Nicholas Kirkwood's bombastic, sculptural, towering heels are undeniably a shout, never a whisper. "I would never set out to make something that's 'out there'," he says. “But it's just a waste to make something mediocre.”
It’s not that there is no pain.
There is pain.
There is always pain.
The trick is accepting that it will hurt.
“I would like the shoe to be comfortable,” he says, circling a ringed finger around the reflective navy glass top of his studio table. “Obviously I don’t want the shoe to be uncomfortable,” he says to me, here in his Mount Street office on a Friday night at the end of his working week “but I just want to design it the way I want it to look.”
“I’m not paid to design comfortable shoes,” Christian Louboutin said last week, and was lambasted in the press for doing so.
“It’s not as blunt as that,” Kirkwood says, surrounded by the colour of electricity. “But you must design it first, then if something is uncomfortable, you can try to fix it afterwards. If you set out with function in mind, with comfort in mind, you’ve already closed yourself off to so much. Don’t think of what’s possible. Dream of what you want to dream, in its entirety. Then try to work out how to make it afterwards.”
It harks back to the age-old ‘Design vs Function’ debate: which one, design or function, should rule out the other? Though, I argue, especially in Kirkwood’s case, sometimes the design of an object is the function. Something can be purely beautiful. “That’s the number one thing,” he says. “I’ve never made a shoe that’s just a shoe. If it’s not beautiful, it’s pointless.”
Imagine, if you will, the future queen of England fetishised in leather and lace. Legs beacons of fetish, elongated by inches with a spiked heel, in Nicholas Kirkwood for Rodarte’s ‘straight jacket for the legs’, reams of hand-tendered leather kissing up her shin, her thigh, to her knee in bandaged black. Imagine, if you will, Kate as a Harajuku girl, in a Nicholas Kirkwood for Meadham Kirchhoff platformed wedge, her feet peppered with feathery pom poms in a kaleidoscope of colour, or Kate as Kinderwhore in a towering heel stretched to tense the muscles, every muscle in constant tension. The sex is in the heel. The leather indicative of pain. The leather indicative of torture. Imagine, if you will, Kate as Sex Kitten in a latex pump, the leather lazer-cut, her foot in constant pointe.
Nicholas Kirkwood imagined just this.
“I’d love her to wear my shoes. She does occasionally come out wearing [Alexander] McQueen or something like that. It’s like, ‘Do that more! You’re meant to be a princess-y type of person, so act like one!” he reportedly said to The Daily Beast.
“Real royalty knows that it isn’t necessary to be a slave to fashion. Classic is forever!”
“Another man telling women how to dress…!”
“Kate has a working wardrobe because she needs practical clothes to work in!”
These are just a few of the readers’ comments when the Daily Mail later carried the story.
In truth I couldn’t have agreed with Kirkwood more.
An entire generation of girls dreamt, still dream of becoming a princess. I’m sure not one of them goes to bed at night dreaming of one day owning a Reiss dress and LK Bennett heels.
It’s as though the average woman believes a designer shoe is ‘style over substance’. Heaven forbid there could ever be a marriage of the two! It is, certainly, Kirkwood’s love of style that has always attracted me to him. He is a shoemaker, but I would also go as far as calling him a pioneer. An innovator. His shoes are art-like. Small pieces of art. As a design journalist in my early twenties, reporting for a design and architecture journal, it was my job to trawl the furniture design fairs to discover new talent. When I caught sight of my first pair of Nicholas Kirkwood heels all those years ago, I would have bet money that his training was in furniture design. There was almost something of the Konstantin Grcic about him [coincidentally both are Germans who studied in London]. Kirkwood was doing something new. He was actually designing. He was designing a product, not a shoe.
“It could have been furniture, yes” he agrees. “It’s just about design. Designing. And then applying it to a product. It could be a vase. It could be a sculpture. It could be a table. It makes no difference.”
Kirkwood doesn’t work the same way as other designers. “It’s not about taking old shoes and reworking them.” Instead he starts completely from scratch. Even his mood board bares little more than colourful images of glass sculptures by the likes of Dale Chihuly. “My starting point is a pad, a pen, a cigarette and a cup of tea.”
