Linda Bennett, queen of the kitten heel, walks tall among Britain's business leaders

Arifa Akbar
Friday 30 April 2004 00:00 BST

When Linda Bennett opened her shoe shop in Wimbledon 14 years ago on a shoestring budget of £13,000, she had grand ambitions: to inspire British women to trade in their sensible office flats for glamorous satin kitten heels and floral mules.

When Linda Bennett opened her shoe shop in Wimbledon 14 years ago on a shoestring budget of £13,000, she had grand ambitions: to inspire British women to trade in their sensible office flats for glamorous satin kitten heels and floral mules.

Her ambitions have been realised - and the LK Bennett store forms part of an international chain with an annual turnover of £32m whose success has earned the 39-year-old an estimated fortune of £1.8m.

Yesterday, her vision for women's feet was proved right when she won the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year Award.

Ms Bennett, who counts Cherie Blair and the actress, Minnie Driver, among her clientele, said she had identified a gap in the market and focused on providing an innovative brand of practical glamour.

"When I set out, I wanted to produce something in-between the designer footwear you find in Bond Street and those on the high street," she said.

"I don't see anything wrong with putting comfort before style but I also don't see why you can't have both. I sometimes wear flip-flops to work but I love wearing beautiful shoes too.

"What I like about the kitten heel is that is looks extremely elegant but it is not too high to wear through the day."

Her love of footwear began in the 1970s when she became inspired by her mother's collection of cork-heeled platforms and dusky pink sandals.

"I remember getting really excited about shoes my mother would come back with as a child. My daughter, who is three, loves them too. The third word she ever learnt was shoes, after mama and dada," she said.

After completing a footwear design course at Cordwainers College in Hackney, East London, she worked at Robert Clergerie's studios in Paris before opening her original store in Wimbledon in 1990, in an economically uncertain climate.

"I started off with a bank loan which I had to pay back within three months of opening the first shop. I have always had a business overdraft but, apart from the initial loan, the whole expansion has been funded out of profit. I don't know how I managed to convince the bank initially, as it was during a recession, but I was very passionate about it," she said.

Fashion commentators suggest the success of the woman known as the "Queen of the kitten heel" could be down to a much-needed injection of sex appeal into a fusty footwear industry that desperately lacked sexiness a decade ago.

Her trademark kitten heels, bold colours and pointed-toes challenged the traditional assumption that comfort could only be achieved at the price of style, a tradition that left British women's staid brogues and sensible flats open to ridicule by their chic Gallic counterparts.

Analysts have also suggested that influential fictional characters, such as Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones, may have helped transform the nation's attitude into one more synonymous with sex, self-indulgence and pleasure.

Sairey Stemp, a fashion writer at Elle magazine, said LK Bennett's visionary fashion sense chimes with the cultural shift. "The shoes have a fashionable edge but they are not too high or outlandishly cool and hip that they only last a single season.... Around £79.99 to £139.99 is not too expensive," she said.

With 50 more shops planned, Ms Bennett shows no sign of stepping down a gear. "Women love pretty shoes ... I'm just providing them," she said.

So what is it with women and shoes?

A couple of months ago in Venice, I stepped into a water taxi from the Hotel Danieli, lost my footing and almost plunged into an icy canal. This is what happens if you go out in gold mules during a blizzard, but we were on our way to dinner in the Palazzo Pisani Moretta and what else is a girl to wear?

The other day a friend of mine asked how many pairs of shoes I have, and the truth is I have never dared count them. The pride of my collection is a pair of Yves St Laurent black and pink mules with zips over the toes; classic fuck-me shoes according to a male friend, who gasped out loud when he first saw them.

It is easy to see why shoes appeal to so many women. Just about anyone can wear wonderful shoes, even if a size 10 dress is out of the question. And kitten heels, popularised by Linda Bennett, means that you don't have to cripple yourself in four-inch stilettos to look great.

Freud wrote rather pompously about foot fetishists, who are aroused by a part of the body he considered "very inappropriate for sexual purposes". But feet have often been eroticised as much as the breasts: pushed up, exaggerated and framed to reveal what Manolo Blahnik actually calls "toe cleavage". High heels serve as an arrow, drawing the gaze up the legs towards the overtly sexual parts of the body.

Whatever the reason, I hate having to wear sensible shoes. When I sprained my right ankle a few years ago, the doctor who was treating it asked sympathetically if I played sport. When I told him I was more worried about how soon I could wear heels again, his sympathy evaporated.

It is impossible to explain to a man why shoes that make the wearer feel precarious also bestow an enormous sense of power. But killer heels did not get their name for nothing.

Joan Smith

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