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Fine young cobbler

PEOPLE IN FASHION: Richard Wharton - the man who combined designer shoes with high-street prices, and is listed among Elle's top 100 designers - tells Annalisa Barbieri how proud he is of his latest street-smart offshoot
RICHARD WHARTON, the creative force behind Office shoes, only wanted to make a few hundred pounds to go travelling when he joined the fledgling company in 1983. Fifteen years later, he's still there. In between, Office has grown from one single unit to 14 shops, and easily wipes the floor with its competition on the high street. Plus there are now the two branches of Offspring, the Office offshoot that deals only in sports footwear; a new venture and another wild success.

No wonder he laughs at the thought of some of his former jobs. "I was a pea-tester in a pea factory, a butcher, a chimney-boy, and an apprentice draughtsman. But the best one was swede-chopper. I had to chop the swedes in half before they went up a conveyor belt, otherwise they'd roll off." To pass the time, he would imagine the swedes were people's heads; but a less psychopathic chap it is hard to imagine. He fairly twinkles with good nature and bonhomie.

His first job at Office was shifting some boxes for then-owner David Casey. They got chatting in the pub afterwards, and Wharton, now 37, but who was then at art college (and not doing very well, he confesses) ended up designing the very first branch of Office. It was housed in a unit at the now-defunct Hyper Hyper on Kensington High Street. He only had a few days to do the whole thing, but he decided on a theme, and rushed out to buy office furniture. "We were selling shoes out of filing cabinets," he recalls. Having come up with the name and the decor, he then moved on to designing the shoes. He is now one of Office's four directors.

The Office philosophy is simple: the latest designer looks, at affordable prices, and at the same time as the designers themselves are selling them, not a month or a season later. "We never, ever, stop looking at what we should be doing," says Wharton. "At the moment there is a change from high heels to flat pumps. We've got a few good ones, but not enough, so we are getting more for October, when it's so late in the season that everybody else will have given up."

Office Girl, he says, is in her early twenties. She reads Elle, goes clubbing, shops at Karen Millen and Oasis, aspires to Prada and Gucci. Office Lad likes clubbing, drinking and computers; whereas 95 per cent of the ladies' shoes are own-brand, Lad prefers to buy labels. The two of them, says Wharton with a broad grin, "both love a good time. We give the look they want at a fraction of the designer price - we're a perfect exponent of the bubble-up-trickle-down system, we're street-meets-designer." And, he says, low prices don't mean shoddy quality. "We're not squeezing people and giving a load of rubbish for inflated prices."

At the moment, Offspring sports footwear is his particular baby. First launched in 1996 in Covent Garden, the second branch opened in Camden earlier this year. "We were forced into that arena; we were selling a lot of athletic sports footwear, but the big three, Adidas, Nike and Reebok wouldn't sell to Office as we were a fashion shop. The only way to get an account with them was to open a sports-footwear store." He snorts a bit at this. "Ninety per cent of sports-shoe purchases are fashion! It's not as if those buyers are all going off mountain-climbing."

The work, he says, had to be done to a strict budget. "A shoestring (excuse the pun). We're not la-di-da directors with fat cigars, every penny we make goes back into the company, we're never cash-rich." And now the trainer's on the other foot. Offspring are recognised as way ahead of other stores in spotting trends and styles; they have top-tier accounts with Adidas, Nike and Reebok, and these companies come to consult them about design. Along the way, Offspring picked up Natural Balance trainers, made by a small company in the north of England, had them revamped, and turned them into a must-have design classic, in demand worldwide. "There's not another shop like it in the world," says Wharton proudly. "It's very cutting edge. Nobody else puts their balls on the line and takes chances like we do."

Office is mainly based in London; the first branch outside the capital has just opened in Manchester. Further expansion is in the pipeline - but not too much. "We won't overdo it," says Wharton. "We'll go to maybe 25 Offices eventually, and perhaps eight Offsprings. Then we'll just keep improving. Our ultimate goal is the first shop in the world that includes every single facet of footwear fashion."

For next season, he predicts flats for ladies, and for men he is currently nurturing a new Spanish brand called Snipe. "It's going to be massive," he confides. "The shoes are kind of sporty-casual - that sounds horrible, though. What I mean is that it's an old classic we're reworking, crossing casual with techno." He has been working with Snipe in Spain for some time and has a wary eye out for poachers. "The opposition really piss me off. They see stuff in our shops and go and try and buy it for themselves, cashing in on our efforts."

All the same, he says, he is the "luckiest man in the world. I've got a great job with a great company, I'm getting married in December, I've got two great cats, Grizzle and Oily, they're my longtime buddies, and Arsenal won the double this year; things can't get any better than that." And the cherry on the icing on the cake: Richard Wharton was listed earlier this year as one of Elle's top 100 names in fashion, much to his great glee. "I was gobsmacked. I don't put myself out as a big designer, but I was there alongside Ralph Lauren and Alexander McQueen. I was very, very, very, very proud. That's something that you send off to your mum."

For details of Office stockists and mail order tel: 0181 838 4447