British shoes designers from Rupert Sanderson and Nicholas Kirkwood to Charlotte Olympia have dominated the market in recent years. Now there's a new name to add to the list: Sophia Webster.
At only 27 years old, Webster has already been named Emerging Footwear Designer of the Year by Condé Nast Footwear News, and one of the Top 100 People to Watch on The Times 2013 New Power List. Even though spring-summer 2013 marks her first official collection, it's already being stocked at retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and On Pedder (exclusively for Asia).
The collection tests the imagination thanks to its playful, fashion-forward styles. Inspired by Brazil and artist Yayoi Kusama, the vibrant colours (think neon yellow, pastel blue and hot pink), whimsical motifs and funky materials add to their appeal. Styles range from platforms and kitten heels to flats with beaded embellishments inspired by Chinese tribal headwear. Each makes a statement, whether it's lace-ups with laser-cut flamingos and polka-dot block heels or strappy sandals featuring polka-dot appliqués and heels made of stacked beads. The pièce de résistance (and Webster's personal favourite) is a sleek ankle strap sandal depicting a Rio sunset, complete with a palm tree.
"My customer is someone who doesn't take herself too seriously, is colourful and likes to have fun with what she wears," Webster says. "She expresses her personality through her shoes."
In person, Webster seems the opposite of the woman she designs for - quiet and understated. She admits to being nervous - her recent visit to Hong Kong marked her first official public appearance since she launched her label.
Indeed, her rise from a young student to one of fashion's most wanted shoe designers was sudden and rapid. She spent her teenage years dancing disco competitively before enrolling at Camberwell College of Arts in London to study art and sculpture. It was during a life drawing and illustration class that she found herself attracted to shoes. Soon after, she entered the famed Cordwainers' Technical College (now the London College of Fashion), where she learned the fundamentals of shoemaking.
"Shoes are the ultimate accessory," she says. "They make you look taller, slimmer and they always fit. They change the way you stand - you rely on them. What's not to love?"
Webster went to the Royal College of Art, where she caught the eye of Kirkwood. She struck a deal with the designer to join his studio after graduation for two years before branching out on her own, with his support.
"[Nicholas] gave me a lot of freedom. He is so imaginative and has a strong vision of what he wants a shoe to look like," she says. "But I did have to learn and do things his way, so it's nice now to be completely selfish and do what I want to do."
When she launched Sophia Webster last year she wanted to move away from the chunky styles dominating the scene. A realistic price was also vital, so instead of making her shoes in Italy, she uses a factory in Brazil. Prices range from HK$3,300 to HK$5,200, putting them in the high-end contemporary arena.
Though her debut collection is flying off the shelves, Webster says the label is still evolving. For autumn-winter 2013 she intends to introduce more handbags (the spring collection includes kitschy speech-bubble clutches that sold out in On Pedder in days), while balancing the more daring styles with commercial and wearable pieces.
"Autumn-winter is a lot more sophisticated, although it has elements of colour," she says.