Chic Speak: Tabitha Simmons on Her Rising Profile

The British designer is forging ahead with her footwear venture.

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Tabitha Simmons isn’t kidding around.

The stylist-turned-designer, who has worked with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana and Marchesa and is a regular contributor at Vogue, is making a serious impression in the footwear business.

Top retailers said Simmons’ highly attuned styling eye combined with her street-cool style and British flair sets her apart in an extremely competitive luxury footwear market.

“Tabitha has incredible taste, and clearly her experience as a stylist allows her to understand what women want and the proportions that make women look beautiful,” said Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and EVP at Barneys New York.

Simmons, a mother of two boys, admits that it’s not easy juggling her multiple roles ­— she likens her life to walking a tightrope. “You could fall off at any moment,” she said.

But the designer’s recent accolades — including the BFA’s Emerging Talent Accessories Award and a CFDA nomination for the Swarovski Award for Accessory Design — are giving her more ammunition.

Since launching in 2009 exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman, Simmons’ collection, priced from $695 to $2,295, has expanded its global retail reach to 60 locations, including Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Browns, Harrods, Selfridges and Holt Renfrew, among others. And Saks Fifth Avenue picked up the collection for fall ’12.

Now Simmons is adding runway collaborations to the mix, working with Honor and Creatures of Wind, and upping the digital ante with more interactive content on her website and a boosted social media presence. At the same time, she continues full force with her styling career.

“The way she puts looks together, it always looks believable and cool and very of-the-moment,” said frequent collaborator Mark Holgate, Vogue’s fashion news director. “She appreciates the biggest gestures of fashion. Tabitha’s shoes are like a little event or statement, but they are not meant to be treated with kid gloves.”

And Simmons seems to agree: Her latest digital project was an energetic dance video shot by her husband, fashion photographer Craig McDean, featuring the fall collection reimagined as tap shoes.

The designer’s genuine desire for creating an intimate connection with her consumers has also proven to be a powerful brand-building tool. Simmons, who oversees eight staffers, actively manages her social media presence and continues to sell out of her home in New York to maintain that small brand intimacy.

“I would hate to see Tabitha ever reinvented as a ‘super brand.’ ... All the magic would be quickly lost,” said Scott Tepper, head of luxury at London-based Kurt Geiger.

As she continues to grow her business, Simmons said she’s often asked whether she will ultimately choose between design or styling. But for now, at least, there are no plans to venture down just one path. “Sometimes I do things that are a bit extreme, [such as fly from Italy to New York for an afternoon before returning to Paris] but it’s worth it.”

Here, Simmons sounds off on the long road to launching her own line, her first job in footwear and where she wants to take her label in the next few years.

How do you juggle your two careers?
Luckily, with shoes, the lead time is very long. In the lag time after the designs are sent to the factory and before I fly to Italy to see the prototypes, I am either helping with the sales or working in styling. I really love both jobs. Lots of people ask me when I am going to give up one, but at the moment, I don’t want to. There seems to be a nice crossover.

When did you know you wanted to design shoes, specifically?
It’s something I’ve always had a massive interest in. My first job was selling shoes at Oliver’s Shoes [in London]. There were these yellow stilettos that I just loved and I remember they cost 10 pounds [about $16]. I sold them to everyone. My mother never let me wear fashionable shoes, so it’s ironic that I went to work at fashionable shoe stores. It must have planted a seed somewhere along the [way], but I was always interested in fashion.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since debuting the collection?
Production, getting everything delivered in the stores on time, grappling with factories, begging them for a quicker turnaround. Coming from the creative side, it has been a big learning curve. When I was getting started, it took a year and a half to put in place the production side, to find the best factories, to get a great team lined up before even designing the first shoes. I quietly went about researching it. So it may have seemed like I walked in and said, “I launched a shoe collection,” but actually it took much longer.

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