercrombie and Converse, goes to the same classes, drinks that drink, sprays that cologne. Honestly it got too much. You realise at some point that no one is choosing anymore. Everybody is just doing the next thing because that’s the next thing. I had such a sweaty phobia of graduating. Just because my parents did this, I’m going to this big company — but is it my choice to do that?

I think I’ve allowed the maturity of self-awareness to translate to the product and the consumer. Effectively, anything that happens on that shoe floor is by choice — from the actual product itself to the branding and all the way to the choice made by the consumer. We like the person that goes and chooses. I’m not just talking about products, I’m talking life. Someone who is a self-thinking person; a self-standing human being. That’s the way of the world in the better future one can hope for. Being half American half British, you can imagine why I’m also saying that on a political level.

You’ve also recently unveiled a womenswear label called Absence of Paper, which chiefly focuses on white shirts. What was the idea behind it?

It is the one brand in the world that provides white shirts for women. Dress shirts — meaning: with a collar — with no print nor pattern and there’s never going to be any colour. It is a white shirt brand. Period.

What you get is something that feels like a mansion for the cost of an apartment. It’s quite exciting that the shirt itself is £295 (approximately S$525) compared to Celine’s or The Row’s price tags that are in the thousands.

It applies a single product category sensibility like that of Malone Souliers’. I’m not going to make something else under a shoe product because shoes are what we do best. So you’ve heard the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”? Well, we’re a jill of one trade. That one is the one that matters to us.

Take us through the process of Malone Souliers made-to-order.

If you’re lucky, you find me somewhere in the world and you ask for a certain style that you’ve already selected in a different fabric, colour, heel height, finish, components. As long as it obeys the fundamentals of the brand’s design ethos, we’re good. If you try to put a different soul — say, add a strap — on a shoe that’s where I’m going to say no. If you want a skin we don’t agree with in terms of the farming ethics of it, that’s an absolute no. That’s not saying we’re sustainable but at the same time we’re respectful. Nothing that’s endangered will ever come close or be touched by our businesses.

There are certain elements where certain types of leathers do not work with certain silhouette, product technique wise. We’ll guide you along, it can be one to three rounds — depending on what your requests are. You can get a made-to-measure shoe done within two weeks to three months. You can’t automatically do this online, you will always talk to a human being, through a phone at least.

 

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What’s special about the On Pedder pop-up?

They [Pedder group] are our validation in this continent. Yes, we do have a bunch of stores but every region has that flagship for our brand. For us, On Pedder is 100% that. It’s the partnership that every shoe brand dreams of. We’re in great hands; we have great chemistry. Symbiosis, it’s that simple. That’s what makes it special.

The Malone Souliers by Roy Luwolt made-to-order pop-up runs till 14 September at Pedder On Scotts.

(Main and featured images: Malone Souliers)