The Cordwainers Formula

What’s the secret behind the school's string of successful footwear grads?

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Is there a secret to Cordwainers College’s ability to turn out some of the footwear industry’s most innovative design talent?

The school, at the London College of Fashion, has, after all, nurtured a host of marquee names in footwear design, including Jimmy Choo, Rupert Sanderson, Jerome Rousseau, Beatrix Ong, Charlotte Olympia Dellal, Camilla Skovgaard, Patrick Cox, Linda Bennett and Nicholas Kirkwood — and more are on the way.

Designers who have studied at the college attributed its success to programs steeped in technical training, while industry insiders said its rich heritage also contributes to its allure.

“Without a doubt, it is the teachers who really stand out at Cordwainers,” said Skovgaard. “They instilled a love and respect for the craft and … gave a comprehensive [understanding of how to] start hitting the factories overseas. My three years [there were] difficult but great.”

Chau Har Lee, who graduated in 2002 and now works as a women’s shoe designer at Bally, agreed.

“It was a nice, intimate environment where everyone knew each other,” she recalled. “Every Tuesday morning, I was able to have one-to-one instruction with my tutor, Sue Saunders, and talk about any problems I was having. I also benefited from a lot of technical emphasis in the course, on [things like] construction techniques and machine operation.”

“They really instill a work-hard ethos in you, and their world-class facilities inspire people to push themselves,” British luxury designer Atalanta Weller said of her three years of study at Cordwainers.

Weller graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in footwear design in 2002 and today focuses on architectural designs that try to push the technical boundaries of shoe making.

After launching her eponymous label four seasons ago, Weller is looking to expand. She’s about to sell an undisclosed stake in her business to a private equity firm, as well as launch a capsule collection with a British high street retailer and make runway shoes for two British designers at the next London Fashion Week, though she wouldn’t reveal specific names.

Weller said she credits much of her success and drive to what she learned at Cordwainers. “What makes Cordwainers College different is it inspires something entrepreneurial, [more so] than [do] other schools,” she said.

Weller’s peers have equally impressive résumés.

Lee, who was in Weller’s class at the school, found the program a good foundation upon which to build her graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, where she was personally tutored by Manolo Blahnik and was awarded the Manolo Blahnik RCA Award 2009 for her coursework. Now she also designs an eponymous line of shoes, made with unconventional materials such as perspex and wood, and sells the styles on a made-to-order basis at Selfridges department store in London.

While their career trajectories seem impressive, it could be said that Weller and Lee are simply walking the path paved for them by other footwear luminaries and Cordwainer graduates.

Among them is Choo, who has returned to the school on several occasions as a professor.

And for Ong, studying there led directly to her first job as a designer. After graduating in 2000, Ong became Jimmy Choo’s creative director of couture when she was 22 years old. Two years later, in 2002, she launched her eponymous line.

Ong said she chose to study at Cordwainers because it was “[an] environment completely different [from] other universities. In terms of design, London has so many resources and cultures to draw upon.”

Designers have also taken advantage of the school’s strategic location. Weller noted, “Europe is a really cheap flight away. I go probably once a month to Portugal for manufacturing, [while] components still come from Italy.”

Industry insiders agreed the school draws design talent because of its proximity to Europe’s top design houses and factories, but also because of its storied history.

“The fact that it’s in London, a city whose fashion credentials have caught up with Milan and New York in recent times, gives it cachet,” said George Wallace, a U.K.-based strategy consultant with MHE Retail. “Years ago, the idea of going somewhere to learn how to design shoes [was unheard of because] Cordwainers College sounds like something out of Victorian England, and that’s because it was.”

The term “cordwainer” derives from “cordovan,” a leather made from a horse’s rump that is named for Córdoba, Spain, and that was used as early as 1100 in England.

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