I ask him about the notion of being a straight man designing woman’s shoes. “I don’t want to make slutty shoes,” he says straight away. I ask him about a straight man designing something for the opposite sex, a sex he is attracted to. Does he design differently, say, to a gay man (of which there are in this job, no doubt, more of)? “Funnily, I’m not designing with the woman in mind, with the mindset of what I think a man finds sexy on a woman. I’m designing the shoe, not the woman. And I really don’t find ‘slutty’ sexy. It doesn’t have to be strappy, pointy, towering to be sexy. I don’t need a vixen with a whip. A heel is sexy enough on its own. The whole nature of a heel is sex. It makes a girl feel sexy naturally, literally, physically: the way it makes a girl stand, her posture changes, her back arches, her bum sticks out more. A heeled shoe can have elegance, which is sexier – to me, as a straight man – than big cleavage and a slutty shoe. There needs to be an intelligence there.”
The appeal is that stilettos require constant balance from the upper leg causing the muscles of the backside to tense and appear pert and ready for mating.
“The high heel by nature is not practical. Unless your view of practicality is to 1) look sexy and 2) look taller. In that case these shoes are practical things. We’re not, per say, designing ‘practical’ shoes.”
My starting point is a pad, a pen, a cigarette and a cup of tea
Some of Kirkwood’s most famous shoes bear a lengthy heel. As they say, ‘The higher the heel, the closer to heaven’. But how high is too high?
“When you can’t walk in them, or if you look ridiculous.”
We laugh about the girls who stand barefoot outside awards parties, the hems of their gowns trawling, crawling, swimming the pavement, naked feet amongst the fag butts and bus tickets. They take in a few last drags of their fags before slipping their ghastly high-rises back onto their feet, teetering bambi-like back inside the venue, gentleman either side to aid them in their walk. Inside they stumble. Inside they stumble and fall.
Not sexy, we both concede.
Now in his 30s, Kirkwood assures his work still has the “DNA” of when he designed his first collection, but he understands the product more. Especially having the shop above the office. Literally seeing the customer come in every day is like access to unlimited free market research. He might be famous for his towering statement shoes, but “we see now that not every customer is 25”. It’s also introduced the idea of ‘classics’ (shoes that sell well and the customer want to see, in one form or another, every season) – something he would never have considered before. “An artist is never happy with his work. Every designer is the same. Pretty much as soon as I’ve designed it, I’m bored of it. But you have to take the customer into consideration.” It’s not the only change. “For ages I just did the high heels, then I did high and flats. But it is important I try mid heights. Most of my customers are actually in their 30s, 40s.”
In truth, even the celebrity clientele that frequent his stores – some of the most avid including Sarah Jessica Parker, Tilda Swinton and Julianne Moore – are no longer 20-somethings whose primary concern is looking sexy, cool. “They want something beautiful, but something good.” He believes it can be both.
Usually in interviews, the subjects don’t enjoy discussing the celebrity contingent, though Kirkwood concedes, “the sad fact is that a famous person seen in your shoes will result in people buying.” Unlike many other designers, Kirkwood does not generally approach the celebrities or their stylists ["people come to us"] but when it’s something like the MET “You’re like ‘Just get them on some people!’”. The problem is though, Kirkwood laughs, “With those ballgowns you can’t see their fucking feet!”
The one thing that holds you up as a male women’s shoe designer, Kirkwood says, is that “you can’t wear your own product.” Well… you could, I muster. “But it would be hard explaining how I now need a sample heel in a size 42,” he laughs.
Perhaps this is why next up for Kirkwood is men’s shoes. “Probably the one thing I will design differently to everything else. The men’s shoes will be something I want to wear myself, and I wouldn’t want a statement shoe, as a guy. I won’t be boring, but I’m not going to design a guy’s Mary-Jane.”
Funnily enough, over the last 2 years, men’s shoes have become far more bombast, experimental and, dare we say, ‘statement’. The icon of this movement is no doubt the Prada wedged brogue – a mash-up of the men’s traditional leather brogue and a colourful sponge platform, later being replaced by a rattan-woven wedge, which soon became Fashion Week stalwart the world over.
At this time, and with his reputation, Kirkwood will be expected to innovate.
“I’ll certainly look at innovating with materials, sole-ing,” he says. “Just because I don’t want something covered in pom-poms doesn’t mean it won’t be exciting. They’ll be slip-ons or lace-ups, but I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t ‘bettering’ something.” And then that smile: “Otherwise you’re just creating normal, boring shoes… And what’s the point in that?”