Nicholas Uncaged

Can British phenom Nicholas Kirkwood ascend to the ranks of footwear royalty?

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FN June 20, 2011

Photo By Stuart Conway

A Keith Haring- inspired heel

Photo By Courtesy of Nicholas Kirkwood

On a mild Thursday evening in London last month, Lady Gaga performed at a private Mayfair nightclub in front of a star-studded audience. But the neighborhood’s most talked-about event was held a few blocks away, where an equally eclectic crowd descended upon Nicholas Kirkwood’s new boutique on Mount Street, the city’s über-hot luxury retail destination.

Sure, there were celebrities in attendance — Freida Pinto among them. Nadja Swarovski was there, too, along with top editors, models, stylists, photographers, gallery owners and even one of Kirkwood’s competitors, Charlotte Olympia Dellal. The designer’s proud parents showed up, as well as the little girl from the neighboring flat upstairs who put on her best party dress to get a glimpse of the thigh-high, Swarovski crystal-encrusted roller skates showcased at the front of the stylish store.

It wasn’t your typical fashion fête. Then again, Kirkwood isn’t your typical fashion designer.

His footwear is bold and futuristic. Yet he is unassuming and traditional.

He draws inspiration from art. Others often use a Hollywood muse.

He’s a media darling. But he’s never tweeted and he loathes public speaking, especially television appearances.

For Kirkwood, the shoes are the celebrity.

“I’m a bit boring, and I’m not into self promotion. It should be about the product, not me,” the designer said last month during an exclusive interview in New York.

Some might call him a little old school, but many more call Kirkwood the future of luxury footwear.

“Nicholas is the real deal,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, EVP of designer merchandising at Nordstrom and founder of the Jeffrey boutiques. “He has an energy that is distinctly his own. His shoes don’t look or feel like anyone else’s, and he’s not building his business like anyone else.”

It’s been almost seven years since the 30-year-old unveiled his first collection, which he crafted by hand at his parents’ antique dining room table. Kirkwood has already navigated his nascent business through a brutal recession and overcome production issues.

Along the way, the prolific designer has been charged with reinventing the classic Italian fashion house Pollini, where he was named creative director last fall. And he’s redefined the runway shoe with show-stopping styles for emerging labels such as Rodarte, Erdem and Peter Pilotto. (All of those collaborations have now evolved into co-branded collections.) As if that’s not enough, Kirkwood recently made waves in the art world with his funky Keith Haring-inspired pop-art shoes. And now, he’s involved in the rebirth of Paco Rabanne.

“I don’t know how he does it all,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Fifth Avenue. “He’s enormously talented. When you look at all the [different elements] of his shoes separately — the heel, the platform, the unique materials and details on the uppers — you go, ‘huh?’ But somehow, he’s able to create these shoes that have amazing breadth and dimension, yet still maintain great proportion and great femininity. Creatively, he’s got it all. And his business is starting to get some fantastic momentum. He and [business partner] Christopher [Suarez] are an important pair who will become formidable.”

It’s been a long time since a young shoe designer stirred up this much excitement. And while there’s no question the high-end footwear world is still ruled by the shoe kings — namely Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik — and accessories powerhouses such as Jimmy Choo, Kirkwood is closing in on that very-exclusive club.

Does the British phenom have what it takes to make the leap from rising star to superstar?

“Absolutely,” said Frasch. “And I normally wouldn’t say that.”

“We consider Nicholas a star who will be very big and important,” added Neiman Marcus SVP and Fashion Director Ken Downing.

Barneys New York also is banking on Kirkwood and plans to expand its business with him come fall.

“Nicholas is an imaginative, innovative and nuanced designer. Barneys loves that creativity in footwear,” said Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and EVP at the retailer.

While Kirkwood appreciates the vote of confidence from retailers, he said he’s much less enthused about being compared to other designers. More and more often he’s being touted as “the next Christian Louboutin.”

Kirkwood has said it before, but now he says it more forcefully. “I don’t want to be the next anybody. I’m happy for Christian, and it’s amazing that someone in the luxury shoe business can be that big. He’s the No. 1 brand in every single store you go into. The last time that sort of thing happened, in terms of someone dominating in that way, was probably with Ferragamo.”

Kirkwood paused for a few seconds before raising his voice another notch. “So yes, it would be great to aim at someone like Louboutin, but I don’t want to be the next Louboutin. I need to do this my own way.”

That’s been Kirkwood’s mantra from the beginning.

At an early age, “he was always very artistic and very much into music,” said his mother, Wendy Kirkwood. “But he would turn up to his classes with the wrong books!”

After moving around as a child and later attending boarding school, the young Kirkwood studied fine arts at Central Saint Martins. Soon after, at the age of 18, he began working with London milliner Philip Treacy in 1999. (The two met on a skiing trip to Switzerland.)

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