If there were ever a person we should thank for us ditching our dodgy handbag ballet pumps (because we finally realised that pointed flats look just as smart as heels) it’s Tabitha Simmons. The model-turned-stylist-turned-shoe designer only launched her brand in 2009, but we can’t imagine a world without her sleek, feminine designs. Why? Because they are comfortable as well as chic (yes, even the heels); a point that was subsequently not lost on the high street who followed suit, and your feet have been grateful for it ever since. Simmons, a mum of two boys and a business woman, is the greatest ambassador there could be for her eponymous brand, road testing every style to be sure that it works for her customers: women just like her. She grew up in the Cambridgeshire countryside but now lives in New York spending lots of time in London, Milan and Paris. It’s here that we catch up during Paris Fashion Week in the newly refurbished Ritz Hotel overlooking Place Vendome (‘I could stay here all the time!’) to chat shoe memories, styling and hugging strangers in the street.
Do you remember your earliest shoe memory?
Very clearly! I remember standing in Clarks and desperately wanting a pointed toe shoe with a little heel and my mother saying ‘no, you have to have these rounded toe brown lace-up shoes’. I really didn’t want them!
That pointed toe sounds very Tabitha...did that memory stay with you when you started designing shoes?
I think so! (Laughs) Yes, with the pointed toe. What’s really funny is that I still have difficulty with brown. I think that’s because I had to wear these brown lace-ups and from that moment on…
How long did your mother make you wear sensible shoes for?
I think until I was about sixteen. And then I got into Dr Martens. I’d obviously come full circle by that point! I had cherry red ones.
Who was the first person you remember admiring for their style?
I absolutely loved Adam Ant. I think that’s why I’ve got a soft spot for a military jacket. I loved that style.
What were you into as a teenager?
I was really into Topshop. That’s where I used to go on a Saturday to spend my pocket money on accessories. I think Britain has got some of the best high street stores in the world. I miss that now I live in New York.
What was your first ever job?
I used to work in a shoe shop when I was 14. I was allowed to do a Saturday job to get extra money. It was called Oliver’s Shoes.
You also worked as a model. How did that come about?
I had a job at Joseph. That’s when I really got into fashion because I saw Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana and Alaia, and Prada had a shoe section in there. I got discovered working as a Saturday girl in there. I modelled disastrously, I was a terrible model! I modelled for about two or three years after college and that’s how I found out about styling.
How did you make the leap from one to the other?
Actually it was Katie Grand who said come and intern for Dazed & Confused. It was so much fun and really creative because you didn’t have a budget so you had to think beyond the box. We’d just try and scramble together clothes - a big pile on the floor - and then you’d have to make it work. It was good training to be able to problem solve and make things work to their best.
Do you remember any of your early styling jobs?
At Dazed they’d always do a band back cover that Rankin would shoot, so I did something like that first.
Who are you still in touch with from those days?
Jefferson (Hack) literally helped me set up the shoes. And then my business partner in shoes, we’ve known each other for, gosh, I dread to think now, a long long time! I do keep in touch with a lot of my friends.
How did styling catwalk shows come about?
I think Katie England couldn’t do Givenchy one year and asked if I would do it with Lee McQueen. That was my first ever show. It was incredible because for someone who hadn’t done anything before...he obviously really believed that I could do it, so I felt confident.
I always had a massive passion for shoes. I loved that they really told a story; you could wear a dress with a pair of sneakers and it’s very different from with a pair of heels. Then I was doing shows for Calvin Klein in New York and I got to see the process of making shoes from start to finish. I loved it.
Your first designs were very different from the skyscraper heels that were so popular at the time...
I just wanted to do shoes that were almost the opposite of that; very timeless, not the shoe of the season. I see people in my shoes that are from seasons ago but they still wear them and they still really like them. It’s nice to know they have longevity.
Are you the same - do you have any shoes you’ve owned for years that you can’t bear to be parted with?
I have a lot of McQueen shoes because when I started working at Dazed I’d always be knocking on the office door wanting the sample. They didn’t have a shoe line at that point so those are quite sentimental. And then I still have some high Manolos that were the first shoes I saved up for. I have a really hard time throwing away shoes.
What’s your shoe storage situation?
A lot of them are at my office and then a lot of them are in the country; they’re sort of spread. What I’ve tried to do is photograph each one and then it’s all catalogued...I have binders of shoes now. So they’re all photographed and accounted for.
Wow so you could open a museum of shoes! How many pairs do you have?
I kind of stopped counting because now I always have my shoes from each of my own collections. Four or five hundred I would have thought, easily.
You’re the best ambassador for your own collection so you have to wear them all! Do you limit yourself?
Well, the first time I ever did a shoe collection I was very excited about it; I was like ‘wow I’ve got orders they’re going into stores now, this is amazing’. And so all the orders went through, they all went to the stores and then I was like, ‘well, where’s my shoes?’ I had to go and buy my own shoes because I didn’t order any. It never crossed my mind to order some for myself.
Who is the Tabitha Simmons woman?
I think I started designing for myself originally. My first collection was quite high heels and then I was wearing heels everywhere and I have two boys, so I did some flats. I guess initially that’s where it came from, where I would design around women that were busy working, who wanted fashion but not too extreme.
Do you think people respond well to a woman designing for women?
It was always great because I could wear them and say this or that hurts and then we would fix it. If it’s cut too low or the leather’s too hard it might dig in somewhere. We really tried to work on comfort as well as fashion. Being a woman designer you’re literally in those shoes, you are wearing them and running after two boys. They’re functional as well as looking good. I try to road test every style.
You’ve named shoes after some of your famous friends - how do you decide what to name after whom? Is it their style or their personality?
It’s more about their style. I didn’t name my first shoes, and then I’d show friends and relatives or fashion peers they would all pick up different shoes. Grace (Coddington) picked up one that was different to Karen (Elson) that was different to Alexa (Chung).
How does it feel to see women on the street wearing your shoes?
That is the best thing in the world! It happened to me the other day, I was walking down the street with a friend and then I was like ‘she’s got my shoes on!’ And he said ‘I like your shoes’ to her. And she said ‘oh, thanks they’re Tabitha Simmons.’ And he said‘I know, that’s her.’ And she said ‘no way!’ And then I had to give her a big hug because I was so excited. It never ever gets old. I love it!
So you’ve got your snazzy pointy Tabitha Simmons party flats sorted. Now what to wear with them? Hannah Rochell AKA the flat shoe blogger @EnBrogue has the answer...
- A party dress, obvs. If you’re partial to dressing down rather than up, your flats will make a posh frock seem more laid back. You can also risk a higher hem without heels as it looks cute rather than sexy with flats. Bonus.
- Scruffy boyfriend jeans. While your trainers might be a step too casual with your fav denim for a party, you can totes get away with it when your shoes look this good. Pair with this season’s ubiquitous flute sleeve top.
- A ladylike skirt. Don’t be put off wearing party flats with something longer and demure, like a calf length pencil in leather or a heavy flocked fabric (though do avoid anything that looks like workwear e.g. pinstripes). You’ll be surprised how flattering this looks, even if you’re not particularly tall. Pointed toes do wonders for leg lengthening.
- A floor length lace dress. This works especially well when the dress and shoes are black for a modern, chic take on goth. See classic Valentino and Erdem for styling details.
- Cigarette trousers. Slim-line cropped pants with a tunic top are a great alternative to a dress and your party flats are the perfect partner as they’re so flattering on the ankles. COS has some fantastic matching sets at the moment in olive or, for the more daring amongst you, tangerine.