A few weeks back I had the pleasure of having a snoop around the West London studio of shoe designer, Penelope Chilvers (click here to find out more). Given my love for all things preppy, I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Penelope’s signature velvet smoking slippers but having spent several extremely happy hours perusing her latest collection, I know that’s certainly not all she does beautifully! I caught up with the designer to get the inside scoop on her career so far and plans for the Penelop Chilvers brand in the future…
You originally trained and worked as an artist, before turning your hand to shoe design. What prompted you to make such a dramatic change of career?
PC: At art school, commercial was a dirty word but I had to make ends meet and so worked as a painter, this involved anything from white washing walls to painting and designing intricate murals and restoring furniture. The road ahead in this direction – to being creatively fulfilled, and financially independent – felt like a long one. There was no dramatic change of career though. My art school training in drawing and painting, and having a discerning ‘eye’ prepared me well for the commercial world of design. Through commissions in in all sorts of areas I met skilled craftsmen and appreciated artisanal skills, in Spain. I’d always loved the beauty of footwear, it’s 3 dimensionality, and raw materials. Shoe manufacturing became a new obsession as I launched new styles, one by one to sell. I started my shoe business from my kitchen table, while still working as a freelance designer by day. It took off; I am creatively fullfilled daily. Footwear design has a depth within a tight design brief; they not only have to function, last a long time, and be comfortable but have to look beautiful too! To work within these tramlines and find solutions through good design keeps me constantly inspired, a privilege I cherish.
LPA: How do you find working as a fashion designer in London compares to working as a painter in Barcelona? I can imagine the two lifestyles are pretty different…
PC: Barcelona has a very sympathetic history to artists and they are highly respected. It’s a place where the warmth of the sun is free, and the natural light inspires creativity. On my return to London I remember immediately noting the difference in the energy of the city, it feels more competitive and the importance to excel in something is so punctuated. It’s a captivating city and feels like the centre of the world for creativity, it’s a true launch pad for fashion
LPA; Since designing your first collection 7 years ago, Penelope Chilvers has become one of the most in-demand luxury footwear brands around and is now stocked in over 17 countries worldwide. Did you expect it to be quite so successful? Was there a specific moment you realised that you’d ‘made it’?
PC: I went to my first Paris fashion week 7 years ago at Tranoi without an order form but took 40 orders ‘on the back of an envelope’ from important players in the fashion world like Cristianne Celle, original creator of Calypso NYC and Penelope, Italy (we Penelopes stick together you know!). I totted up my orders on the train home and that’s the first time I felt like I’d made it! There have been several ‘moments’ since, the most recent being when Matches, London, bought the collection, I feel very proud to be associated with them.
LPA: What has been the most challenging aspect of launching and running your own business?
PC: I have learnt to respect the knowledge handed down generations of the artisans that make my boots and shoes, but sometimes ideas are not possible to create. I find impossible a very difficult word to swallow!
LPA: Traditional techniques and ethical production are hugely important parts of your brand ethos. How do you stay true to these values while keeping up with demanding production schedules and ensuring that your business remains profitable?
PC: Like a chef who references age old recipes, I continually refer back to traditional techniques of shoe production, sometimes though, these classic designs can barely be improved upon so I return to them all the time, adding a little creative flair to revive the style and make them relevant to current trends. My production team and I work very closely with the manufacturer, the majority of which is in Spain, this helps us stay super efficient, cuts out middle men and also makes for relatively low carbon efficiency.
LPA; How do you feel the fashion industry as a whole improves its ethical standards? Do you think this is actually a possibility for High Street shops producing vast quantities of low price stock?
PC: I went to a talk a while ago at Kensington Palace, for entrepreneurs, given by a woman who has been an advisor to Obama. She explained her hopes of production returning to local markets. This is a vision I share, I pride myself on working with and continuing to support small family run artisanal factories who have been producing shoes for centuries rather than cheaper production in the East. Our demand for fast fashion and trends renders everything obsolete in an instant. We need to think longer term about the items we buy and make more considered purchases, the high streets offering would then need to reflect this, enabling them to produce locally and with better quality. Consumers hold the power, we just need to harness it!
LPA: In recent years you’ve become renowned for your bespoke Dandy slippers. How did this aspect of your business come about?
PC: The smoking slippers of the caddish gentlemen from the late 18th century combined with my penchant for Fez slippers were my inspiration for this style. Mens fashion is a constant inspiration to me and I really appreciate an androgynous aesthetic for women. I initially launched the collection with 12 bespoke slippers, made individually for friends and people who have helped me in business. I have since designed a rather an explicit pair for Rihanna! The bespoke site is such a fabulous tool to inject personality onto shoes, I love seeing the different ways people interpret and customise their own Dandy slippers in our bespoke design area on our site.
LPA: Kate Middleton, Alexa Chung and Claudia Schiffer are just a few of the famously stylish women who wear Penelope Chilvers. Is there anyone you’d like to see wearing your designs but haven’t yet?
PC: When my five adult kids put in their pre-season personal orders I am always most pleased as they bring my designs to life, they all have their individual style and it’s just great to see my styles transcending age. I have visions while designing of how my customer would wear them, it’s always the biggest pleasure to see them on the street, being worn and enjoyed by individuals.
LPA; What can we expect to see from Penelope Chilvers over the year to come? Any exciting plans or projects in the pipelines?
PC: I’m thrilled to be working on 2 collaborations for spring summer, watch this space…In the mean time, I’m continually developing the bespoke offer of Dandy slippers and looking forward to sharing a new embroidery design, on a brightly coloured slipper, a filigree Mexican sugar skull available only from www.penelopechilvers.com. There will be other exclusive boot and shoe styles on the site this Autumn. In time for Christmas, Liberty are launching a preview capsule collection, I can’t wait to see my designs in this iconic British store.
Love Ella. X