Can five-inch heels be comfortable? Designer Paul Andrew tells it like it is

Can five-inch heels be comfortable? Designer Paul Andrew tells it like it is

Heel the world

Text: Jolene Khor

Interview: Cai Mei Khoo

In Hong Kong for the reopening of the Salvatore Ferragamo Canton Road flagship store, Buro 24/7 sat down with Paul Andrew, the newly appointed Creative Director of Women’s Collections at Salvatore Ferragamo, to talk shoes, trends, and taking the Ferragamo name to the next level

Congratulations on your new role. Your first ready-to-wear for the label will debut during the fall/winter 2018 shoe in Feburary — that must be really exciting for you.
Thank you! Yes, it is. I feel very fortunate that Ferragamo thought this would be the right move for the brand. I'm so happy that what we've been doing with the shoes for the past year has worked so far, and that it's really resonated with our clientele. Hopefully, I will have just as much impact on all our other women's categories as well.

Your career began at Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. An eponymous shoe brand later, you're with Salvatore Ferragamo. Has your career panned out the way you envisioned?
I've been very lucky, that's for sure. When I graduated, I won an award at [London's] Graduate Fashion Week, which really catapulted my career from the age of 21. That allowed me to have my first job with Alexander McQueen — imagine being part of that incredible world with McQueen during the late '90s! I feel my career is something that's still evolving. I thought I would be focusing on shoes and accessories for the rest of my career, and then to be elevated to this title and overseeing ready-to-wear... it's something that I've always dreamed about doing but at a certain point thought that that wasn't going to happen, even though I had studied ready-to-wear at school. I thought that time had passed for me. I can't even tell you how excited I am to be segueing back to that role and to have this sort of responsibility — to be charged with moving such an important, luxury heritage brand forward, and into a new generation. It's a huge honour, but also a bit of a responsibility.

The new Salvatore Ferragamo store at Canton Road, Hong Kong.

Salvatore Ferragamo, the founder, was known for using materials that were considered innovative during his time, such as cork and fishing line. Is this sort of innovation harder today?
It's not difficult; it's just different. Salvatore was using those innovations because of a need. If you consider the period of time he was using those materials, it was between the First and Second World War when it was difficult to find leather, at the standard of materials we use now. That's how cork came about; because he couldn't find leather then. It was also why he used woven raffia, and macramé. I'm trying to put the same mindset on what I'm doing. I'm taking that as my cue, as part of how we're moving the brand forward. Like the shoes currently on display in Ferragamo stores — we're using materials that are state of the art; we're weaving shoe uppers in sneaker factories; we're dyeing suede three times so it has this incredible vibrancy and depth in colour, and that also makes it really durable.

Salvatore Ferragamo and his shoemakers.

Like the flower heel that is seen throughout fall/winter 2017.
The flower heel is an amazing icon from the house. When I started at Ferragamo, I went through the archives that houses an amazing 15,000 pairs of shoes. One of the most beautiful things that jumped at me was this flower heel which Mr Ferragamo created in 1939, and you now see it throughout our current collection. It became an overarching influence and stylistic motif.

The iconic Salvatore Ferragamo sandals with suede upper and cork flower heel from 1939.

There have been so many icons for the house — the Vara pumps, Varina flats, and the rainbow cork wedge to name a few. What do you think makes a shoe memorable?
Here at Ferragamo, it's a few things. It's innovation with construction, innovation with materials, and also colour. We're a brand that's really born on colour. You can see the vibrancy of the colour palette we're using and it's something that's really important for me to bring back. More than just the aesthetics of the shoe, I think it's also the comfort of the product — that's really, really key. When I started my own brand five years ago, I did a global survey with 500 women to understand the perfect fit of this decade. I did the same thing at Ferragamo when I started with them a year ago. Fit and comfort is as important for me as the design of the shoe, the same philosophy that Salvatore had. In 1914, he travelled to the United States, settled in California and studied anatomy so that he could return to Italy and open the House of Salvatore Ferragamo, where he created not only the most beautiful and outrageously fabulous shoes the world has ever seen, but also the most comfortable.

"When I started my own brand, I did a global survey to understand the perfect fit of this decade. I did the same thing at Ferragamo. Fit and comfort is as important for me as the design of the shoe, the same philosophy that Salvatore had."

