In the second instalment of Feet First I meet Camilla Elphick.
Feet First is a series of interviews with like-minded women on the shoes that shaped them and the memories they evoke. Hearing my friends and colleagues talk about footwear, I’m always thrown by the raw emotion shoes can tap into. Voices falter as memories flood back, eyes glint and all the feelings sparked from one conversation spring back to life, triggered by shoes.
If you had to choose five pairs of shoes that defined you, what would they be? The loafers that bagged you your dream job; sparkling sandals to walk up the aisle or fancy flats that gently broke a heart; career-defining public speaking stilettos or the freedom of flip-flops for your first solo travels… Feet First delves into the wardrobes of my trend-setting contemporaries and uncovers those top five shoes, sandals and boots that carry the most meaning, tap into the wildest stories and simply hold the most special place in our closets and hearts.
‘I still have my feet on the ground – I just wear better shoes.’ Oprah Winfrey.
Camilla Elphick, founder and creative director
Photographs: Sarah Brimley
I’m forever grateful to the former Stylist magazine colleague who introduced me to Camilla Elphick’s shoes. The now iconic Pez heel had just launched and she rushed to my desk telling me about this shoe designer I needed to know about right now. I was hooked. From then on, I can’t imagine a shoot where I don’t have a selection of Camilla’s shoes under my rail. While the Pez, with it’s kitsch candy dispenser heel, has become a legend in cordwaining circles, Camilla’s ensuing collections focus on designs that are playful and witty while still being wearable. They bridge the gap between high fashion and the street and the brand’s legion of celebrity fans agree with me. Supported by Boden and the British Fashion Council’s Future British mentoring scheme during 2015, Camilla has taken her business to the next level. As Camilla talks me through her plans for the rest of 2018 it’s clear that she completely understands the retail zeitgeist, deciding to move to an online-only sales format and making her instagram account fully shapable too.
Our interview takes place in Camilla’s West London studio on a sweltering July day. Storm clouds gather outside as the first rain in weeks makes an appearance but inside all is bright and calm. Camilla’s PR Eleanor offers us ice lollies and the designer’s dog Lulu happily settles herself onto needlepoint cushions for a cameo appearance in our photos. The designer’s Feet First memories are key to today’s chat but Camilla also reveals a new project with Shop at Bluebird… Launching this week, Camilla has collaborated with the Chelsea restaurant on a mouthwatering dessert menu, all inspired by her signature shoe designs. There is a dark chocolate fondant with lemon verbena, crowned with an edible flower that echoes the design of this season’s Pez Daisy… A luscious black sesame ice cream and blackberry sorbet delight bedazzled with glitter and a white chocolate arrow reminiscent of the Silver Lining ankle boot… And a romantic Lover-style ice cream sandwich with raspberry sorbet and pink meringue. “My favourite flavour is the chocolate… although, a mouthful of all three and a glass of fizz would be the dream!” Camilla admits. The ice cream menu is available for one month at Bluebird Chelsea
1) Gucci patent and suede platforms
When I was a teenager, I loved going into Harvey Nichols and window shopping. I visited at the end of the summer holidays in 2006 and I spotted these Gucci platforms, which I’d actually seen on the runway months before and already loved… They were so reduced, ridiculously reduced! And although they are actually too big for me I put insoles in them and made them work. I was sixteen and they were the first pair of designer shoes I ever owned. I don’t know where I thought I would wear them, although I did wear them with a red floaty dress and that whole outfit made me feel far more grown up than I was. They are very flattering and that gold heel - although it’s slightly rusty now - glints beautifully in the light. This pair was the start of a habit of buying rather expensive shoes… At this point I had mainly high street clothes but it’s always been my thing to have fantastic shoes and an OK outfit. I think my mindset with these was that you want to get the classics first and then once you’ve invested in a brand, maybe you get a slightly more outre style afterwards. I felt they were a good investment and as I was limited to one pair a year, I mainly bought black. I moved to New York after I finished school and took these shoes with me so they are part of my New York era too. Everyone around me was wearing black, it was very trendy, although I always wear quite colourful outfits and like playful things… perhaps I was trying to be too grown-up!
2) Marc Jacobs black and gold platforms
Immediately after I left school I went to New York to do a fashion design course but thought, what on earth am I doing? My whole wardrobe is shoes! Fashion changes so quickly but shoes are so important. They are complete conversation starters - you can always tell a lot by people’s shoes. I was at Parsons for my foundation year, doing intense classes from 8 in the morning ’til 9 in the evening. It was full on but it was so interesting. I met people from all across the world which felt very glamorous. I came back to London and took my credit to London College of Fashion where I started doing shoe design. Part of the course involved a year in industry so I went straight back to New York to work at Donna Karan where I met Paul Andrew… and that’s when I bought these. They are so disco! They’re also similar to the first pair (clearly I need to do my own version!) but I just associated Marc Jacobs with New York and the West Village. I would always go to the stores there and it was a lifestyle I really wanted to buy into. They are a classic shape but there is a fun element with the crystal cherries on the front. They are really comfy too and when I lived in New York we would go out dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. During the week it was drinks after work but on the weekend we would go to these little secret clubs through funny doors at the back of restaurants. I loved it! Sadly London doesn’t quite have that culture but I’m still in touch with a girl I met - over shoes - in one of those little bars. She was wearing glittery Miu Mius so we bonded! Paul Andrew would invite us to parties at Donna’s house too and everyone in the New York fashion world was really nice and so friendly. You could befriend someone within an evening. Perhaps people are nicer because we all came from somewhere else and everyone was working hard to achieve their dreams… I live a much quieter life now and I do miss New York, but I’m so glad I came back to do this!
