Sophia Webster is trying to recall her favourite pair of shoes. The tiny, blonde accessories designer peers out from her red-rimmed glasses, thinking, before answering in her chirpy, estuary accent: “Hummm... the one shoe I really remember was a pair that my sister had growing up. They were pink jelly shoes that had an Eiffel Tower in the heel.”. Today, in her studio, there are no jelly shoes in sight. But that playful rubber sandal from childhood has worked its way into the spirit of this 27-year-old’s work. With polka dot heels, Aztec booties, neon beading, glitter clutches with gobstopper clasps and an overload of pink, Webster’s debut accessories are the stuff of grown-up girls’ dreams.
The British designer is a name to watch; her collections providing a jolt of colour and humour. But despite photographic evidence of Webster prancing around in her mum’s heels, she confesses that she wasn’t interested in shoes. “I was always really into art. I didn’t really care about anything else at school.” It was after enrolling on a foundation course at Camberwell College of Art that she began to consider footwear design. “One day we had a task where we were doing a day of life drawing,” she says. “It was fashion illustration with a live model in clothes and I found myself really drawn to the shoes. I just kept focusing on them.”
She enrolled at Cordwainers and was later offered a place on the footwear pathway of the Royal College of Art’s MA womenswear course, where she met a designer who would shape her career. Shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood was on the judging panel for a competition at Webster’s school. Spotting Webster’s promising designs, Kirkwood contacted her tutors with a unique offer of work. Famed for creating sculptural shoes in witty colour and texture combinations, he became a mentor to the young designer.
“I used to go to his studio at weekends or drop in on my way home. At the time there were only two employees, Nicholas and myself, and there are now 30 plus. Seeing that grow and being a part of it has been a massive learning experience.” Webster had told Kirkwood that she wanted to launch her own line, so they agreed she’d learn the ropes for two years and then go at it alone. For her first collection she knew it needed to be “lively and fun but sexy at the same time”. She referenced a wide range of ideas – bows, beads, pink, the painted houses in Brazil where her shoes are produced – and flamingos. Indeed, a plastic flamingo prop peeks out from behind her.
“Oh, the flamingos come everywhere with me,” she laughs. “We took them on the Eurostar to the showroom in Paris. We had to put them through the security. Customs were like, ‘This is the first time any one has taken a flamingo on the Eurostar!’” Trips to Paris with flamingos, lauded as the latest star in shoe design and with Net-a-Porter, Harvey Nichols, Colette and Dover Street Market among her many fans, this young shoe designer has got more than a foot in the door.