T WO years ago, at the age of 38, Steven Moffat had retired. His 11 online businesses were humming along – selling pet food, high chairs and window cleaning supplies – without him. He was bored. Scribbling and doodling ideas for his new venture, one subject returned time and again. Shoes. Ladies’ shoes, and not the kind they wear to do the school run.
TWO years ago, at the age of 38, Steven Moffat had retired. His 11 online businesses were humming along – selling pet food, high chairs and window cleaning supplies – without him. He was bored. Scribbling and doodling ideas for his new venture, one subject returned time and again. Shoes. Ladies’ shoes, and not the kind they wear to do the school run.
Never one to lack ambition, Moffat took this as a sign that he should create his own globe-dominating brand of footwear. He would become the Dumfries-born Christian Louboutin, but with higher manufacturing standards. “I would make the best shoes in the world. Then I realised I would need to get them into the best shoe shops in the world. And before I could switch the factory on I would have to have a client base, a marketing strategy, all in place.”
There was another problem. For research purposes he visited these potential stockists, in New York, London, Paris, Italy. He left underwhelmed. “After seeing them, I wouldn’t want to put my shoes in there.” In one fancy establishment a £700 shoe was lurking under a shelf, unlit and impossible to see. He asked the assistant about it. She sighed heavily, bent over, picked it up, looked at the sole and said, “It’s £695.”
“She didn’t tell me anything about the shoe, she didn’t know anything about the shoe,” says Moffat, shuddering at the memory. So his plan changed. He would open a shop.
By this time he had already completed a short course in shoe design and manufacture at London’s Central St Martin’s College. But before he was unleashed on the lasts and the leather, he had to try on women’s stilettos. His first encounter with a high street high heel went something like this:
Tutor (female): “Pop these on.”
Tutor (stroppily): “How do you expect to get the hang of this if you don’t know what a shoe feels like?”
Moffat gingerly inserted his foot. “It was murder. Are you kidding me? Women wear these every day? It was not a nice shoe. But doing that really helped me get it.”
As a result, he is pickier than an Italian matriarch choosing a melon. On buying trips, his question list is: “Is the material top quality? Is the shoe well built and constructed, well cut, with sturdy screws, pins and other hardwear? How good is the finish, stitching lines, glueing, general polish and presentation? How is the shape and form, has the designer considered how the foot is held, how will it feel on? Is it well balanced? Do they stop your heart and make you go wow?”
He knew what he wanted to sell, and how not to sell them. Next on his list: creating the perfect retail environment.
Moffat started with the salons of fin-de-siècle Paris, where customers relaxed, gossiped and drank champagne while chic assistants fetched and carried the merchandise. Restaurants such as Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli taught him about creating an experience. Having sold everything from double glazing to riding hats online, he knew that shopping had changed. The high street, however, had carried on regardless.
“Retailers are doing what they have always done,” he says. “Our cities have lost their retail heart. If you go to a restaurant you are greeted by name, welcomed in and looked after. The high street is still doing what it did in the 1970s.”
The concept for Shhh was beginning to take shape. In retail speak, he wanted to “build a brand with a very high tactile touch point”. In English: a salon rather than a shop. A cross between a boutique hotel and a showroom, where clients come by appointment at evenings and weekends as well as during conventional shopping hours. They arrive with a group of friends, or their partner, are known by name, drink champagne (or have a nice cup of tea). Only when they have relaxed into the shoe-appreciating zone is the merchandise revealed.
Next Moffat identified a basement beauty spa in Edinburgh’s Castle Street and set about it with sledgehammers. His mainstream retail neighbours sucked their teeth. “When they heard what I was doing they thought I was mad. I’ve got no shop front, no glass footage, there’s a single entry, there’s no stock on display, customers are in there 20 minutes before they’ve even seen a shoe. We never have sales.”
No sales? What does he do with unsold stock? This makes him laugh. “What unsold stock?” Moffat subscribes to the Gustav Fabergé school of retailing. “If one of his eggs didn’t sell, he smashed it with a hammer.”
There was some cynicism about his inclusion of the champagne bar. (The drinks are free, and the champagne bucket follows the customer around. Trying on Diego Dolcini’s shard-heeled strappies is thirsty work.) Moffat denies it is a cynical ploy to loosen the shopping inhibitions; it’s all part of that fin-de-siècle ambience, to make Shhh shopping a sparkling social experience rather than a sweaty trawl through a shopping mall.
Shhh has been open for seven months. It’s a cross between Net-a-Porter and a sex dungeon. When the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal a black-walled room full of dangling sandals (that’s today, it changes every few weeks) women have been known to burst into tears. Here are the shoes they have been searching for all their lives. Kat Maconie’s clunky heels and dinky little back zips, as worn by Jessie J. A whole table of Camilla Skovgaard’s architectural ankle boots. John Galliano’s red patent pumps with suede needle heels, as surely worn by Jessica Rabbit under that scarlet dress. It can’t be long until credit managers and husbands start a campaign to close the place down.
Moffat, and the rest of his staff, also actually know about feet. You want a f***-me pump but have troublesome high arches? Stand well back as they present a raft of previously unknown South African designers who know how to fit along the arch line. Going to a special bash and want to be the only dame wearing Finnish designer Minna Parikka? Unlikely as this may be, if another client has already bought the crazy-ass pistachio green slingbacks to wear to the same event, Moffat will diplomatically guide you towards Chrissie Morris or Nicole Richie’s House of Harlow instead.
Before you leave with your unfeasibly curved Natacha Marro shoe-boots, Moffat watches you walk in them. Critically. The least wobble will be noted and, if possible, corrected. You will be encouraged to keep them on, wander around the salon, see how they feel. He has heard every excuse there is for buying badly-fitting shoes (“I’ll grow into them. That was from a 39-year-old woman.”). He doesn’t want to hear them again.
“A fantastic pair of shoes changes who you are, how you feel, how you interact with the world. That’s a lot of joy.” n