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“I can definitely see how Nicholas has been influenced by Philip in the way that he takes such a sculptural approach to design and uses so many different materials, from rubber and straw to wood, crystal and plastic,” said Nadja Swarovski, VP of international communications and creative director at Swarovski, which will bow a second jewelry capsule collection with Kirkwood for spring ’12.
The crystal queen met Kirkwood while he was working for Treacy, around the same time that Kirkwood got to know the late fashion icon Isabella Blow, who rented him a room for a while.
“[Isabella] was always so supportive and encouraging of anyone who was doing something new,” the designer said. “I made a pair of shoes for her at the very beginning, but I wish I had gotten to make more for her.”
While he was working his way up at Treacy, he attended Cordwainers to learn shoemaking, although he dropped out after a year. But by then he had found his calling and set out to fill a void in the market for statement shoes in 2004. “It seemed like people were only making kitten heels and mules,” Kirkwood said. “I wanted to build a different kind of brand.”
The designer attended Premiere Classe in 2005, and it was there he first met business partner Suarez. “We were the only two people there wearing sunglasses inside,” Suarez joked. “I was there to see some other designers, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw this tiny space. It looked like a gallery almost. So I went over, and Nick was slouched down in a chair in the corner.”
The pair exchanged contact information and started working together sporadically, joining forces permanently in late 2006. The union was a critical step for Kirkwood, who had struggled to lay a real foundation for the brand.
“My No. 1 piece of advice for fellow young designers is to try not to do it all yourself. At the beginning, it can be quite lonely. You’re invoicing, doing the sales, calling customers. It’s hard to stand back and know whether you’re doing the right thing. To have someone to talk things through with, that’s extremely important,” Kirkwood said.
With the two men in step, everything began to change for the better in 2007. Kirkwood won the AltaRoma/Vogue Italia Award in July of that year, which gave him renewed momentum heading into the spring ’08 season. It also provided some much-needed exposure and sparked new opportunities, which led to an even more necessary infusion of cash to fund the business.
Kirkwood was named accessories director at Pollini in early 2008 and made such an impression at the brand that he was elevated to the post of creative director last fall.
“It’s an exciting prospect to be given the opportunity to change a house like that,” Kirkwood said. “Fall ’11 was really formative. We got it right — or at least a lot more right than it was before. I’ve really been looking at Pollini’s heritage and what it’s been famous for in the past, and then trying to create a modern interpretation of that. It’s not about completely reinventing the wheel.”
Where he has been reinventing the wheel is on the runway, where he’s rolled out co-branded designs with Rodarte sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy since spring ’09.
Remember this spring’s perfectly sculpted gold platform wedges? Or last year’s melted candle-wax heels? Or the thigh-high bondage boots from 2009? They are all Kirkwood/Rodarte concoctions.
“I think of him as an artist who happens to use shoes as his canvas,” said Visionaire co-founder and editor Cecilia Dean, who introduced the designer to the Mulleavy sisters.
While he still goes wild with his collaborations, Kirkwood has started to integrate more commercial looks into his main line.
“I’ve really started to work on how to make a basic shoe, but make it in a very identifiable way,” Kirkwood said. His spring ’12 collection will feature more flats and mid-heels, a departure from the first few seasons when his heel options were high and super-high.
“Category-wise, he’s grown significantly over the last few years, but he’s still been able to retain that strong Kirkwood aesthetic. That’s a lot harder than people think,” said Rebecca Farrar-Hockley, Kurt Geiger’s buying and creative director. “And that’s helped him stand out from his competitors.”
Kirkwood hopes his new store will also give him an edge.
“As an accessories brand, I can’t do a runway show. So it’s quite difficult to project an image sometimes,” he said. “This will be the first opportunity for people to see the collection in a much bigger way, in a surrounding we created.”
Plus, the boutique is connected to Kirkwood’s roomy new offices.
“We will be able to get firsthand feedback from customers, instead of just hearing what they think through our retailers. The store is going to become a crucial tool for developing the collection,” he said.