HE’S designed red carpet shoes for Kylie and Madonna, so can Jonathan Kelsey recreate such glamour on the high street?
Jonathan Kelsey is cooing over a pair of champagne-hued glittery slingback stilettos with a black satin heel. Girlish and saccharine sweet, they lie somewhere between Disney princess and Studio 54 and would tick the pink/sparkly/towering boxes on many a shoe lover’s wish list.
“I’ve got a pair of these at home for my god-daughter,” says the Carlisle-born shoe designer. His god-daughter is just three and she’ll have to wait until she’s 18 to get her hands on them, but when she does, she’s got quite a treat in store.
“Every season I order her a pair of shoes [from my collection] and when she turns 18 I’m going to give her all 36 pairs.” Talk about a fairy godfather. “Her mum doesn’t get to look after them,” he adds, “because I know she’d start wearing them.”
We’re chatting in 29, the members’ club in Glasgow. Kelsey, straight off the train from London, is dressed in the classic designer’s uniform of simple neutrals. He is tired, but becomes animated when he handles the shoes, turning them over and over in his hands, running his thumb down the slim heels.
Kelsey designs shoes for women who love shoes. Or, to be more specific, for women who love heels. While his collections incorporate flats, his pieces are the kind of high, sculptural shoes that maketh the outfit, and are beloved by everyone from Kylie to Madonna, Kate Bosworth to the late Amy Winehouse.
His footwear enjoys a cult following, but since creating his first collection for Debenhams in spring 2011, his designs have become available to a whole new market.
The Barbie’s Dream Shoe he is cradling today is from his spring/summer 2012 collection for the high-street store’s Edition range. It’s a range comprising 35 pieces, including handbags – a first for Kelsey, but an interesting departure for a designer who always imagined he’d go into womenswear.
After studying at London’s Central Saint Martins, a friend put him in touch with a designer who needed some footwear to go with a collection. He whipped up some sketches for her and the shoes were manufactured by Jimmy Choo. The company went on to offer him a job, and so his foray into footwear turned into a career.
He has since designed for Mulberry and Pucci, and his namesake label is a celebrity favourite. His aim for the pieces he creates for Debenhams, he says, is to make them look just as a good as the shoes in his mainline collection, but at a sixth of the price.
“[Designing for the high street] is a little bit more difficult because you have certain restrictions, but that’s the fun part,” he says enthusiastically. “The challenge is to make something look as good as your own collection but to be able to tweak it just a little bit to make it more affordable. It’s also nice to design something that looks quite different. When you’re working on your own collection, it’s one particular vision but it’s quite nice to get all of your design needs out of your head and spread them around.”
“I don’t like to dumb down the design part of it,” he adds firmly. “I like to keep it looking really good and sexy and glamorous and all the things people like when they buy a pair of shoes or a bag.”
So what’s his theory on why so many women are so taken with shoes, and with heels in particular? “I think that guys have their gadgets, their phones, iPods and computer games, and shoes are this little product that girls feel they can buy and keep,” he says. “They’re something you wouldn’t want to throw away. If you’ve got this amazing pair of shoes you’ll keep them in the box and you’ll keep them for ten years.”
“And you don’t have to go out and buy a new outfit,” he adds. “You can have the favourite black dress you’ve had for years and put on an amazing pair of shoes with it and suddenly you look taller and thinner and you’ve not bought any new clothes. And if you do put weight on, if your dress doesn’t fit you, your shoes still fit.”
I can’t help but notice that he’s not sporting a pair of four-inch heels himself. As a man who spends his life in comfortable flats, how does he put himself in his customers’ shoes? Does he try his on creations for size? He looks a little taken aback at this. He does not. Comfort, however, is an integral part of his design process.
“When I started it was more about the look,” he says. “I want to do exciting things that look great but that people don’t want to take off at 10pm because their feet hurt.” His solution was to incorporate a gel pad into the area beneath the ball of the foot in all the shoes in his mainline collections. “I like a nice heel, but not something so crazy that you feel helpless walking,” he says. “You shouldn’t need to be helped down stairs.”
While not strictly “car to bar” footwear, his collections ooze high-octane glamour. The pieces for Debenhams come in a palette of pinks, silver and champagne, with accents of black. Heels are high and fabrics luxe-looking: think suedes, patent leather and faux snakeskin. Matching bags are equally attention-grabbing.
Kelsey tests out his designs on a gang of female friends he’s known for years. If they love his shoes, he reasons, other women will. And the acid test is when they go out and buy them without telling him. They are his muse of sorts.
“I do tend to have a very short-lived temporary muse each season,” he says. “I’ll pick out someone I think is really cool to design the collection around, whether it’s a real person or a fictional character or even someone I make up myself.”
He talks so passionately about shoes it’s hard to imagine him returning to womenswear, but he admits to the occasional pang. His foray into bags, he says, has been one of the things he is enjoying most about designing for Debenhams and it might just inspire him to include them in his mainline collection. But womenswear?
“I started out drawing the clothes and then adding the shoes at the end. I’m now drawing the shoes then thinking, ‘OK, what would I add to them?’ So I do sometimes think about what my ideal ready-to-wear collection would look like to go with this shoe collection. It helps to design the shoe collection fully if you can pictures clothes to go with it.”
He strokes the edge of the satin platform of the shoe in his hand. He may not get to wear them himself, but this is a man who, quite simply, loves shoes. I get the feeling that, one day, his lucky god-daughter will too.
• Jonathan Kelsey’s designs for Edition at Debenhams cost from £25-£55 and are available in selected stores nationwide or www.debenhams.com
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