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Flying High With Julian Hakes

The designer on how his passion for aviation influences his footwear.

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Julian Hakes describes himself as "geeky-techy," but the London-based footwear designer isn't referring to a penchant for computers or coding. He has a love for aviation — both its history and mechanics.

The influence permeates everything from his design process to the construction of his sculptural, spiral-shaped shoes. Hakes' eponymous collection, which uses a polycarbonate mix as its key component, was in the works for three years while he tweaked the technical details. The label hit U.S. retail in August.

When he's not perfecting his designs or traveling to trade shows, Hakes reads about the history of British aviation and flies vintage-inspired model airplanes that he builds from scratch. He's especially intrigued by the story of Amy Johnson, a pioneering female pilot who was born in the early 1900s in the designer's hometown of Yorkshire, England, and died in a civilian mission during World War II.

"The planes of [Johnson's] era were very new, high-tech and made from wood, metal and fabrics," Hakes said. "Each and every piece of material in the planes she flew was designed to perform a specific function, and this was also reflected in each part's shape and form. The same is very much true about my approach to fashion and shoe design."

He means that literally. "The kit I use for building my shoe [prototypes] is exactly the same kit I use for building my [model] airplanes — everything from the Dremel tool to the sanding blocks to the jewelry designer's saw on my desk," Hakes said. "Also, the shoe is almost shaped like a spinning propeller."

Hakes' passion for all things aviation goes back to his childhood. "I built airplanes with my dad, which were nothing more than sticks with very simple wings on them, made out of balsa," he said. "We would go out on the street and throw them around. It was really basic."

The avocation waned when the designer left for college. After that, he ran an architecture firm for 12 years. But in the end, Hakes couldn't stay away from the sky. "I returned to [making and flying model airplanes] after my first son was born. I was looking for things to do in the evening, in the quiet time," Hakes recalled, noting that his wife's grandfather also was a pilot. "[My renewed interest] also had to do with technology advances, in terms of radio-controlled equipment and batteries rather than petrol. It was a bit cleaner and easier to understand. It also was easier to learn, and you got a lot more performance and power from the planes. Some fly well over 100 mph, and the biggest ones are the size of a desk."

Now, Hakes said, he's sharing this hobby with his sons, ages 6 and 8. "There are super child-friendly models that are easy to control," the designer said. "You can build them [in one] day and go off and fly them with your kids in the afternoon. It's really relaxing, and [working in] fashion, it's nice to have times when you can relax."

Hakes added that a more complicated model can take weeks to build — a long time to wait to send it soaring above the parks of London or, Hakes' favorite launching pad, the beaches of France. "You're always really nervous about that first flight, and I've had a few crashes," he said. "The first crash, you're devastated, but then you realize that's part of anything you do — trying and trying again and getting better. It's a process."

Hakes is planning to take his passion a step further by learning to fly real airplanes. "When you fly the model, you get a sense of how the real plane flies," he said. "I haven't had that experience [of being a pilot] yet, but I'm looking into training programs."

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