The unique shoe designs of Tabitha Simmons reflect her transatlantic life

Her English upbringing and New York lifestyle have given former model Tabitha Simmons a unique take on shoe design, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 9:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 9:45am

There are worse things to be greeted by on a Monday morning. A beautiful Tabitha Simmons sits with her team in the Four Seasons lobby lounge, looking incredibly fresh considering she has just flown in from New York.

Wearing her shiny black hair loose, and with barely a stitch of make-up on, she sports an embellished black top, skinny trousers and a pair of her sexy, black lace-up booties.

Simmons, who is visiting Hong Kong for the first time, is a picture of urban elegance, and her eponymous brand's best marketing tool.

My style is a bit of a mutt. My label is a bridge between England and the States
Tabitha Simmons, designer 

"I used to work [styling] and consulting for Alexander McQueen and Calvin Klein, and often you'd start from the very beginning," the English designer and ex-model says of her first experience in footwear. "Lee [McQueen] would do a sketch and we'd have to make that sketch three-dimensional.

"I got to work on the structure, and whether it would be a thick heel, or different silhouettes. That's when the passion for shoes really arrived. I became fascinated, as I felt that the shoes defined the whole silhouette," she says.

The international stylist is now most famous for her footwear label, and she has won a Council of Fashion Designers of America award and a British Fashion Award since starting her label in 2009. Simmons grew up in the English countryside (there is still no hint of American in her accent, even though she has lived in New York for many years) and began her fashion work at Dazed and Confused magazine in London.

She moved to New York to take on the fashion editor role at V Magazine, and later worked at Vogue. She recalls that she'd been talking about doing her own shoe line for a while, but it was her friend Jefferson Hack, editor of Dazed and Confused, who introduced her to the Veneto footwear workshops and factories where all her designs are now made.

"I joke that he's the godfather of my label, because without him, none of this would have ever happened," she laughs. Fans love the quirky English classicism of her style, but also enjoy the flirty accents and practical pieces.

And it's much to the benefit of the brand that Simmons is a working mother of two, still styling major campaigns and fashion shows (she is a regular with McQueen, Marchesca and Dolce & Gabbana).

"It's useful," she says, "as you become aware of things. I really wanted more classic shoes that you could wear season after season. From an editor's point of view, it's always about what's next, but from a shoe designer's viewpoint, I wanted to slow that down, as I felt the turnover was getting too fast."

Being a woman who still works long days on her feet ("I have to stand in my shoes for 12 hours a day sometimes") when she is styling, comfort is also key for Simmons. That's why she uses an Italian factory with "a really great track record, that was doing all of Chanel's shoes and Christian Dior couture shoes".

All the lasts, heels and fabrics are made specifically for the label. "I never wanted to scrimp on quality," she says. She insists on being hands-on in the design process, saying that "there's lots of being on your hands and knees, chopping and cutting on the floor".

Simmons says that her woman is "feminine but strong and busy. She likes fashion, but also likes timeless pieces and really good quality. I feel that my shoes are for women who have got careers".

The label is a reflection of her own lifestyle, one that might involve being on set with photographer Mario Testino in the morning, running after two children in the afternoon, then attending a red carpet cocktail event later in the evening.

She says that's why the shoe range is so broad, incorporating everything from casual flats to tall eveningwear heels. Perhaps that variety is what appeals to celebrity followers like Beyoncé, Kate Moss, Eva Mendes, Cindy Crawford and Demi Moore.

"You can have the one dress, and you can put a kitten heel, or a trainer, or a platform on and it would tell a different story and make you a completely different woman. That is something that I'm really fascinated by."

Her spring-summer 2014 collection, which is in stores now and available here exclusively at Lane Crawford, features fresh colours, graphic laser-cut styles, and cool flats like the Alexa (this time with chain detailing) or the Vera suede d'Orsay slip-ons.

More glamorous heels include the striped Bailey heel with double ankle strap, and her signature corset lace-up back, which comes from the Victorian influence she loves. "I always seem to pull things from that era," Simmons quips. One of my favourites is a pair of colourful Edie d'Orsay slingbacks with a chunky heel and butterfly print.

Personality is a big part of the label, and Simmons injects plenty of her world travels, positivity and British attitude into her shoes. Her spring Peruvian print, for example, was dedicated to her 10th wedding anniversary in Peru (her husband is English photographer Craig McDean); it has little hearts incorporated into the motif.

She's "smashed together the Peruvian inspiration with a bit of English preppiness with those striped silks that look like English shirting". Her fabrics are often English craft, and the leathers are from top tanneries in Europe.

"I use a seventh-generation silk mill company. It's a very old artisan company that used to weave the silks for the queen's coronation coaches, and also for Lady Diana's wedding dress. It's been the same family for years and years."

Her autumn-winter 2014 collection is "very menswear-inspired" and she explores old-school techniques like English brogue, but adds a feminine, urban twist. The constant US-UK dichotomy provides her with inspiration.

"Both cities [London and New York] are breeding great talent," Simmons says. "Alexander Wang and Proenza [Schouler] are fantastic. But when I'm in England I love the more experimental side of fashion.

"I think my style is a bit of a mutt," she laughs. "I'll always be very English because of my upbringing. But living in the States, you tend to get swept up in that world. My label is a sort of bridge between the two."