The affable Rupert Sanderson was in town for his newest shop opening at Elements. In between oggling and trying on his shoes, I had a little chat with him on everything from his Penang origins to living life in the moment.
Tina Loves: I always like to warm up by asking you to tell us a little about your background, where you grew up, how you began and all of that fun stuff..?
Rupert Sanderson: I was born in Penang, Malaysia. I didn’t live there for very long, but I suppose it was an interesting time. My father was in the British army, so we were posted out there and stationed in Malaysia. It’s a nice place to be born, Penang. I was born there then raised all over the place. Mostly, in East Anglia. Went to university then started working in advertising and realised that it was a mistake.
TL: Why was it a mistake?
RS: I wasn’t happy doing it. I found that thought I would be creative and I wasn’t, and I wanted to be great in things. So that led me to enrolling at Cordwainers in East London.
TL: What did you study previously?
RS: Geography. Totally should have gone to art school and I ultimately did go, though a bit late in the game. It seems a long time ago now, because the business is 12 years old. The whole business of making shoes has been my life for most of the rememberable past. It was when I started to learn how to make shoes and took myself off to Italy to go to see factories, that I really fell in love with Italy and the Italian way of making shoes. That was the second step that completed my jump from one life to another. I ended up living in Italy and loving it.
TL: How long did you live there for?
RS: Just over a year, but in that year, I met shoemakers, I learnt the craft, the language and it was a great experience. Met my wife there! I loved it so much I bought a factory. That was 5 years ago.
TL: Can you take us through a typical day at the office? If you even have a typical day..?
RS: There isn’t. One of the greatest attractions of my job is that every day is very, very different. I suppose it is so driven by where I am in the season. Like now, we are doing promotions, shooting the campaign. I tend to block and book times in my schedules to do only one thing. You can’t design a bit and then do something else. You have to slightly block it out. So I can spend three days just only designing and then another two days, another three days…and I’ve done my collection. It’s like you get yourself into a sort of a frame-of-mind momentum, which is great. You literally cut the whole world out, so you can focus on what’s's really important.
TL: I find it quite difficult to combine the creative and the business side together…
RS: I think physically you have to divide it in two. I never design when I am in the office. I design at a studio set up at home.
TL: So that leads me on to the next question, which I’m sure people ask you all the time. Inspirations? How do you start with a new season?
RS: The inspirations can come from anywhere. It’s not like ready to wear, where you have to tell a single story. You can tell lots of little, mini stories. It can be just tiny things that can prompt a thought, a gesture, a line, a design. So it literally comes from everywhere. The sushi roll for example, I was flipping through a book of ancient and modern kimono designs. It was all sushi rolls and I thought that’s a great print, so we chopped it all up and made an embroidery out of it. Something like the bullets on the loafers, why use tassels when you can use bullets instead? So it is a sort of play on things, a twist.
TL: Spring/Summer 2014 collection?
RS: I think I’m quite inspired by floral and fauna, foliage and just the natural occurring organic forms. It’s a very clean collection. There is a mid-heel, a demi-heel, in the collection that I’m very pleased with. It works very, very well. It has the same treatment as the high heels, but just shorter. It’s very chic I feel, and very spot on for now.
TL: And that goes very well with the midi skirt, a length that’s very hot right now.
RS: Exactly. We showed during couture in Paris and it did very well. The big department stores in North America are picking up on it. They’re like the Elba pumps, very strong. We’ve done these pumps in a lot of crazy, wonderful fabrications and feel that they’re still very relevant right now.
TL: What I love about the Elba besides from the toe are the sides. The shape of the sides, the lines, are so sexy. They’re also very comfortable! I was at the men’s shows walking all over Paris all day, following on the heels of all my male editor colleagues and I can’t say my feet hurt at all.
RS: I think it is more a testament to you than I can to say to the comfort of the shoe, but that is very good to know!
TL: So out of all the shoes you’ve ever designed. What is your favourite pair?
RS: That’s a very difficult question. I think it would be the one I haven’t designed yet, because once you have a favorite…it’s game over. So it’s always the one that is yet to come.
TL: Is there a particular material you prefer to use over and over again or a particular shape?
RS: I use the same palette of materials. I think everyone who works on shoes do. Maybe it’s an English thing, but I have a particular penchant for suede. It’s not for everyone though. I think it holds color very well. Once you get a really good quality material, it does the work for you.
TL: Your pointed toes are all kind of rounded, but sort of in a puffed up way. What is the technical term for that?
RS: It’s really the opposite of a rounded toe. It’s a beveled toe. Chiseled. It gives a little bit of lift, rather than have anonymous toes that just disappear. I wanted it to have a bit of an edge to it. A point of view.
TL: I love that. So how would you describe the Rupert Sanderson look? I know you adhere to the adage, “Less is more”…
RS: Someone wrote recently when they were describing my design and aesthetic, it is a contemporary classicism married with a cool wit, which sums it up quite nicely I find. So things like sushi rolls and the barbed wire is the wit. The contemporary classicism is like doing a pointed shoe, but making the toe really sharp.
