PENELOPE CHILVERS - SHOE DESIGNER
"Adventure and travel are key inspirations for me and fundamental to our ethos. I love to travel, I think it is important for creative people as it opens your eyes to new things"
As a child growing up in England, Penelope Chilvers always looked forward to spending her school holidays in the idyllic Catalonian city of Girona. So when she was presented with the opportunity to study fine art in Spain for a year in her early twenties, she jumped at the chance. After finishing her studies, Penelope started working as a painter in Madrid, forming close relationships with local artisans and artists, before moving to Barcelona in 1992. She would often go out hacking at lunch time in the Collserola National Park so commissioned a pair of Spanish riding boots to be made to her own measurements. When all her London friends started asking where they could buy a pair, she started making boots for them. It was not long before she was launching her first collection at Paris Fashion Week and the likes of the Duchess of Cambridge were being photographed wearing her designs. I spoke to Penelope about her love of Spain, the story behind her brand, how she is inspired by adventure and travel and her first men's collection.
How did you end up living in Spain?
I won a scholarship to study fine art in Madrid for a year and I enjoyed myself so much that I decided to stay. I already knew Spain well as I had spent a lot of time there as a child. After finishing my studies, I started working as a painter in Madrid, working closely with local artisans and artists. I moved to Barcelona in 1992 because it was a very exciting, vibrant place to be as a creative person, a bit like Berlin is at the moment.
What is it about Spanish culture you enjoy so much?
Craftsmanship in Spain has never died. There has been a long history of high quality shoe making and leather work and although their craftsmanship is becoming rarefied knowledge, it is something I feel passionate at keeping alive. My makers take great pride in their work and I really enjoy working with them.
What do you like most about the Spanish lifestyle?
I love the nation’s spontaneity for celebration and their love of popular culture is passed down through the generations, which keeps traditional festivities for the entire family alive. The Spanish way of being and a ‘can do’ approach to life is refreshing.
Why did you specifically start making Spanish riding boots?
I rode horses as a child but when I went to Barcelona I used to ride in a different way, it was very informal and free. I would often go out hacking at lunch time in the Collserola National Park so I commissioned a pair of Spanish riding boots to be made to my own measurements and adjusted the pattern to my own needs. When I was living in London all my friends wanted them so I started making for them.
Was it a challenge transitioning from an artist to a fashion designer?
If you are a dedicated designer, you can put your hand to anything once you understand how to make it. Footwear is extremely technical and I have learnt my trade through working very closely with my factories. I don’t think there was a transition; I started making shoes and then went straight to Paris fashion week to sell them. It was the fashion world that embraced me rather than me approaching the fashion world. They embraced what I was making and by having customers request things, the collection grew.
How did you source the tanneries you work with today?
My favourite part of the job is the sourcing. Word of mouth is probably the most useful way; if you say you want to make something, you know what you want to make, and can explain what you want to make, then generally you can find a maker to make it.
Was it a challenge being a foreign woman working in Spain?
I speak fluent Spanish, my children are Spanish and I have Spanish family so I am not entirely English. Making shoes is a man’s world but I have a very close relationship with my makers and that is the key. If I was teaching anyone to manufacture I would say the relationship you have with your makers is crucial to things going well. I regard all the makers I work with as old friends now.
How would you sum up the Penelope Chilvers philosophy?
We are a practical brand making long lasting footwear that gets better with age. Our footwear is purposeful and should be used to go places and to be adventurous. We sell all over the world, to different cultures and different lifestyles; our customers range from African safari guides to artists in L.A.
Is Penelope Chilvers a lifestyle brand? If the answer is yes, what lifestyle are you trying to promote?
When you visit our shops, I'd like to think that you go ‘back to slow’. I endeavour to create a home for the footwear that is not a shoe gallery. It should feel like an escape from the urban world we live in. A healthy rural lifestyle is my dream, but I live in London!
Is it fair to say that a sense of adventure and travel are fundamental to your ethos?
Adventure and travel are key inspirations for me and fundamental to our ethos. I love to travel, I think it is important for creative people as it opens your eyes to new things. I base my whole collection on designing for going places.
Please can you elaborate on how adventure inspires your designs? Please provide some examples of adventures you have been on and how that has given you an idea for a design?
Just the hunt for a new raw material as a starting point for a new collection feels like an adventure to me. I like to travel spontaneously without too much of a set plan. I spent some time in Botswana recently learning about conservation of the natural world and got a real understanding of what footwear works well in the African bush for our safari range.
What inspired you to design a men’s collection?
I have been dying to make men’s shoes for a long time. One of factories I work with has its origins in equestrian boots and specialises in a Goodyear welt which is a menswear construction really. I have been taking inspiration in design from menswear from the beginning; I like the androgynous, tomboy look, I think it is very sexy.
I noticed that you have named some of the boots after famous adventurers.
Yes, the Bousfield boot is named after the most interesting safari guide on the African continent, Ralph Bousfield, a real life adventurer. He asked me to make his dream pair of boots so I did. Ben Fogle was another customer; he wanted to do something for the BBC migration program earlier this year so we made some boots for that.
Do your customers ever share stories of where they have been with their boots?
I have a page on my website called oldest and dearest. My step daughter went around photographing customers’ old boots and speaking to them about the story behind the boot. One of my favourite quotes is from Lisa Armstrong, Fashion Director at The Daily Telegraph, who said: "I had to be forced to stop wearing these."