'I've always been very creative. Growing up I was always making things,' says the shoe designer, Penelope Chilvers as she shows me around her Mayfair store. With its scrubbed wooden tables, natural textiles, raffia bags and artefacts dotted around, it feels more like stepping into an artist's studio than a retail store. Which is why it's not surprising to learn that Penelope has both a BA and MA in Fine Art. 'I started off in my twenties wanting to be a full time painter,' she explains. 'I suppose my style was semi-figurative. But I would never label myself as a painter, that just sounds so over important.' Her shoe design career, came about as often the most successful businesses do, with a lightbulb moment. For Penelope it happened while horse-riding in the foothills of Barcelona, where she lived for six months. 'I was looking for the perfect pair of riding boots so decided to commission a pair myself from a friend who used to make boots for Hollywood film stars and bullfighters in the seventies. When I got them all my friends started asking me where they were from so I decided to make a mini collection.' This first mini collection was immediately snapped up by a boutique in Notting Hill leading Penelope to create a more comprehensive collection which she showed at Paris fashion week in 2004. Again this was quickly scooped up by buyers who had been longing for a shoe brand that was modern not flashy and practical without looking actually practical. Penelope hasn't looked back and now has two stores in London, alongside over 100 stockists around the world and her designs have been papped on celebrities including Alexa Chung, Kate Middleton, Rihanna and Cate Blanchett. Here she talks techniques, inspiration and the Insta effect...
Tell us about the shoe techniques you use that are traditional to Spain?
I like to take the historical references of shoe making as inspiration, and try to keep my design process as authentic as it can be. So I don’t cut corners and I don’t do fake embellishment or anything like that. There is also a huge history of leather making through the equestrian history in Spain with the Arab community who brought horses with them. I love looking at saddlery and using those references in my footwear too.
From designing your first pair of boots did you ever expect the company to get so big?
I’m a true creative so when someone says I challenge you to design something like an entire collection, I’ll do it! I sold my first collection successfully, and then people said ‘Well what else can you make?’ And I would say: ‘Oh well I can do this’ and then I’m up thinking all night about how to make the next thing. So I’m always driven by my creativity. It’s still what drives my business.
Do you have a particular customer in mind when you’re designing?
We have lots of different kind of customers but I think they have certain things in common. They are interested in wearing their shoes, rather than just leaving them sitting looking pretty in a shoe bag. My shoes are meant to be empowering. You can go anywhere and do anything in them. You can actually run for a bus in all of them, you don’t need to carry them in a bag and switch into them.
You’ve had lots of celebrities papped in your designs from Rihanna, to Kate Middleton and Cate Blanchett. Does that reflect the diverse type of woman you design for?
Yes definitely. When I met Cate Blanchet I thought ‘You are my woman.’ She came into the studio and we spent the whole afternoon together. We had a lot in common and she was just so intelligent, beautiful, and I loved her style of dress.
You’ve become really well known for your dandy slippers. How do you like to see them styled?
I like an androgynous look. I love girls dressed up as men. I think it’s a really sexy look, the boyfriend look. So I like them best with cigarette pants or pyjama bottoms, or jeans, they are so versatile. I live in them, I really do. They are hugely satisfying to design too. At the very start they are a beautiful blank canvas from which I can embellish or embroider.
Do you get lots of inspiration from travelling?
Yes, Spain is still always a source for me. I’ve recently really fallen in love with Andalucia, which is in the south. I love the countryside there, and I love speaking to the people who live there and learning what’s important to them.
Do you still use moodboards?
I keep a sketchbook and have a mood board on my laptop. Then I have a portable one too because I like to take it to the factories and I carry it with me in my bag all the time. That way when I’m designing and I think ‘Oh that might go’ or say I’m in Portobello Market or at a trade fair or just sitting on the tube looking at someone else’s shoes, I can look and say ‘Ah that would work!’
So what can we expect for from your next collections?
I used to do two collections and now I do an additional three drops per year. Pre-fall is quite patchwork inspired and then for autumn winter I’ve used a leather cutting technique that was traditionally used on saddlery in Spain where I’ve layered leather over other colours on eight pairs of boots.
What’s next for you?
I’ve started to do accessories and for spring summer 18 I’ve created my first ever ready-to-wear piece. It’s an oversized jacket. It came about because its what our customers wanted. I do my own Instagram and I love it. It’s an immediate way to tell people what the brand stands for as well as getting feedback from them.
Penelope's Favourite Picks For Summer
'The Arizona Boot gives an elongated calf by being cropped above ankle. It’s ideal for music festivals in the summer, and looks great with shorts and dresses. It’s one of our most iconic and popular styles, and represents the brand’s essence perfectly, as it’s Edwardian equestrian inspired.'
Camber Shoe in Rose, £199
'The Camber Shoe is great for spring. It’s one of my favourite styles too, as I love the androgynous shape combined with a feminine, pastel colourway.'
Palm Tree Dandy Slipper, £259
'I love palm trees because they take you away. It’s always fun to be transported somewhere exotic and the slipper is perfect to take you from day to evening.'
Jungle Pony Boot in Cow Print, £199
'I can’t live without these – every season I repeat on the Jungle Boot. It’s my daily uniform for studio, at factory and on weekends too.'
Siesta Fresian Sandal in Cow Print, £189
'My personal favourite sandal. I like wearing it like a boot, in the early summer. The style goes perfectly with trashed jeans and is perfect to run around the city – they go with everything I wear!'
Castanet bag, £199
'This is the perfect little bag for travel. It’s stylish and fun, and the size is perfect to carry your essentials such as passport, phone, keys and lipstick.'