Be honest. Can five-inch heels ever be comfortable?
[Laughs] It depends on the woman — some people are at their most comfortable in super high heels. Everything I do, even with that proportion of heel, I really try to make as comfortable to wear as possible. What I've done is to add padding with memory to every single pair of shoe in the collection, which gives you added support and cushioning.

Salvatore Ferragamo designed this suede-covered rainbow wedge for Judy Garland in 1938.

What are the three pairs of shoes every girl should have in her wardrobe?
Definitely a ballerina flat, preferably one with a bow on it. [Laughs] A great pair of boots, whether on a lug sole, a block heel or stiletto depending on your look, and a pair of sneakers. Going forward, we're putting a lot more emphasis on the sport category. I just walked along Canton Road and looked at what most people are wearing. I have to really engage with what people are wearing, and what they want from a luxury brand, and do it in our own way.

"Ferragamo travelled to the United States and studied anatomy before returning to Italy, where he created the most beautiful and outrageously fabulous shoes the world has ever seen."

How important are trends to the brand?
I don't really look at trends; we try to set the trends in our category of fashion. I definitely see the slingback shoe as a real success — that's a core silhouette for the Paul Andrew brand, and I'm looking at doing that in new, innovative ways at Ferragamo too. The slingback on a kitten heel... that feels very forward at the moment.

To think that not too long ago, no one wanted to wear a kitten heel.
It's reflective of the modern woman. Women are as important as men in the workplace, and they rely on their shoes to be comfortable and look poised. There's nothing less attractive than a woman in a pair of shoes that are clearly uncomfortable. It cripples her, and she doesn't look refined, or elegant or sexy, even. And that's why comfort is so important to me, as it really empowers the woman. And I love that idea.

How is the Paul Andrew woman and the Salvatore Ferragamo woman different?
I'm sure they overlap in many ways. I certainly see women who have been buying my shoes for many years wearing Ferragamo now. The aesthetic codes of both brands are very different. What I do at Ferragamo is based on silhouettes I've discovered in the archives, reimagined for now, whereas the Paul Andrew collection is very personal to me. I'm British, and have lived in the United States for the past 17 years. I'm travelling the world all the time, and my shoes really reflect that journey.

How do you split your time between both brands?
There's a lot of back and forth. I'm basically on a plane every few days at this point. I'm in Italy every week at the moment, now that I'm overseeing all women's categories, and that requires more attention especially right now when it's the beginning and we're redefining the aesthetic for the brand.

What do you do when you're not thinking about fashion?
I'm an avid reader; I devour books. You should see me hand-carry and all the hard copy books I'm schlepping around with me. I just finished 'Call Me by Your Name', by André Aciman. He's such an incredible writer. You feel so connected to everything he's talking about, and you feel like you've been through that experience. The phrasing and wording is just so poignant.

"There's nothing less attractive than a woman in a pair of shoes that are clearly uncomfortable. It cripples her, and she doesn't look refined, elegant or sexy."

What are some of the most important lessons you've learnt in your career?
I've been lucky to have worked with some of the most iconic designers of our generation. With McQueen, it was all about pushing boundaries and thinking totally outside the box, with absolutely no limits. With Calvin Klein, I learnt the importance of staying true to your original idea, and never getting distracted by trends. It's important as a designer to know what you stand for and never get too swayed by what's happening in the outside world. With Donna Karan, where I worked for over a decade, that's where I really learnt the importance of great fit and comfort, and the empowerment of women. So now what I do, especially for my own brand, is an amalgamation of all those experiences.

If you had to host a dinner party, who would you invite, dead or alive?
Oh that's a good one. There are so many people I would love to meet, like the famous actresses that Salvatore used to dress. Everyone from the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn. It was such an incredible list of women, who all had an amazing sense of personal style, and opinions on life. In terms of designers, the idea to sit with James Galanos or Christian Dior or Elsa Schiaparelli or Azzedine Alaia, or designers today like Miuccia Prada or Martin Margiela... those are people who have had a lot of influence on me and my career and that would be a dream come true.  

A selection of Salvatore Ferragamo pre-spring 2018 shoes are available at Ion Orchard #01-02.