Nicholas Kirkwood: “You have to know your craft”


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Nicholas Kirkwood
Short Profile

Name: Nicholas Matthew Schneidau Kirkwood
DOB: 10 July 1980
Place of birth: Munster, Germany
Occupation: Shoe designer

Mr. Kirkwood, where do you stand on the line between innovation and tradition in shoe design?

I love that kind of blend between something that needs to be handcrafted, needs to be done in the most exquisite way, with something that can be done better with technology — I’m really up for that! But you know, I’m very nerdy and love technology.

Iris van Herpen says the reason she works with technology is to push her craftsmanship. What does technology mean for your work?

Well, technology can allow you to do things that were not possible before. Even skinny heels were not possible before certain types of technology came around, because heels used to be made out of wood and a wooden heel would snap! Or if you look at how Nike made the sneaker air bubble sole — the founder actually poured rubber into waffle grill to create the first sneaker sole! Certainly in the past, I’ve designed shoes that were more complicated and most factories would say no, yet I knew that technically it was possible.

“When you know how something is made, then you can learn how to bend the rules.”

And now you’ve done entire shows where all the heels were 3D printed, right?

Yes, so I do think that knowing your craft can be an advantage, particularly if you’re looking to try to challenge the way it can be done. I did a course at Cordwainers College that I really loved… I think that sort of training is absolutely invaluable. I had to learn pattern cutting and physically make the shoes. I think that’s really a key point: you have to really know your craft, only then you can really start to learn how to manipulate it. In a similar sort of way that Alexander McQueen’s first training was in Savile Row — and you can see that reflected in his work, how he learned to manipulate tailoring. When you know how something is made, then you can learn how to bend the rules.

Do you think knowledge of craftsmanship has given you an advantage in this industry?

Well, I still kind of went into it quite naively. I didn’t go work for another shoe designer, so I never really understood how the shoe industry works or how you’re meant to develop a collection. In that aspect I was very green but honestly, I think that was kind of an advantage. It meant I didn’t have to follow the rules. I didn’t design a pump for, like, three years. I had no idea about range planning at all, or carry-overs. I just thought you have to do a banging collection every season! (Laughs) Had I worked for another shoe designer I probably would have approached it in a very different way… But I actually think I was really lucky at that time.

Lucky in what ways?

When I made my first collection, it coincided with the time where a few of the houses like Lanvin, Balenciaga, and Prada really pushed the limits on shoes: shoes weren’t just the accessory for the show, they really became a talking point of the shows and then many of the houses joined in. It became almost this battle of who can make the craziest shoe! It was a very creative time in shoe making. It wasn’t just purely referential, it wasn’t looking back at vintage stuff — there was a lot of real innovation at that time.

What kind of longstanding impact did that make on the fashion industry in your opinion?

I think it opened that world up to people who were now able to look at younger designers and think, “Well, actually, you’re doing interesting things.” During that time, I started working on a lot of show shoes for other designers where you can push it even further because those pieces never had to sell! So it was just perpetuating itself into this very interesting time until it reached a point when so many of the girls were falling over on the runway because the shoes became almost unwalkable. That’s when things started to come down, and as fashion does, it flipped on its head!

Is that when the market shifted towards more comfortable streetwear and sneakers?

Exactly — and things like a mid-heel which would have never been considered cool the year before. Like, God, a fashion editor wearing a granny shoe? (Laughs) You used to never see fashion editors wearing sneakers in the front row either. But somehow that was what suddenly seemed fresh. That’s how fashion works.

“You’re either trying to progress your own ideas, or you’re trying to challenge what is out there already.”

Would you say the industry is gearing up for another more experimental phase in the near future?

I think we’re probably at a stage when it starts to build up again — it does go round in circles to an extent. That’s what I love about the fashion industry. It can be particularly schizophrenic and the speed of it constantly keeps you on your toes, but it forces you to always move forwards. You’re either trying to progress your own ideas, or you’re trying to challenge what is out there already. For instance, nowadays we’re looking at how to develop an augmented reality program so that we could actually put the glasses on, and literally design a 3D electronic version of the shoe last, and then send it to the factory for production. That would be a great step, and would cut out a lot of time.

And I imagine you’d be able to experiment more and figure out if designs would work well before sending them to production.

Yes, for sure. I mean, failed designs happen most seasons! If you’re trying to be innovative you have to accept that there’s going to be a certain amount of failure, otherwise you’re not pushing it enough. You’re just staying in the safe zone. I remember once I was trying to make shoes that had this sort of lenticular TV static print. And we kind of got the lenticular part down, but the material wasn’t soft enough and it ended up making air bubbles. It’s the kind of thing that could be prevented with more development and more time. But I need to do those complicated pieces sometimes just to kind of get it out of my system! I think it’s still that same urge to create, to essentially interpret what is in your mind and make it a reality — that’s where you can have a lot of fun.