A foot in both camps
Rupert Sanderson sits in his Mayfair showroom in London, surrounded by his autumn-winter 2012 shoe collection, and waxes poetic. 'I love the fascination; that talisman-like magic that shoes have,' he says.
Despite achieving international acclaim, Sanderson was little known in Hong Kong until 2010, when he and local partner Bertrand Mak launched the brand's first boutique outside Europe. Now, besides his Mayfair and Knightsbridge stores, and a stunning Palais Royal showroom in Paris, there's a Rupert Sanderson outlet on On Lan Street, Central, alongside those of Christian Louboutin, Ann Demeulemeester and Gianvito Rossi.
'Bertrand took an independent punt on us,' says Sanderson. 'Where that impetus came from, I don't know. He is a bright bloke. It's unusual to have a partner of that calibre working with a brand of our size.'
Mak explains: 'It was entirely by chance and my motivation was rather personal. I share Rupert Sanderson's understated aesthetic, which is not dictated by the ever-changing chimera of the latest and the newest. I believe this approach is rare and has longevity.'
Eighteen months later, the designer and his graceful handcrafted-in-Italy creations have gathered a cult following here. This month he launches several styles exclusive to Hong Kong, such as the nude and black mesh Hydra heel with painted 22-karat gold leaf accents and the dalmatian print loafer with bullet tassels for spring-summer 2012. Last year, Sanderson released the successful 'Hong Kong' shoe - an Asian version of the classic Winona shoe, to better fit the foot shape of local women.
Sanderson's understated style has not gone unnoticed. He was named accessories designer of the year by the British Fashion Council in 2008 and then by Elle magazine in 2009. Models Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer, actress Sienna Miller and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, are fans.
Netting collaborations from edgy, young British designers to Old World theatrical productions - most notably Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida at London's Royal Opera House in 2010 - Sanderson also caught the eye of fashion's reigning don, Karl Lagerfeld, resulting in collaborations in recent years. 'It was interesting to come onto Lagerfeld's radar,' he says. 'You are working with someone very fast who gets it. It surprised everyone.'
Perhaps Sanderson is making more of an effort to be plugged into the fashion world. Although his reputation is largely for conservative gracefulness that puts balance above embellishment, he has moved out of his comfort zone of streamlined lady's court shoes in the past two seasons. In his London showroom are art deco-inspired shapes, gold and black leather cut-outs and sexy peep-toes as well as towering stacked wedges and skyscraper heels.
'I've been a little po-faced about my aesthetic,' he admits. 'And there is a sort of conservatism that underlies what I do. But people have said that I've become much more flamboyant and colourful. I don't know why, but I just felt like that. Maybe you'll see more of it.'
Cut-out butterflies, shoes with crystal lips on them, Marie Antoinette double ruffles, huge platform pumps with geometric shapes sit alongside classic courts for the coming autumn.
'You need a spectrum,' Sanderson says. 'Women will buy eight court shoes for every two pairs of crazy fashion shoes, so you need to have both.'
With more than 10 years of experience in the industry, Sanderson is confident he's now got the right mix. The company ran advertising campaigns last year to communicate that what it has to offer goes beyond simple courts, says Sanderson.
Born in 1966 in Penang, Malaysia, Sanderson grew up as a British army child. 'I suspect I made a huge mistake going to university,' he says. 'You end up in graduate trainee programmes in management, but I was always into creativity, so I should have gone to art school.'
Sanderson's first career was in advertising - what he now calls 'a nine-year hiatus' - before he entered fashion. He then trained at the prestigious Cordwainers College in London (another Malaysian alumnus is Jimmy Choo) and learned his craft at two family-run traditional Italian operations before launching his own label.
'The fact that it was shoes ... I don't know, did I choose it, or did it choose me? I feel it could have been furniture or architecture, and things could have been very different,' he says.
His stints with shoemakers Sergio Rossi and Bruno Magli allowed Sanderson access to traditional close-knit communities within the industry. Old masters that he admired include Roger Vivier for Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo. Another old master who caught his eye in the early days was an independent Briton, the late Johnny Moke, who was a bit of a footwear favourite in the 1960s and '70s.
'He lived on the arse end of the King's Road for 15 years - too long - but made beautiful shoes,' Sanderson says. 'I was curious. It was totally eccentric, counter to fashion now. It was all about individuals doing their own thing, unlike this modern, great wave of fashion. He was one of the only independent shoemakers in London for a few years - this grumpy old man, quietly cobbling away.'
While he might feel nostalgia for those simpler times, Sanderson says it's important to keep up to date with today's fast-changing fashion scene.
'Everyone in the past 10 years has got into shoes, bags and accessories in a much more aggressive way,' he says. 'It's useful to come from a different world because you have an outside perspective on the slightly crackers world of fashion. It does tend to take itself so seriously.'
His label remains independent, but this year it will look to define its strategy for the next five years. Sanderson is still reluctant to become a slave to fashion. Despite the sexiness and youthful gumption of his spring-summer 2012 campaign, the lengthening silhouette of the Sanderson shoe has not been abandoned.
'I tend to strip stuff out and keep things as clean as I can. It's a pretty damn good principle in terms of design, anyway,' he says.
Because of this, his shoes carry a powerful precision. Sanderson spends hours in the factory getting proportions right and the heel sitting correctly. The factory is where he feels most comfortable. 'I'm less comfortable in a fashion environment, where I'm air-kissing editors. It's essential, it's important, but I don't quite know what to say.'
Despite his celebrity fan base, part of Sanderson's charm is that he isn't your typical industry schmoozer. Refreshingly uncensored opinions come out as we broach topics from Manolo Blahnik to John Galliano.
'I screwed up right royally the other night,' he says with a laugh.
'I asked Alexandra Shulman [editor of British Vogue] if they'd shown yet for London Fashion Week. She said: 'Rupert, they've all shown. This is end of fashion week.'
'I didn't even know it had happened.'