Personal stylist Melanie Sarah Brewer, of Melanie Sarah Image Styling, meets Silvia Campbell, West Berkshire-based shoe designer and maker, to find out what makes a pair of bespoke shoes truly bespoke….
It’s official – the Great British Shoe Revival is making confident strides when it comes to ladies bespoke shoes. With her design studio/showroom nestled in the picturesque West Berkshire village of Yattendon, the sun is shining on this unique shoe designer and shoe maker. I met with Silvia Campbell to find out when, indeed, is a pair of ‘‘bespoke shoes’’ truly bespoke and just how confident is she about the current British bespoke shoe revival.
With wafts of leather hide dye all around us, the conversation rooted back to resourceful beginnings and a lack of formal education in art and design in a communist country. Campbell reveals, “My parents were teachers and their outlook for me was as a lawyer, or a doctor. It was my grandmother, a dressmaker in Slovakia, who was the strongest influence of all.” As a young girl, Campbell could see the potential of fabric leftovers and made them into dolls clothes. “Making them was far more fun than buying,” she beams. “But I was very aware of shoes from a young age; my mother paid a lot of attention to hers – a petite and elegant woman, she was stylish too.” Campbell explains that the making of shoes was less accessible in her youth and way too complicated, but it really intrigued her.
After the collapse of the old Regime, many ideas could be accessed via magazines and Burda was a favourite – Campbell’s design aspirations were already taking shape. She moved to England, gaining all the necessary certificates to accept a place with The London College of Fashion. She was awarded a distinction, graduating at 27 years old, and immersed herself in some training on the job with shoe and boot maker (and double Royal Warrant holder) John Lobb, and Freed of London. “Being another shoe designer wasn’t an option – my work would not be a repetition of something already there. My creations would be significantly different and better,” she states. “My principal goal was to achieve beauty and comfort.” At the age of 30, her dream came to life – founding Silvia Campbell Bespoke Shoes For Women.
Campbell reveals shoes “are bespoke when measurements are taken of both feet and those measurements are actually used. These precise numbers are translated to the wooden shoe lasts and the bespoke journey begins.” Which is good to know when you think a foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and 49 major muscle groups – it’s a mass of sensitive nerve endings too.
Flats may be back this season but the stiletto seemingly has staying power. For fashion houses, the stiletto has generated high revenue but there is a dilemma – the side effect of pain! Passing wooden lasts, individual shoes and various working photographs to me, Campbell explains the relationship between the internal shape of the shoe and the forces that one’s feet exert on that internal shape when worn. “Few people have a pair of feet that properly resemble an average shoe last. When we put our unique foot into an average-shaped shoe, it will fit in some places, over extend in a few and fall short in others. If, however, the last is not a good approximation, the load will not be spread evenly and those parts of the foot, typically the toes, that extend beyond the last shape, will be forced against the stretched shoe upper.”
Being a bespoke shoemaker, Campbell is naturally obsessed with good fit and craftsmanship. “Globally, there are some expensive shoes out there for the ‘well-heeled woman.’ I get a little crazy when I see big price tags attached to badly made shoes. One short cut I regularly spot is an inside seam – minimising the pattern-cutting wastage from each piece of leather. The upper is cut into smaller sections, introducing a seam on the inside of the shoe. It is ugly, but it does keep costs down. Imagine if Mercedes started selling cars with the door panels made of two smaller panels welded together. No, no, no!”
Campbell works with an intriguing mix of ingredients, which includes the traditional, prestige British craftsmanship she has mastered and her dynamic, modern design flair. How about exotic snake skin, sting ray, or a touch of lace with classic leather? Perhaps nude-nappa leather, black matt python, crystals or exquisite beading? But this is not about customisation from a list of options. The original, bespoke design is at the heart of Campbell’s work – along with a desire to “go out and source the best.” Campbell confirms, “I have refused in the past to work with some merchants as they could not supply Cites paperwork with their skins. All of mine are traceable to source, with their certificate. If the skin is not farmed, it is not as supple and certainly if the animal was poached, there are more scars. I can notice the texture and feel from a farmed species – it’s cleaner, softer.”
Campbell is also very real about what women want and her own personal reference points as wife, mother and business woman bring true value to her bespoke consultations. It can take up to six months to create the first pair of bespoke shoes (priced from £2,500) – the lead time for subsequent pairs is much less (from £1,500). This is about trust and investment, both ways. The final creation is an expression of individuality, for women with an eye for perfection who know that “good” is not good enough when it comes to beauty and comfort for their feet.
“We opened our showroom in Yattendon in November 2012, where we meet our clients and make our shoes. Some of our clients are local to Berkshire, with the majority being London-based, and others come from countries all around the world.” I ask if the rural setting inspires ideas and brings clarity to the design process. Campbell smiles, and sighs. “Some contacts in the industry said I’d not make it outside of London, and the mix just wouldn’t work.” Berkshire is well connected to London and the contrast between the two locations is superb for her work. “My creativity has room to breathe here and I’m always excited en-route to a London client meeting, returning to my studio to ‘do’ and ‘make’.”
Collaborations in recent years have been with Rolls Royce (RRMC Sunningdale), Sunseeker (London Boat Show), Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saison and The Clerkenwell Collection London. Add these to her individual client listing and just how confident is she about a Great British shoe revival? “Shoe-making is a classic mix of form and function. When we buy shoes based on the way they look to the detriment of how well they suit one’s feet, it should be no surprise that shoe designers produce beautiful shoes that are practically unwearable, as these are usually the ones that return the highest profits. I am beginning to see a change in attitude to this, however, and hope that the value of superb fit combined with gorgeous looks will be appreciated by more women. I can really see this leading to a craftsmanship-led revival of the British shoe-making industry.”
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Melanie Sarah Image Styling is a bespoke service for men and women, based in West Berkshire and available to clients from London to Bath. Many of Melanie’s clients are British and are based in the UK, whilst some book a style review as part of their visit from overseas.
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