BY ROCKY CASALE
Sophia Webster’s East London studio is too small for her burgeoning trade.
The 30-year-old accessories designer moved into a top-floor space on Great Northern Street back in 2012 with three employees. Now there are 30. That was before she was nominated for her creations last year at the British Fashion Awards, an event where other nominees included fashion titans like Tom Ford, Paul Smith, and Stella McCartney. Ask her where the time went since launching her eponymous line and she will chuckle and say with modest sincerity that her fast success has been nothing short of a “whirlwind.”
“I learned that when you have your own business at first you cope with as much as you can by yourself until you’ve built a foundation,” says Webster, of learning the fashion-industry ropes. “Then, if you’re lucky, you realize, 'I need help. I have to hire more people. I have to expand!'” This year, Webster plans to add more than just bodies to her operation: She will broaden her product offerings into more categories and open her first boutique in London’s Mayfair district. She has also been nominated for the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, which has the potential to catapult her career even further if she's named as the winner later this month.
A constant and compounding demand for Webster’s espadrilles, platforms, and pumps is one reason to look for a larger studio. As in previous well-received collections, this season's aquatic themed shoes are colorful, youthful, flirty, and consistently fun (think: high-heeled sandals finished with coral and flower embellished straps in loud confections of hot pink, lime green, orange, and yellow). The collection includes Hokusai-esque wave prints in pastel pinks and periwinkle. Webster says the colors recall Malibu or Miami (take your pick), and are the sort of shoes that she imagined a beauty like Daryl Hannah in Splash might wear to the city after losing her sunburnt orange flipper. Women want her playful designs, and department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's continue to place orders.
A petite woman with sharp lips and tresses of blond upswept hair, Webster traces her flair for whimsical designs in bold colors back to her early years in Kent, England—a time she refers to as the “Spice Girls era.” Her father, a DJ and vinyl records junkie, and mother, an English teacher, encouraged her to make her own flashy sequin costumes for national freestyle dance competitions. Weekends at London’s Unicorn Theatre with her grandmother or hat-designing competitions using crayons and newspapers were commonplace pursuits. In high school, Webster gravitated toward art and design. She hung out with her art teacher, the painter Osi Audu, who, as she puts it, “recognized where her passions were strongest and encouraged her to create art.”
So how does a child freestyle dancer, theater buff, dilettante milliner, and curious art student move into a high profile career crafting beautiful shoes?
While at London’s Camberwell College of Arts, Webster studied clay sculpting and woodcarving. She took figure-drawing classes, where she remembers excelling at drawing feet. This led her to go on to Cordwainers College at the London College of Fashion. There, she studied shoemaking and later apprenticed with London shoe designer and Alexander McQueen consultant Georgina Goodman. Under Goodman, Webster mastered leather-working techniques, learned how to balance and edit designs, and applied her sculpting and woodworking studies to shoemaking, especially when designing elements like heels and complicated straps. She wasn’t in a rush. Webster spent years learning the ins and outs of her art, saying, “Many people want to just start designing right away, but I thought that it was so important to learn all the technicalities of crafting a good shoe.”
Still, she wanted to be on the other side with the design team. So she said yes to most creative opportunities. This was while juggling her master’s studies at the Royal College of Arts and consulting gigs for Chinese high street brands. The consulting paid the bills while she was apprenticing with London designer Nicholas Kirkwood. It was a frenetic moment in her later education and early career that was a definitive turning point. “While I studied, I deepened my expertise learning from Nicholas and from my consulting work,” Webster says. Long hours, late nights, and a strong work ethic allowed her to move quickly and decisively when she branched out on her own.
Sophia Webster is by most intents and purposes a solid London brand. The company’s studio lives among the narrow streets and monochromatic brick buildings of East London, where over the decades creatives from every tribe have set up shop and feed off each other’s imaginations.
Though Webster is part of this creative soup (she recently worked with Shona Heath and British singer Katy B for her spring/summer 2016 collection), she decided from the beginning to manufacture her shoes in Brazil. Webster travels there every few months to work with artisans, manufacturers, and suppliers. The country provided inspiration for her first season’s vivid prints and colors; its landscape in general holds a special place in her heart, from the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, to the Leblon and Flamengo beaches, to Parque das Ruínas, where her husband, Bobby, proposed.
A strong element of travel is present in all of the designer’s creations. That’s not to say that every shoe she releases is grounded in a destination. The pink shade of a flamingo or a print that she sees in passing—her sometimes-relaxed reverence for classic shapes and forms—is in itself a sort of voyage. In London, there is enough stimulation swirling about the city to fuel her dreams and designs: gardens near the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, weekend brunches at the Pavilion café in Victoria Park, even sketching at her at desk in Shoreditch with headphones on while listen- ing to Rinse FM radio.
The globetrotting Webster appears to be taking the fashion world with her. Her collaborations with brands like J. Crew and even Barbie demonstrate a sort of versatility of style that will undoubtedly endure over time. Much like the Spice Girls.