Nicholas Kirkwood is one of a new generation of young shoe designers -- including Brian Atwood, Alexandre Birman, Charlotte Dellal and Rupert Sanderson -- who are trying to give Christian Louboutin a run for his money.
You may know Kirkwood's name from his more extreme runway creations designed for L.A.-based label Rodarte. (Bandage thigh-high boots, sandals with heels made to look like melted candle wax, and wood wedges inspired by Chinese woodcarvings are among the most memorable.) And although he's not collaborating with Rodarte for the spring 2012 runway season beginning next month, he is working on runway styles for Manish Aurora's first collection for Paco Rabanne, as well as for Erdem.
Kirkwood, who is based in London, is also taking time to focus more on his own brand, characterized by fierce styles with a kinetic look. He opened his first boutique in London in May. New York is to follow this fall, Los Angeles soon after. Kirkwood was in L.A. recently, scouting for a location. "I would really like to start spending more time here," he said, sipping an iced tea poolside at the Sunset Tower Hotel.
Kirkwood, 31, launched his namesake brand six years ago, and has since earned a bevy of famous fans, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Beyonce and Rihanna. He isn't inspired in the traditional fashion-designer sense by a place or person. Instead, he's more of an architect of shoes. "Usually, it's about finding an interesting organic shape, or just playing around and doodling," he explained, pointing to a look-book photo of a new stiletto with a slight curve at the bottom. "That one was really about negative space and playing off the line of the platform."
He trained at Central Saint Martins. After graduation in 2005, he found work with milliner Philip Treacy. It was there that he noticed a void in the market for truly artistic shoes. "There were really exciting things going on in ready-to-wear with Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan, and with hats too," he said of the London fashion scene at the time. "But the shoes were from a different decade."
That was about to change. In the last six years, shoes have gotten more and more extreme, with designers trying to outdo each other with death-defying platforms and sky-high prices to match. Kirkwood says that he has seen no price resistance in the shoe market, no limit to what women will pay. He once sold a pair of crocodile boots for $12,000.
But what about comfort? I remember years ago when I interviewed Louboutin, he said he didn't care about comfort. Kirkwood is only slightly more interested. And yet, he knows that lower heel heights are key to growing his business. "I'm trying to find a range between things that are sexy and things that are more 'momsy,'" he said.
For fall, he's introducing his lowest heel yet, a 70-millimeter, and even a few flat kiltie loafers in bright colors. (The 70-millimeter slingback platform pumps come in at $595.)
Still, there's a limit to how far he will go. "Ballerinas," he said, "would be the ultimate sellout."
-- Booth Moore
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Photos: Shoes from Nicholas Kirkwood's fall 2011 collection, available at Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus stores. Credit: Nicholas Kirkwood