This year is a rather special one for French Sole. The iconic purveyor of ballet flats is turning 25 and I’ve been lucky enough to score an interview with Jane Winkworth, the brand’s founder and the woman described by Vogue as being solely responsible for turning the humble pump into a true fashion classic. With her designs worn by everyone from Kate Moss to Kate Middleton and her own boutiques attracting customers like beautifully shod bees to honey in locations as diverse as London and Kuala Lumpur, I think it’s safe to say Winkworth has a lot to celebrate. A true sartorial innovator and business inspiration, it was an absolute privilege to quiz Jane on French Sole’s history, brand identity and plans for the future. Enjoy…
LPA: French Sole was born after a chance encounter with a shoe salesman from the French Hirica factory. Tell me a little about this and how it prompted you to start your own brand…
JW: I had already been selling ballet flats from other French factories for about two or three years before I met Philipe Cassalis . We met by chance when I was invited to look at the Hirigoyen Collection of footwear in a London hotel. Phillipe was their salesman and an extraordinary character, we became friends immediately. Although at least sixty years old, he was dressed head to toe in black leather biker’s clothes – zips, studs, the lot! He chain-smoked Gitanes and I adored him. He explained that Hirigoyen (later sold after going bankrupt and now trading under a new name of Hirica) had a small range of French ballerinas – I could have them made to my own designs and in my own materials! I was in heaven and have stayed loyal to this remarkable company for twenty-five years as they have stayed loyal to me.
LPA: In 25 years French Sole has gone from tabletop start up to global mega brand with stockists and devotees everywhere from Chelsea to Kuala Lumpar. Did you start out with a specific strategy? How did you develop your business to enable such enormous growth?
JW: When I first embarked on this incredible journey, it was purely to assist charities I was fond of and to supply not only myself but all of my friends with my lovely little ballet pumps. There was absolutely no strategy at all – I wish I had known twenty-five years ago what I know now, I would be living in the Bahamas! I was completely green, utterly naïve. I simply loved the shoes and wanted everyone else to love them too. I never had a strategy and still don’t have! Everything is instinctive – I know what women who wear my shoes want, I know what they don’t want. I have never been at all competitive or greedy. I know my limits and the limitations of French Sole. I know not to diversify or to stray too far away from the heritage of the brand.
The brand grew because I was the first person to develop the humble ballet flat into a fashion classic and everyone wanted the original and not the knock off copies that have since emerged.
LPA: Do you feel that your background in restoration and painting of fine porcelain has influenced the aesthetic of French Sole?
JW: I have a background of art and painting but also of ballet. I was a trained ballet dancer until I was fourteen and only someone who has danced themselves can truly design ballet flats. My art experience and creative background enables me to easily draw and design my shoes.
LPA: I quite literally can’t think of a woman I know who doesn’t own at least one pair of French Soles. What, in your opinion, it is that gives them such universal appeal?
JW: I am always asked this question – what is the special appeal of French Sole over other brands? It is the quality of the leather. Only the finest skins are used, always from Italy – all beautiful, soft real, delicious, sumptuous leathers. All of our shoes are made by hand and solely within the EU. The appeal is the quality, the heritage and the comfort, together with the reminder of life as a child, maybe a little ballerina or a schoolgirl going to a party – we all owned ballet pumps when we were young. We reminisce when we wear French Sole, we go back in time to our childhoods.
LPA: I find it fascinating that French Sole remains a privately owned, family company, something that’s pretty rare today. Is this something you feel is particularly important, both to the brand’s identity and you as its founder?
JW: Yes it is rare for the founder to still be in charge and even rarer to own the entire company privately. Together with my two sons we own 100% of the company. We have no investors, no angels, no private equity, no loans, no borrowing and no overdrafts – French Sole has always been funded by cash flow and personal family finance. It is important to the brand that I am always able to cast my designer’s eye over every aspect of the business but I have a great team around me who I am sure would cope very well if I dropped dead tomorrow!!
LPA: French Sole has legions of famous fans, ranging from the Duchess of Cambridge to Kate Moss. Is there anyone who you’d particularly love to see wearing your designs, but hasn’t yet?
JW: Who would I love to see wearing my shoes? The Queen obviously!
LPA: Recent years have seen French Sole expanding beyond the iconic ballet flats for which they’re renowned to include smoking slippers, elegant leather boots and even sneakers. What motivated these additions? And how do you extend the French Sole aesthetic to more varied shoe styles?
JW: I always stay true to the classic French Sole colour and fabric combinations when we work on a new style and develop the range from there if it works. Our “Moocher” sneakers are under our London Sole label and they are fabulously fun!
LPA: Have you noticed that women from different countries or cities or even areas within cities tend to favour different styles?
JW: Different customers around the world are pretty universal in their choice of styles and colours but I find my Malaysian customers in particular like a little extra bling and the Australians love colour. In China where I opened last year in Galeries Lafayette – its all about black.
LPA: In celebration of French Sole’s 25th Anniversary this year you’ve re-released your iconic poodle design, something that I, for one, am thrilled about! What inspired the poodle in the first place?
JW: The French poodle was the natural inspiration for me when I started. Nobody had ever used a poodle before as a signature logo and what is more French?!
LPA: What advice would you give to someone hoping or planning to start their own brand?
The advice I would give to any new entrepreneur when starting out is get a really good trademark/copyright lawyer and don’t set foot out of doors without their advice. I would also advise never to give any “charity jobs” in your new company – out of work friends, the daughter or son of a neighbour, your oldest school friend – leave them alone and go to an agency for experienced, competent, professional staff. It rarely works out.
Love Ella. X