You are a Danish girl who initially worked in Dubai, started off her career in London, and now you produce your items in China and outsource your materials from Italy. Are you the personification of globalisation in fashion?
Yes, you could say that. In all 2010, the longest I spent in one place was five weeks. Starting on 2011, between New Year’s and end March, it looks like I will only have ten days in my own bed. I am living in hotels. I actually do live in one too, when “home” means a suite at Intercontinental. Convenient: maid, gym, and 24-hour service if I need something. I don't seem to go to the supermarket anymore.
Designing clothes for the wives and daughters of Sheikhs sounds a little bit like an opening scene from a Hollywood film. How do you describe the experience?
I was petrified at my first meeting with the Bedouin women. I was 20 years old and on my first day my French boss, who was rather breezy at times, left me alone in a room with a group of ladies that had come in for their fittings. I didn't know how much I could touch them; their bodies seemed so “holy” and I was worried if I would overstep an unspoken mark. Up to that point I had only seen them in passing or on TV shrouded in black and with their Bedouin bronze masks covering the face. And their scent — this overpowering exotic scent of oil and incense, the jet black eye makeup and henna tattoos all over made a strong first impression. Once they dropped their covers I quickly found out I could pinch and squeeze them to my heart's desire. They would go: “More tight Jamila - puuuulll” (Jamila is a similar Arabic name to Camilla). I had a lot of fun with them over the years.
Do limitations, like a lack of budget, make a person more innovative?
Hmm, well yes, in a way—you work with what you've got. I get your point but really, financial freedom brings more creative freedom, without a doubt. So, first get shoes selling and the more leverage you get, the more you can start becoming 'you'… or so it seems on my journey.
The Times said you are an âintelligent fashionista. Think Arne Jacobsen in couture.â How do you comment on that? Would you say you share any common characteristics in terms of aesthetics or design approach?
Think I need to get a lot more disciplined before you mention my name in the same breath as Jacobsen. However, there is definitely a natural affinity for his aesthetic—it feels like home in a sense, I think it does for most Danes — this is what we are brought up with along with Wegner, Kjaerholm, Mogensen, Juhl, Panton, Fritz Hansen, etc. That cool, elegant but warm starkness welcoming you in peoples’ homes, in public offices, in department stores, and so on.
The comment came from The Times when I was doing my M.A. at the Royal College of Art; all you do there is think and experiment — such a luxury. I'm multitasking too much these years, to get back to that. I'm hiring more staff at the moment so hopefully soon I get to spend more time on design. I know it when I am in the 'zone' — I just go quiet and feel it — brilliant feeling. However, it's the press that adds all these adjectives to you. I'm a big fan of Jacobsen so I'm naturally very flattered. My girls in London office are sitting in Arne Jacobsen chairs, I had them shipped over from Copenhagen; they also have Louis Poulsen lamps. I couldn't resist it… I wanted my first office to look nice.
What made you switch from clothes to shoes, and would you consider doing clothes again?
I just seemed to run off clothes after my seven years in Dubai designing for the ladies there. It was never about me but designing on the dot what customers expressed they would like. I actually first came to address “me” at a late stage and it's taken long to come out of the shell — I'm still getting there.
I have a tortoise tattooed on my arm to remind me I am a late starter. I like the highly technical aspects of footwear — it really gets me going, delight and frustration in equal measure; the process of making it and then wearing the shoes for real to experience what my decisions mean for women. Clothing-wise, I feel fully satisfied in my all-Rick Owens wardrobe — I don't wear other designers. What I'd like to do is furniture…and that is much more tricky to travel around with in prototypes than shoes…(laughs). I'd love to do it at some point. Chairs — I love chairs.
Right from the beginning of your shoe-designing career, your emphasis was on the shape and height of your heels, as well as on multiple cuts and openings that show off the foot. At the time it was not as fashionable and popular as it is today. Do you believe that you influenced the market in that direction?
Oh wow, I haven't thought about it like this. I just did it — the lines flew naturally for me on paper and when working directly on the shoe last. However, when I saw several other companies taking…“inspiration” from some of my cuts, then yes, I realised perhaps I was onto something. And here is the pitfall on the other side: some overdid it so much that it just became too hardcore in a boring pop-like sort of way — too predictable, too short-lived.
You turned down a lot of collaboration requests from fashion houses. Is there one you would find hard to refuse?
