People in fashion: A walk on the mild side

The glorious muddle that is Shelly's is finally cleaning up its act. Annalisa Barbieri talks to the low-key figure behind Britain's funkiest shoe shops

THE FIRST time I met Shelly Robbins, managing director of Shelly's shoe shops, a door came between us. Working as an assistant to his public relations consultant, I (a short, curvy brunette) had replaced Amanda, a tall, slim, very attractive blonde girl. Robbins's wholesale manager introduced us and Robbins, taking one look at me, returned to his office and, with no words, shut the door. Robbins, I later discovered, was shy of strangers rather than biased towards blondes. That was ten years ago.

Robbins is 39 and he has been running the "family business" for 22 years. His father, now 80, still plays an active part in the business and is chairman of the company (touchingly, Robbins is very keen to stress this). Up until two years ago, Robbins worked each and every afternoon and Saturday alongside his staff on the shop floor, first at the store at 159 Oxford Street in London and latterly at the flagship monster store on Europe's busiest thoroughfare, Oxford Circus (where the old Wedgewood shop used to stand). No-one knew it was Shelly himself that served them - his staff were instructed to call him Chris in front of the customers. But this way he could gauge at first hand what so many other retailers pay thousands for in synthetic market research: what the customer wants.

"The customer would say, 'haven't you got it higher or more pointy?' and we would try to put that into the design system," says Robbins. I ask him how many pairs of shoes a man whose life is shoes has. The answer is three: a pair of trainers that he has had since the tube strikes of the Eighties and in which he ran home from work, a pair of smartish black shoes and what he calls "comfortable" shoes. Bless him.

You can perhaps guess that Robbins is a simple man. He doesn't show off, boast or brag and is seemingly not impressed by anything at all. For years, his shops remained in a time warp, because what was and is the most important thing was the shoes. No stripped wood flooring, fancy displays or trendy assistants. But don't be fooled, because, behind those cosy Blue Peter jumpers, Robbins is a formidable and massively successful retailer and the law-unto-themselves stores (whose interiors are now mostly refitted) are always full. Slowly, Shelly's grew from the first little shop in Kilburn High Road (which is still there) to the 14 stores that exist today in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. The refurbished Oxford Circus flagship, scheduled to re-open at the end of this month, will be on five floors, although the Birmingham one, on three, will still be bigger in terms of square footage. And where once designing was a family affair, they now have six designers.

Shelly Robbins was born in London in 1958 and the only other thing he thought about doing was being an architect ("but I can't draw"). His father was already a "shoe man", although the company was then called Direct Shoe Supplies but changed its name to Shelly's 25 years ago. "Direct Shoe Supplies just didn't fit across a shop sign," Robbins explains, but also his parents had just returned from Australia where, for some reason, there were lots of big companies called Shelly's. He joined the company at 17, working his way up from shop floor to being MD, but still working the shop floor.

For a while, Shellys did its own thing quietly and successfully. Then, in early 1988 the stylist Kim Hunt used a particular boot across eight fashion pages in British Elle. The boot - Cuban heeled, ankle length with inside zip and pointy toe - came from a range called "Mister", a range consisting of the sort of shoes that can most kindly be described, with their patent and mock-croc leathers, as the kind that pimps would wear. A range that had stood quietly minding its own business for many years. But within days of the magazine hitting the stands, every stylist and fashion editor was ordering a pair. Shelly's became hip. There followed one of the first of the designer "link-ups" that are now so popular between high street retailers and top designers. Shelly's got together with the likes of Katharine Hamnett, John Richmond and Jean Paul Gaultier, to name a few, to produce a range for them, which he did for several seasons.

Robbins was also responsible for bringing Kickers back into fashion, as the Eighties gave way to the Nineties - youngsters queued round the block for them; ditto the ergonomically shaped Earth and Wallabee shoes (now tipped for another come-back). He has an uncanny knack of picking up on a trend, especially impressive since I doubt he pays much heed to fashion mags. How he does he do it? "We look at what the customer's looking for. They might want shoes that are more feminine, or of a particular colour, so you get an idea of consumer feeling. Then we match the history, like what's gone on in the past, what people wanted last time they were feeling like that. Then we see how that may be updated to suit today's mood. Plus, there's my 22 years of experience and my father's 60 years of experience..." How easy it sounds. "It's simple: you listen to the customer and supply them with what they want."

Today, Robbins misses working on the shop floor, but his "business managers" (aka shop managers) keep him informed. Their stock rooms are no longer like the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (I used to get lost in there for hours, there was seemingly no order to them, but the staff could pick their way round in seconds), the shop interiors can say hi to the year 2000 without shame. Their longest running and most successful style - a simple, semi-pointed chelsea boot - is just being phased out. What does the shoe future hold? "Comfort, flexibility, practicality and wearability are much higher on the list of people's shoe priorities and we're trying to crack that - getting shoes that look better and yet are more wearable." Oh, yes please.

For your nearest stockist and details of mail order, call 0181 450 0066

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