Sitting at Café Gray, on the 49th floor of the luxurious Upper House hotel, Nicholas Kirkwood sips a cup of tea and looks out over Hong Kong’s skyline. He is in the city to collaborate with leading luxury retailer I.T on a limited edition sneaker line for its 30th anniversary. “I think you need a strong point of view to be successful in footwear,” he says. “The market is saturated so you need to stand out.”
Known for crafting sculptural shoes with unexpected materials and silhouettes, the designer has been at the forefront of contemporary footwear since launching his first collection in 2005. He built a name for himself through catwalk partnerships, working with London’s then-emerging labels like Erdem, Roksanda and Peter Pilotto. Most recently, he teamed up with French emerging designer, Marine Serre, for her AW’18 catwalk in Paris, where motorcycle boots and mid-heel pumps were stamped with Serre’s trademark crescent moon motifs. Pondering the question, “How do you do a show for shoes?” led him to his very first runway show at London Fashion Week SS’19.
“A traditional catwalk won’t work, as people naturally tend to look upwards, so making a runway for footwear forces you to think outside the box,” he says. Kirkwood created an experiential show merging elements of theatre, dance and performance. Set in a dystopian future governed by a tyrannical dictator, it featured real activists, hackers and performers wearing the designer’s latest collection as symbols of creative defiance.
“With ready-to-wear, you’re almost expected to have a show each season, and you can really define your woman,” he explains. “But as a shoe designer, you’re not necessarily going to be as visible. It’s more challenging to tell the story behind the brand, so I wanted to tell a story with my footwear in the same way a fashion designer would.”
Having previously shown static presentations at Paris Fashion Week, this was new territory for Kirkwood, but a move he considered necessary. “It felt like the right time to do something completely different for my brand,” he says. “I wanted to challenge the current runway model, so I created an immersive, cinema-like experience with a strong narrative.”
While many designs were undoubtedly highly conceptual — created specifically for the show — a number of wearable styles were available for purchase following the event at Kirkwood’s London flagship boutique, as well as exclusively on Farfetch. Included in this limited edition capsule collection are Kirkwood’s signature pearl pump, a combat boot and a loafer, each adorned with a colourful flower motif.
“I wanted to challenge the current runway model so I created an immersive cinema-like experience with a strong narrative.”
Collaboration and innovation continue to drive Kirkwood’s business strategy. For his AW’18 collection, Kirkwood worked with London-based visual artist, Hannah Lees, on a set of mules, using natural dyes from ingredients like flower seeds and onion skins to create unusual patterns. “As an accessories brand, it really helps to do collaborations. I love that creative dialogue, and it’s a way to get your message across to consumers,” he says. In October 2017, Kirkwood launched ‘Nicholas Kirkwood presents’, a series of partnerships working with creatives from a range of disciplines including jewellery, art, and fashion — the brand’s London flagship store now plays host to takeovers, installations and curated pop-ups for each collaboration. “Often these are not projects that are commercially led and are purely for creative purposes, but I really feel it gives the brand an edge,” he adds.
Growing steadily since landing Harrods as its first stockist in 2005, it came as no surprise that LVMH acquired a majority stake in the brand in September 2013. Although Kirkwood chooses not to divulge exact growth figures, he reveals that it was significant in creating a stable foundation for the brand: “We were growing very quickly beforehand, but we were quite fragile. With LVMH’s investment, we learnt how to build up certain product categories, strengthen our core team and structure the company effectively.”
Kirkwood uses traditional footwear materials like suede, leather, and calf, adding that each season he keeps things fresh by exploring new materials or techniques, many of which are self-developed in his atelier in Veneto, Italy. This quality move is paying off and today, Kirkwood’s shoes are carried in over 150 top-tier retailers across the world, including leading department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Selfridges, and Lane Crawford, while his own flagship store opened in London’s Mayfair in 2011. “The United States and Asia are currently our biggest markets, particularly Hong Kong, Mainland China, and South Korea. Unfortunately, we haven’t received much business in Japan yet, so that’s where I would love to expand our sales next,” says Kirkwood.
Looking to the future, he suggests an expansion into jewellery and bags is on the cards: “I think it would be a natural progression, particularly jewellery,” he teases. “It’s not too dissimilar to designing shoes and heels – it’s essentially the same thing, just on a miniature scale — it’s all about proportions.” With this attitude, the Kirkwood brand is surely destined for exciting things.
Watch Nicholas Kirkwood's immersive SS'19 runway show below.