Nicholas Uncaged

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

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A fall ’11 style

Photo By Courtesy of Nicholas Kirkwood

The Keith Haring roller skates

Photo By Courtesy of Nicholas Kirkwood

The London space is just the beginning. Kirkwood is close to signing a lease for a second shop in a yet-to-be-disclosed location in New York and is now plotting retail growth in southeast Asia and the Middle East.

But the process won’t be easy, according to Farrar-Hockley. “He’s going to learn how to be a retailer himself and about all the dramas that come with that,” she said. “There’s a steep learning curve, but he’s conscious of that.”

Even with many of the ingredients for growth, Kirkwood says there’s still something missing.

“Everybody believes we can make this happen — and we have a lot of industry support — but the general public still isn’t aware of us, unless they’re avid fashion followers,” said Kirkwood. “I want people to see a girl walking down the street and say ‘those are Nicholas Kirkwoods.’”

How does he plan to get in front of more consumers?

“Maybe we need to start investing in more celebrity dressing,” he said. “I used to think it was cheesy to say you cared about celebrities, but I know it’s important.”

While he’s not yet a red-carpet favorite, Kirkwood has gotten a big boost from major celebrities such as Julianne Moore and Sarah Jessica Parker, who are frequently seen wearing his styles.

“I have loved watching the rise of Nicholas,” Parker told Footwear News. “He’s an immensely talented designer and he is definitely one of my favorites.”

Kirkwood has seen the power of celebrity at work. “Look at Jimmy Choo. Everyone knows it, even the taxi drivers,” he said.

Jimmy Choo’s rapid rise has also shown Kirkwood how lucrative a hot brand can be. Its recent $850 million sale to Labelux Group certainly got his attention.

But don’t expect him to hang out the for-sale sign anytime soon. “I don’t think I would sell the business outright, at least not at this point,” he said. “Maybe it’s a series of steps, but it isn’t one big leap.”

To that end, the designer last year divested a 5 percent stake in the business to an industry investor, who has remained anonymous. (Kirkwood still owns a vast majority of the brand, while Suarez and Wendy Kirkwood also each own a small stake.) “This investor doesn’t just give us money; he helps us with the business,” Kirkwood said. “It was a strategic decision.”

While he declined to comment on the size of the business, sources pegged the company’s recent valuation at $35 million to $38 million.

“We have a lot more to do,” said Kirkwood, who hasn’t taken a vacation for the last seven years.

Men’s shoes and handbags are both on the agenda for the next year.

And would he ever consider launching a lower-priced diffusion line, a popular growth avenue for many luxury designers?

“The only way I would consider it is if Italy got so expensive that only the ultra-elite could buy product made there. But costs have already gone up so much, so I don’t see that happening. ”

Ready-to-wear isn’t part of the plan, either. “I just don’t think that would be the correct thing to do. It wouldn’t be believable,” the designer said. “It’s a whole category you need to study separately.”

While Kirkwood mulls his next step, industry players said he now must figure out what his business model should be.

“He’s going through a little bit of what Louboutin went through,” Frasch said. “Eventually, he brought in [COO] Alexis [Mourot] to oversee the supply chain and the organizational structure. Those kinds of things allow you to elevate the business.”

Yes, even the retail crowd can’t help but compare Kirkwood to footwear’s brightest star.

“Not that many years ago, the name Christian Louboutin wasn’t widely known,” said Neiman Marcus’ Downing. “He slowly started building notoriety and came on strong. Now people know those red soles from five miles away. As the customer begins to know Nicholas and other new brands, they will become loyal to them as well.”

Kurt Geiger’s Farrar-Hockley summed it up this way: “Louboutin has immense talent and skill and stamina, but he’s had a lot of good luck, too,” she said. “Nicholas has many of the same ingredients. Will he have all the luck? Who knows.”

Nicholas On...

Label lust: “I would love to build my brand like Hermès, but I don’t think it’s realistic. It takes 24 working hours to make each bag. That is true luxury. Hermès is really the only true luxury brand left.”

America vs. Europe: “It used to be that contemporary brands would come from America and luxury and designer brands would come from Europe. In the last few years, that line very much blurred. It’s very sad to see some of the big luxury companies making shoes in China. It would be more understandable if it was ready-to-wear.”

Social media: “I understand why it exists, but I just don’t think it’s very chic. It’s so self-promoting and cheesy. You’re not going to get Hermès or Alaïa tweeting. We have a Facebook page, but we don’t even manage it. I guess we should try to get it. It’s not even up to date.”

Dream collaborations: “From our generation, Alexander McQueen. He was such a visionary. From the past, Leonardo DaVinci. And maybe Jesus. We could make shoes for walking on water.”

On his first order: “It was Kurt Geiger for Harrods. I remember Neil [Clifford] and Rebecca [Farrar-Hockley] walking around Premiere Classe and stopping in. And then the buyer came back and bought it. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing, this actually happened.’ It was a great first step.”

The most expensive shoe he’s ever made: “The Keith Haring roller skates. We haven’t even put a price on them, but they would probably be more than 20,000 pounds. The most expensive shoe we ever sold was a knee-high suede-and-alligator boot. It was 7,000 pounds and we sold one pair. I should pull them out again. They would look great in our store window.

His alternate career path: “I studied fine arts in college, so I’d probably work in a gallery, or do something with industrial design, furniture or lighting.”

Decade hopping:
“I’d love to have a time machine where you could bounce back and forth. I would have loved Paris in the 1930s. It was such an era of decadence and creativity. I love the 1980s as well. I was around, but I didn’t really live it. I love the music and the extreme looks, good and bad.”

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