Rick Owens — I'd love to work with him because he has the more subversive edge that is within me but that I cannot run as single genre in my shoe business; not everyone will wear it and I have only one product group to run a business on, as opposed to fashion houses running multiple product categories. Gareth Pugh would be another one.
Despite the fact that you have a popular appeal, if I may say so, you shy away from over-exposure. Is there a reason for that, and would you prefer to change that in the future?
I'm pleased you noticed! (laughs) It's a bit of a battle for me when my agents say I have to do X or Y for the business and I feel it's just not me. I want to create a business on my own that works, and enjoy the making of the shoes — and ideally without prostituting myself to the game, so to speak, along the way. So, yes, I have made certain choices where some were suggesting I get more involved in the raising my profile as a person. Also, this is primarily about the product: I have never bought products because they were much exposed. For a customer like me, it actually has the opposite effect. I think it speaks volumes about the identity of the company.
You have said that you do not trust the fashion industry at all. What is it that you do not trust about it, and how would you help changing it?
I think the British fashion industry/media has a tendency to create niche cool names very fast but, as everyone knows just by glancing over its history, they often have little business to show for it and/or they vanish in a few short years. It was a topic that was part of our business studies curriculum at university. This is what I mean by not trusting the fashion industry. They preach one thing but does it deliver? Sometimes it's an advantage to be a little below the radar and get your deck in order.
What makes you prefer designing a chair over a handbag? Is it the Danish heritage speaking in you? Does furniture design pose a bigger creative challenge than, let's say, trying to make the next pair of 'it' shoes or bag?
A few bags would be fun but furniture is so much more substantial and lasting. I can see them lend a better angle to understanding my shoes…even for my own creative process.
Speaking of 'it' items, Tomas Maier has dismissed 'it' bags as 'marketing crap'. Do you agree with this notion and would you generalise it for all fashion gimmicks?
Totally. Funny you bring him up — I wear Rick Owens clothes and only Bottega Veneta handbags— again, it's the timelessness of both that are worth their investment as well as their more subdued but powerful presence that is their appeal. I see no need for owning others.
As you have explicitly shown through your designs, there is a specific style that you most enjoy. What influenced it?
I really love to see the exposed muscles on women's feet — I find it very attractive to not always cover the whole foot in 'shoe design'. It's also often the simplest ones that drive us most up the wall in production for their various hidden complexities. I favour a line that flows with the foot—working with it, not against it. I also enjoy designs that allow me to go out or dress up but without falling into a candy-floss trap, which I think is the problem with most women's footwear.
Does your personal taste change as you grow older?
Yes, I have become much clearer on my own style in recent years, and it's a relief. My wardrobe is much tighter; packs quickly. I understand better what works for me and what doesn't and what sort of buys are likely to turn out as flukes, no matter how jolly the moment is.
Did your fear of pastel colours pose a threat to your Spring/Summer collection? How difficult was it for you to create a collection that you enjoyed?
I literally hyperventilated when I was putting “turquoise” in my specification sheets to the factory. The colour nearly threw me into an existential crisis. My agents have long asked for more colours so I thought I would give them the benefit of doubt and bit of reward for their good work, haha—but I am pleased to say my own colour tones sold better in the end. I think it's fun though, SS11 is a really bright, clean collection and I shall look forward to seeing how it will perform out there in the shops. We are about to prepare for deliveries next month.
I like colours on other people, just not on myself. That said, when it's high summer and you are down in the Med amongst the lemon trees and pastel colours, it can seem a bit drab if you come in all blacks, taupes, greys…then again, black looks so good on deeply tanned skin… See? It just becomes a matter of cut and materials.
Do all the shoes that you design speak to you? Or do you include designs because you must, for commercial reasons?
There are definitely some I love more than others. Sometimes you run out of time or there were production issues so you cannot always have it your way. I do try to listen to my agents — also, when something sells well then we continue it with a tweak update.
You cite Rihanna and Halle Berry among your clients. Are celebrities an important part of your brand culture?
They came on their own. The first one was Celine Dion in 2008 for her world tour — we didn't know until her assistant called us asking to buy more shoes, as the shoes had sold out in store.
How do you see your brand evolving? Do you find the idea of creating a lifestyle brand appealing?
I have been approached for a merger and there are hard choices to make. I'd like to remain independent for as long possible, unless it's a deal I absolutely cannot resist. We will start looking into opening our own store and hopefully I can get cracking on a chair design or two. I am open to other product categories as long it is something that genuinely appeals to me. I see no urgency for slapping your name on anything. This is my work, my life — and I want to enjoy the process of it as much possible.