Last week, we spent a lovely morning with the charming Rupert Sanderson at his store on Bruton Place. Surrounded by his gorgeous AW10 collection, we caught up on everything from how he came to be a shoe designer, his recent collaboration with The Royal Opera House on their production of Aida, to living in Bologna, and his love of Mad Men. And of course, after we’d finished chatting, we had a great time trying on nearly the whole of his new collection! Anyone else want a pair of those red suede boots?
Can you explain how you came to be a shoe designer?
Well I was doing something else, I was working in a different world, but I had always had this fascination with how to make shoes. And so, like everyone else in London, I eventually ended up at the Cordwainers College, which is really the only show in town in terms of how to learn to make shoes. So I did a two year course there and then I went to Italy in the summer to see factories and really get a sense of what goes on out there. And I sort of fell in love with the place and being in Italy. And it was then that I thought, oh, women’s shoes, you know, they’re the best in the world and everything all sort of dropped into place. So I decided to go and live and work out there.
Who did you work with when you were in Italy?
I worked with Sergio Rossi and Bruno Magli – I really learned my craft living in Italy. I learnt the language and had a wonderful time living in Bologna. It’s a great cit and so I’ve never really moved from that area because I now have a factory there. I started working with my factory there – which was connected to some sort of sub-contract work for Bruno Magli – when I was there. So when I wanted to make my own line, I was introduced to the man who runs the factory and it hasn’t really changed since then. I’ve been doing exactly the same thing. I’ve been making my shoes in this factory, up a hill, just outside of Bologna for the last ten years.
So is it the craft behind making shoes which appeals to you most?
It’s the craft side of it that I love; it’s that life, that part. It’s not necessarily that I love fashion and the sort of fast-moving, constantly evolving world that it is. At core, I’m a shoe maker. It’s creating; it’s architecture; it’s the product I love. The materials, they’re gorgeous, they’re so tactile. Leather, the things you can do with leather! The simple silhouette, the stitching, the production, it’s all great fun. I mean, it sort of found me I suppose. I had no money, you know, and I’m not from a long line of cobblers. I purposefully left a career that I was established in to go and, you know, follow this inexplicable desire to make shoes.
How did your collaboration with The Royal Opera House come about?
I’ve always slightly shied away from the obvious collaborations because I think it’s a fairly well-worn path. It wasn’t why I got into it. I got into it for the love and respect of the product. I wanted to do other things, shoes in films and theatre. So whenever people approached me, whenever these opportunities crop up – people come to us quite a lot – I do what’s interesting. It’s more enduring, it remains.
What was it about the Aida production that The Royal Opera House was doing that caught your imagination?
Two years earlier we’d been approached by a stylist who was working with a theatre costumier for a play that was on at The National Theatre and they wanted two stand-out shoes, which they came to us for. I got on really well with the costume designer, Moritz Junge, who’s a real sort of star in that world. And I said, ‘look, you know, whenever you’re thinking of the next thing, bear us in mind.’ And so sure enough quite quickly afterwards, with these extraordinarily long lead times with opera, I mean, this is February 2008, he said ‘Well I’m doing Aida in 2010’ and in fashion world that’s like four years away.
I bet having such a long lead time must have been quite a treat…
We started work on Aida at the beginning of last year and it’s been great. David McVicar – who’s the enfant terrible of opera – is directing it and I’d actually seen an opera that he’d done – Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) – about four years ago and it was fantastic and the costumes were great. So I knew who the director was, I knew who the costume designer was because I’d worked with him before. What’s to not do? So I ended up collaborating with and working very closely with him. I mean it was his vision you know, it was there. It didn’t come from the shoes up. It came from the voices, the costumes, to ‘we need some shoes.’ And it’s a huge thing – there are 220 people in the cast.
That must have been a challenge!
There were some great opportunities to work in very different ways to how you would normally work. Because the costumes are quite distressed, you have to make the shoes up and then break them back down again so they fit in, so they’re not these box-fresh shoes that everyone’s walking around in. That excites me, there’s a bit more to it. And they gave me a box for the opening night, you know, thank you very much!
And did you particularly enjoy making a pair of shoes for a particular character?
There are a lot of warriors and riders in Aida and we’d made these boots – almost like waders – and we broke them right down so they slouched down to calf-length. So these great big things that started life up here (points to his thigh) were worn to death so much and sort of torn and broken down so they had a real life to them that you wouldn’t see in a shop. We had to work with different kinds of leather and make sure that they were all distressed down. Aging things and giving things character was great!
What about making the princess’ shoes?
Amneris has a couple of big scenes which are really great. Like the one when all the warriors come back from war and she’s centre stage and very welcoming. I designed this pair of platforms which are effectively two men holding her up. We used a local sculptor to make this little model and there was a journey in that, because we used a priest in this little village near where my factory is and he did all the ecclesiastical sculptures for the church, so we approached him to make the first one.
That sounds amazing. How interesting!
Making the sculpture and making it so that you could physically stand on it was a challenge and then about four weeks ago they had a change of cast! The woman who was going to play the part dropped out and this voluptuous American woman came in. So suddenly, we were putting her on these things and there was a bit of a sticky moment when we had to go over and convince her that she wasn’t going to fall off and she couldn’t have been nicer. I mean it was slightly comical, because she was this classic, enormous, statuesque, great big woman and we thought she was – justifiably – going to turn around and say, look, I can’t wear these. And we’d called in favours to get them made and it suddenly it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. But it’s happened and it’s great and she’s been brilliant! We gilded it, with gold leaf, so you couldn’t get more of an over-the-top pair of sandals.
Is this one of the best things that you’ve worked on?
It’s been a very exciting year this year, because we’ve open a joint venture in Hong Kong and we’re just in the throes of opening a shop in Paris, which is such a gorgeous space. Its heart-over-head stuff! I just couldn’t not get this space. A British fashion brand opening shops on its own without having some sort of big daddy to do it all for you; well that’s quite an achievement. I suppose if you’d asked me this question three years ago my answer would have been securing the factory and all the people who work in it. You know, we do what we say we do. We are a shoe maker in the true sense. From idea to delivery, we’re every part of it. That’s fun!
Can you tell us a bit about your AW10 collection while we’re here?
The things like the hounds-tooth were inspired by the Kings Road. I’ve always loved that era, that Mary Quant op-art Bridget Riley thing. It’s very English and I think a lot of my approach to design is informed by that fifties, early sixties English optimism. They were creative and there was a great group of people out there in the sixties taking risks, so that’s a lot of what influenced me. And the other aspect is that everybody’s Mad Men crazy at the moment and that era, that way of dressing, that total look. There’s demureness in a lot of the shoes – a certain simplicity that’s reflective of an era where it wasn’t all about bells and whistles and crazy silhouettes. There was actually a formality about shoes and dressing which I really like.
So for you, it’s more about the shape, the silhouette, than decoration?
There’s not a lot of stuff put on my shoes. I take things away all the time and use the material itself. My starting point always tends to be what I can do with the top line, because that’s how it sits on the foot, and it’s great because if you get it right women respond so well. Women know a great shoe when they see it. Largely it comes to how it flatters the leg, the line, how it sits on the foot, so I always start with that – how can I do interesting things with line.
Aida is on at The Royal Opera House, 27 April 2010 to 16 May 2010. Book your tickets here…