take comfort in a wicked way

Emma Hope made her name designing bridal shoes. But, she says, a shoemaker's soul is far from pure
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If fairies were to stitch secretly at night, they would make Emma Hope shoes. They are elegant, elongated, dainty. Look carefully at the feet of the spindly little folk in LS Lowry's pictures. They are wearing Emma Hope shoes. Or they could be.

Since starting out 12 years ago, Hope's name has been synonymous with bridal shoes, although that has never been all that she has done. But having lots of shoes or spending lots of money on them has always been regarded as rather naughty, a by-word for the decadence and wickedness of women. (When a celebrated woman falls from grace you can bet that reports of the number of shoes she had stashed in her wardrobe will quickly follow. Think of Imelda Marcos. Think of Fergie.) Spending money on the shoes for your wedding day, however, was respectable and so Hope's bridal shoes got much more press than her other "every day" styles. This is slowly changing and Hope has seen the turnover in her shop double since last year. Obviously we are coping with the guilt of spending money on nice shoes, and not just for weddings.

This "naughty" quality was what inspired Hope's love of shoes, which manifested itself at the age of four. "We lived in Singapore and my mother got very ill with some dreadful tropical disease. We had no idea how close she was to dying [she recovered] but my sister and I spotted this fantastic opportunity to make our father buy us whatever we wanted, because our mother couldn't edit our shopping list. So we got chewing gum, pink nylon party dresses and pointy high-heeled little sling-backs. There is something slightly illegal about buying the wrong shoes which is extremely attractive."

When she was 14, Hope bought an even more unsuitable pair of shoes - some spike-heeled ankle boots. "That was a very exciting moment," she says. "They were the 'wrong' shoes to have bought, but once you've worn them, your parents can't make you take them back."

Years later, the cobbler in Redhill, near where her parents then lived, told Hope about Cordwainers College in London. There, Hope embarked on a shoe-making course: "There were three distinct groups there: foreign students who had come to learn about making shoes, children of shoe-making families, and then rather arty girls like me." Graduating three years later she, like hundreds of other fashion students, found the outside world rather tough. "When you leave college you're very enthusiastic and optimistic and a little misguided. You also have an enormous arrogance. When you go for an interview and people ask, 'Do you want a full-time job?' the right answer is, 'Yes, and I will stay for 10 years and I will not think about my own career in any way.' But I used to say things like, 'Well, I'd quite like to have a job, but I've just been offered a workshop and I'm having a full-page spread in Harpers and Queen next month and I wonder if you'd consider taking me on part-time?' So I didn't do very well on the job front."

After brief stints working for others - "looking for designs for shoes that you find unattractive was just no fun at all" - Hope decided to set up on her own. She launched her first range in 1984, boldly taking orders for shoes before she had found the factories to make them. Her shop in London's Amwell Street opened three years later.

After using British factories, which she found restricting, Hope moved all her production to Italy five years ago, using three different specialist factories. "If you're trying to make really nice shoes, and you want to use a really great lining, something very soft, and you want to have little labels with your name on that look good, then you have to go to either France or Italy," she says. "The components aren't readily available in England. All that died away in the Sixties and Seventies, when the quality shoemaking industry in this country disappeared because so many good, cheap shoes were coming out of Italy." It's all a question of finish, sophistication and detail and sadly, factories in this country just can't compete.

The design of a shoe starts with the last, a plastic mould which dictates the basic shape of the shoe and the heel height. Getting a new last made in a British factory is not easy. Before Hope switched to Italian production, her collection was somewhat restricted as she had to work with "very old- looking lasts" (it is no coincidence that since the move her designs have grown in confidence). The spring/summer shoe collection, part of which is shown here, uses five different shoe lasts (sandal lasts are different as the toe on a sandal is shorter) although there are 105 permutations in the entire collection.

"The process starts with the last and that's the key to your shape. We're already starting to think about next spring's lasts now," Hope says. The fabrics come next, which are ordered at a huge fabric fair in Bologna called Ligna Pelle. "Before I go we [Hope and her staff] get an idea of what's been good. Maybe there's a fabric that we did two years ago that people keep asking for. And you have to bear in mind things like if you've got a black background to a pattern it's much better than a lighter one, which makes the foot look big and cabbagey," Hope says.

Does she like all the shoes she designs? "There's something about each one that I like and there are some that I wear more than others. I really got into wearing the pumps [main picture]. They're really comfortable [they are; when Hope slipped off to take a phone call I furtively tried on the nearest pair. Imagine slipping your feet into a Walnut Whip - the experience is not dissimilar]. And I like the brown suede loafers [pictured]. Worn with bare feet, they are really nice."

Surely Hope's cupboard is a den of decadence with at least 700 pairs of shoes hidden away. "No, probably about 50, but only 10 that I wear regularly. I give those I don't wear any more to charity shops but I have to be careful where I give them. It can't be anywhere near the shop." She mentioned Manchester, although this may have been a ruse. But if you're a size 7 and around there, it might be worth a scavenge around the charity shops.

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