Tina: You like to name each of your shoes after a different English daffodil? Why is that?
Rupert: I found a book in a junk shop 15 years ago. It was after my first collection and I was thinking, okay, now we have to name the shoes. And it was that nano second moment when I thought, I’ll name them after daffodils. Job done. Think I bought it for 15p and it was the best 15p I’ve ever spent.
Tina: Are there enough daffodils?
Rupert: Well, funnily enough, that book was printed in 1957 or something and recently I went to the Royal Horticultural Society…
TL: They must love you!
RS: …They have a show every spring and there was a daffodil grower there that was the country’s top daffodil grower in Cornwall. He told me now there are over 26,000 different kinds of daffodils. They breed more daffodils than I design shoes in a year!
Tina: They should name a daffodil after you.
Rupert: Maybe they should. It is amazing how when breeding daffodils, they have to be able to regenerate. You can’t do one Frankenstein daffodil that’s made then just dies afterwards. There is a sort of daffodil waiting room, where they’re all waiting to be qualified. And some of them are extraordinary! They don’t get given names yet, they’re given numbers. They get their names once they are officially recognized.
Tina: That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that there were so many! So let’s switch over to Asia, Hong Kong specifically. What do you think about the city, women, its fashion?
Rupert: I think women in Hong Kong, they have great sort of confidence in shopping and consuming. They’re conspicuous and love dressing up. It’s amazing. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, a wet Wednesday afternoon, yet you look like you’re just out of a photo shoot on the way to glamorous cocktail! I think it is incredibly fast-moving and highly sophisticated. And shopping is important to people’s lives. That’s quite scary, because your name becomes a traded commodity. If a girlfriend that you admire for her taste is wearing my shoes, it has a ripple effect. It gets out there very. very fast. People want to know where things are from, what brand it is. What’s hot, what’s not. Everything’s pretty fast, so it’s not for the faint hearted. You’re a demanding lot!
Tina: Regarding social media and basically online anything. What do you think about it? Are you pro…con?
Rupert: I think one’s naïve to be con. As a creator, i’s quite difficult. I think as an organization, you got to be very on it and work with it to be relevant, to be dynamic and exciting…and to reflect the energy of the brand. Personally though, it’s quite difficult, because I have sort of a resistance to telling everyone what I had for breakfast. I might have slightly more interesting things to say through my shoes. If I can make beautiful shoes, the rest is conversation. I think if you are trying to do both and I know people do find time to be able to do both…
Tina: It takes up a lot of time.
RS: Yes. I like it, but I’ve got a small family. I’ve got a life that I’ve to get on with and I can’t be doing this, whilst my son is telling me about how hard he hit a tennis ball. It just feels that I am not doing myself justice. Say I’m in Italy and I’m soaking up all the wonderful experiences. I’m not ‘click click click’ telling everyone about it, because then you are not living in the moment. As a creator, you’ve got to be able to process things into something else. Not immediately just transfer something from a personal experience that you’re currently having to everyone that’s following you, with a witty one line to go with it.
TL: Alrighty, maybe one last question. Is there anything either personally or career-wise that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do? I am sure there are many things…
RS: It’s a story that I think we’ve got to a point where if you said to me 10 years ago, this is what it’s going to look like in ten years time, I would say, thank you very much. I can’t believe it. How did I do that? I suppose the dreamy element of it is in fact coming to an end. I have opened shops in London and Paris. I have great shops in Hong Kong. I have my own factory and I won this that award. It’s tick tick tick and its like, okay, what to do now? It’s all about managing your scale and that needs investment and different people wihtin the company. It is a gear change, which you need to seriously think about. That’s what I’m doing at the moment, seeing what sort of size do I want the business to get to and is size really all that’s important? No. It’s all about quality of life and having a sense of perspective, rather than being beholden to this beast that you’re trying to make bigger and for what reason? It provides a great creative outlet and a lifestyle. It’s supports me and my family in a way that I like to live. I travel quite a bit, but I also spend most of my time with my family. So that’s all good, but you can’t stand still. You have to come up with the next thing…
Tina: Did you imagine having any of this happen when you first started?
Rupert; Yes, it was largely mapped around my life though, rather than materially working out things like when I have my turnovers. As long as I can live well and enjoy myself, that’s sort of all I needed to aim for. It’s hard work and there are lots of things that are quite complicated to do. At the end of the day, I’ve got 65 people relying on me. Salaries have to be paid, the factory has to keep working and we’ve got shops to fill. There are lots of people relying on what you do and you don’t really think about that. Like if you’re going on stage about to perform, 22,000 people are going to shoot you if you don’t get the song right. So soon as you look down, you’re screwed. You just have to keep going….keep swimming!
Tina: It really is the greatest pleasure to be able to do what you love for a living.
RS: Yes, definitely.
TL: Is there anything else you’d like to add before you are whisked off?
RS: Yes… Would you like a glass of champagne?
RS: Well, you’ve come to the right place!