3) Camilla Elphick Pez heels
I love visiting the Eleven Fine Art gallery and in 2014 they were showing an exhibition by Kent Christensen. His work is all about iconic American symbols and I loved his paintings of ice creams. Kent is Mormon and he doesn’t drink but he does eat lots of candy! His paintings inspired my second collection while I was in NY… I started drawing pretzels on shoes or using Oreo cookies as buttons… I was just playing around but the resulting collection was called So Good It’s Bad and was all candy-themed. One of Kent’s paintings was of Pez dispensers. I loved the look of them and the fact they used different characters. The shape really looked like a heel so I made one using the Bugs Bunny design. To contrast with the heel, I thought the front should be simple and it needed an ankle strap for balance. But at this stage, it was still a dream design. I was in my fourth year at LCF and my internet at home wasn’t working so I found a coffee shop in Notting Hill… when Charlotte Olympia walked in! I had already emailed her company to see if there was a placement going as I loved working with designers rather than just going to college - straight studying wasn’t enough for me! I felt so embarrassed but I spoke to Charlotte and she asked me to send her an email personally - it took months to make an internship happen but in the end I stayed with her for nearly a year. While I was there I really wanted Charlotte to critique my graduate collection. She liked the Pez shoes and offered to help produce them. At the time I wondered how am I going to make them, so it was a huge weight off my mind! I had to do all the sourcing and liaising with factories - Charlotte really wanted me to learn myself - but eventually I had these lovely samples. I showed them at her press day and there was lots of buzz. People wanted to buy them! When I finished at Charlotte Olympia I worked at Topshop but I wasn’t sure what to do next… A friend said I should just go and find a factory. Just do it. Set up my own label… So I did! The Pez was my platform. When I approached Pez to license the heel, they loved the idea. All the characters’ noses are heart-shaped and once a bride asked for a pair with each of her dogs on the back of the shoes. I have a pair with Lulu on too! Pez was definitely the shoe that started it all. I don’t think I would be doing this otherwise… We have done 30 or 40 styles now and I’d love to have an exhibition of them all - they would look amazing displayed together. I would still love to make a pair that could actually dispense candy too… Perhaps for a music video…
4) Camilla Elphick Silver Lining ankle boots
This was our next big moment. The first collection (SS15) was Luck themed - it was great for occasions - but for the second season (AW15) we thought about what we actually wanted to wear. The collection was weather themed and called The Perfect Storm. There were raining cats and dogs, lightening bolts, wind direction arrows… It was quite fitting to have a ‘silver lining’ boot and we had lots of requests for photo shoots for these - they’re fun, eye-catching and cool and were maybe a bit different. And then we got a call in for Alexa Chung, which was major! She wore these ones in a shoot and loved them so much she asked to buy them, along with another pair. I thought, ‘I can’t ask her to buy them!’ so I gave them to her. I didn’t realise she would wear them everywhere! There are so many pictures of her in them… Then she bought a pair of the Lover flats and went through a couple of pairs of those too! It was really flattering as she is a style icon for me… It all piggybacked off that because Leandra Medine and Dree Hemingway wore them too. All the NY/London cool girls, which was great as they are a bit different to the classic red carpet celebrities. At the time I was worried that we were going too novelty (I mean, I’m not always wearing a Pez shoe to work!) so the boost we got on the boots was fantastic. I still wear them now and we’ve done green metallic for AW18. Having a cool celebrity wearing our brand definitely gave us visibility and suddenly people recognised the shoes. I would go to events and people would say, ‘ah, you’re the silver boot person’. It was such a coincidence and so nice that we didn’t have to approach anyone to wear them.
5) Camilla Elphick Heart to Heart pump
I love - and wear - our classic Lover flats all the time but I felt we needed something that was a little more grown-up. Still fun and playful of course and also something you could wear with jeans… I love a pump but a plain pump is never enough… so these are the shoes! They come in black patent so you could wear them in a serious office environment or red, which is really cute and they are really comfy. I got this pair in Paris - they are actually the sample. We were showing the AW18 collection in March and I was so excited when I got the delivery. I was over the moon and wore them all week, I practically didn’t take them off! One night I wore them to meet an old friend from New York at the Hoxton hotel. They have this cute bar upstairs and I just remember being so happy looking down at my feet and seeing hearts. I’ve never had a white high heel shoe before and the whole team have them in different colours. I also love patent because you can wipe it clean. Perfect for weddings in the summer when you’re sinking into the grass or someone spills a drink over you… We probably get one wedding enquiry a week and have had brides wearing palm trees and watermelons for city register offices or fun themed weddings. Now people are quite adventurous - because sometimes you can’t even see the shoes with a long dress - but now we have interlocking hearts they can wear too!