Sophia Webster’s definition of what women want in shoes: Confectionery proportions, cartoon influences and comfort – both in style and price.
A meeting with London shoe designer Sophia Webster is like being in some cartoon-cute alternate reality where everything should be candy-coloured and everyone smiley with squeaky, upbeat voices. It’s April and Webster – five months pregnant and in town for the first time to meet press and VIP customers of On Pedder, where she’s stocked exclusively – is in a fuzzy white cardigan, printed minidress, vintage-style glasses and a pink bow in her blonde hair. Her quirkiness is typically British – if there were such a thing as a girl-next-door hipster, she would be it.
In our half an hour together, she speaks in a polite, self-assured manner, laughing girlishly as she shares off-kilter anecdotes. Like how she sees every design of hers as characters that “must have names that reflect their personalities”. Or how one of her biggest pop culture influences is ’80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms, in which the lead character transforms into a rock star at the twiddle of her earrings. It’s all potentially loopy stuff if taken out of context, but in reality, the 29-year-old is anything but.
In just three seasons since her S/S ’13 debut, the former design assistant to Nicholas Kirkwood has risen to become one of the names to know in a business dominated by men (her mentor included). Hot and cool girls wear her, Rita Ora, Rihanna and Russian fashion editor Miroslava Duma among them. Her latest and possibly biggest achievement so far is a second collaboration with J. Crew, which launched in April and has been praised by the American label’s influential creative director Jenna Lyons.
“Her shoes looked like they grew up on the set of Frozen. I didn’t know who she was; I tried them on – they were beautiful, comfortable and didn’t look like anything I’d seen,” says Lyons on the first time she came across Webster’s shoes in New York. “To me, she is a fantastical unicorn in the way she sees prints, and is so bold in her choices. (She’s) really fearless and lives a dream state in the way she designs.”
That unicorn approach is the source of Webster’s magic. While many of her counterparts also share a whimsical aesthetic, she sets herself apart with a distinct look. Trends, she says, play a small part, preferring instead to let instincts guide her. “If what I do falls into a trend, it’s by chance. I think the minute you try to (follow trends), you limit your creativity.”
Her signature look involves multiple hues, textures and patterns (dots with lightning bolts; patent leather with suede and mini furry pom-poms) on one shoe, the result of being an art and sculpture student whose favourite part of the creative process is sketching. “It explains why colour is so important in my designs,” she says, adding that she comes up with all her prints herself.
Nearly all her shoes are single-soled, a look that she feels is chicer and more refined than platforms, which she does sparingly, allowing her to be more experimental with the upper. Her style in a nutshell is “girlie, but not in a sugary-sweet way”. “(My shoes are) feminine with an edge, sexy but not in an aggressive manner.”
At a time when flamboyant, Anna Dello Russo-style fashion is taking a backseat to more sensible designs, she’s confident of her ability to stay relevant. She reveals, for example, that she’ll be introducing sneakers and shoes with footbed construction next year. There are also quieter styles like Spring/Summer’s simple, one-coloured stilettos amped up with butterfly wings around the heels. “I think it’s quite an easy pump to wear, but with an element that makes it mine,” she says.
Her other advantage is that she’s a woman designing for women: Comfort is as important to her as aesthetics. For one, she’s unlikely to create heels higher than 10cm – her personal threshold – on a single sole. She also works closely with her factory in Brazil to test her shoes, making sure that the last isn’t too narrow or that there’s nothing cutting into the feet. “There’s no point in making an amazing shoe that’s awkward to wear,” she says. “You can tell when a woman is uncomfortable in a pair of shoes.”
Meet the direct, no-nonsense side to her that, no doubt, has much to do with her company’s rapid growth. According to the brand’s managing director (and her husband) Bobby Stockley, she’s carried by 120 retailers worldwide. Kirkwood wouldn’t have scouted her to join his design team and agreed to a two-year-only stint post-graduation from London’s Royal College of Art had she not displayed potential and business savvy.
For a six-man team, the label produces an impressive 30 to 40 styles every season, broken down into “families” that cleverly spin off from her imaginative sketches. For example, her popular Mila cage sandals – a staple from day one – will be available for the first time in a dominatrix-esque thigh-high boot version in Fall.
Her shoes are priced strategically as “high contemporary”, with designs at On Pedder at Scotts Square and Ngee Ann City going from $320 for wedges to $1,200 for more intricate numbers. “My shoes are fun, so the price should still be accessible,” she says. And she produces in Brazil mainly because the factories there have a strong history in shoemaking, yet are able to create pieces that fit into her pricing category.
The result is a wide customer base – from 18-year-olds looking for a special pair for their birthday, to older women who would buy 10 pairs at a go. “It surprises me to see that my customers don’t fall into a specific age range, and I think the price definitely encourages that,” she says.
Her goal is to always remain in total creative control of her label, something increasingly uncommon when conglomerates are snapping up emerging talents that need the backing to move into the big league. “It’s difficult to maintain such freedom when you’re growing a company, but I can’t see a time when I’d want to relinquish that control,” she says. “My shoes are fun and I’m fun, but you can’t start and manage a business until you realise that there’s a serious element to it.”
This article was originally published in Female July 2014.