Sophie Gittins: She's hot on the heels

Sophie Gittins is an Essex girl with an eye for a nice shoe. But no jokes, please. Because the young designer is already hobnobbing with Jimmy and Manolo

Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:53

You don't have to have read Sigmund Freud to know that there's more to a pair of high heels than meets the eye, but Sophie Gittins' luxurious footwear takes subtext to a new level. With inspirations ranging from architecture to Victorian scientific drawings, the 25-year-old designer is establishing herself as one to watch with her predilection for translating unusual concepts into wearable reality with a painstaking attention to craftsmanship and quality.

Not bad going considering she has so far produced just one commercial collection – but then Gittins was a star in the making even before she graduated with a First from London's Cordwainers College two years ago. In her first year her work was chosen to sit alongside designs by the footwear maestros Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Gil Carvalho as part of a touring exhibition of shoes, and by the time she left she had a nomination for the prestigious Marchpole Accessories Award and a place in the finals of the influential Fashion Fringe search for new iconoclastic talent under her belt.

Now, the Essex-born Gittins is hoping to emulate the success of Choo et al by striking out on her own, with a small but perfectly formed five-pair collection under her eponymous label, based in Colchester and London.

The idea behind the current designs is characteristically scholarly; Gittins had been looking at the work of the early 20th-century Viennese craft workshop, the Weiner Werkstätte, when she began to think about how she could rework the simplified geometric shapes and graphic patterns of their products into her footwear. "I am a bit obsessive about research," laughs Gittins. "It's my favourite bit of the design process – I spend days leafing through books. From there, I might do as many as 100 initial thumbnail sketches before I start making up the models to see what works in three dimensions."

If it sounds a painfully slow process, Gittins is the first to admit that indeed, it is – this collection was a full year in the making, but she says that as a first-time solo designer, she was keen to get it right: "Given the current climate, I knew I had to play the long game, which meant giving myself time to get to grips with everything properly to produce something that was as close to perfect as possible."

The shoes themselves embody that perfectionism – crafted in sumptuous fabrics such as goat suede, baby-soft nappa leather and silk organza, every stitch oozing quality.

And, crucially, they manage to look contemporary while eschewing the current vogue for exaggerated platforms, killer heels and fussy detailing that might date them. These are shoes for people who care more for design and quality than for the vagaries of fashion. "The overall feel is definitely quite classic," says Gittins, "but I think there is an edge running through it too. Each shoe has its own talking point, whether it's an unusual material or silhouette.

"For instance, the green stilettos, which are really the centrepiece of the collection, are made from a reissue of an old print that I found going through the archives at the Stephen Walters silk mill in Sudbury, which they reproduced for me in that amazing malachite shade. And the cage-like black detailing is inspired by the structure of the Werkstätte's furniture. I think it's that kind of detail differentiates my shoes."

Gittins' passion and knowledge is impressive, particularly given her age. But then this is a girl who, at 15, while friends were emptying their purses at Topshop, saved her wages from her Saturday job to buy a pair of Chanel pumps. "I wore them to death for about four years," she says ruefully. "Everyone was sick of the sight of me in them. Now they're kept sacred in their box."

Even more sacred to Gittins is the work of the early-20th-century shoe designer Andre Perugia, whose ground-breaking sculptural designs she cites as her greatest influence: "He was a complete visionary. He worked as a mechanic during the First World War so he had this amazing technical ability to create extreme, surreal shapes. He's a real shoemaker's shoemaker – I met Manolo Blahnik at the Fashion Fringe final and he told me Perugia is his favourite designer, too."

Did Gittins interpret this as a favourable omen for her own future? "I'm not sure," she smiles. "It feels such a luxury having a creative career like this, I would just like to still be here in 10 years' time. I don't mind if it's a slow burn." Yet, with orders already flying in to her website, and several high-end stockists in talks for her next collection, slow is one thing that business is unlikely to be.

Shoes from £400, at

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