Does your footwear tell a story?

Sophia Webster, whose eponymous label has captured the imagination of trailblazers in Hollywood, sees shoes as wearable sculptures


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 22 Feb 2024, 8:53 PM

As a competitive dancer in her teens, Sophia Webster was fascinated with the embellishments on the dramatic dresses she wore for her performances. A fascination that made her think in later years if these could be replicated in footwear to add a distinct touch to them. Today, the British footwear designer has carved a niche for herself with spectacular pieces that have been worn by A-listers like Heidi Klum and Taylor Swift. We caught up with her earlier this month at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to find out how her design philosophy has evolved over the years and why the pandemic forced her to rethink how footwear can be reimagined. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You were a competitive dancer. How did you transition to entrepreneurship?

I did free style disco-dancing, which is very competitive. You travel all over the country, participating in different competitions. You can do that only when you are a teenager. So, quite naturally, I stopped dancing in my teens, and got into studies. My real passion, however, was art. I wanted a creative career. I knew from my dancing that the costumes can be embellished — there can be lots of sequins, feathers and embroidery. And I loved it. These got you noticed by the judges. So, I always thought of unique colour combinations. When I was at the art college, I was doing a live tour, and the model kept changing her outfits. However, I was quite curious about her shoes. I was getting into sculptures at that point and began to see shoes as wearable sculpture.

You launched your footwear brand in 2013. How has your design philosophy evolved since?

The DNA of the brand has remained the same. I design creative, spirited, uplifting, feminine footwear. But in the past 10 years, I have changed personally. I was just out of college in London then. When I started the brand, I got married, and my husband became my business partner. Then, I introduced the bridal line because I was thinking about what brides could wear. Later, when my daughter was born, I introduced a mini collection. The brand has very much evolved with me.

Did you expect it to be this kind of breakout success?

I always believed in myself. I have been a great believer in manifestation. When I was out of college, I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do in life — start a brand of my own. But at that point, I didn’t know how to make it happen. I had had pretty ordinary upbringing and there was no generational wealth to fall back on. From that perspective, I believed I could make it happen. The footwear industry is quite tough; it’s constantly changing. You have to stay in the game, we are constantly updating things and moving with the times.

How did the pandemic change the footwear industry?

Oh, it changed the industry hugely in that people, in general, are now buying differently; they wear shoes differently. We found that we had a set of customers who would buy heels and continue to wear them through the pandemic, but we also have mid-heels and sneakers that have become a big part of our collection. And that, I think, is because people were wearing slippers all the time during that phase, and then it’s quite hard to get back into heels. For me, creatively, it is quite exciting because it’s a new challenge to design things that are interesting and appealing. It’s easy to design heels, but not quite so in flats and make it just as desirable.

You have used social media intelligently to further the ethos of the brand Sophia Webster Shoes.

The timing was perfect because I started the brand at the same time as Instagram was taking off. As a millennial, I communicated through social media. It was not a strategy, but just a chance we took. The format of Instagram was perfect for us because it was so visual. I was able to document my entrepreneurial journey on it. It was very organic and we amassed a following. Although I have loved bright colours, that went hand in hand with Instagram because I would also challenge myself to design something that could be visually enticing on a photo and disrupt somebody’s scrolling and get their attention. So, I was almost designing shoes that would go viral on Instagram. It allowed me to communicate directly with my customers.

How important is it for a celebrity to endorse a brand such as yours?

It is important. A lot has changed from the time I started. At that time, influencers did not exist. That has disrupted the industry. But we always have some incredible moments when celebrities wear our shoes. For example, Oprah Winfrey wore our Coco pumps to give her iconic #MeToo speech at the Golden Globes. When she did that, it felt as though we were being part of a historical moment. There was a message relevant to us too because footwear is largely a male-dominated industry. Then Taylor Swift wore my famous butterfly wing heels at an awards show. It was a very big moment. What often happens on red carpets is that shoes are forgotten because of the big gowns. It can be an anti-climax.

But the Taylor Swift moment was just incredible because it was all about the shoes. Most brands have a PR in Hollywood. I have worked with mine for many years. But they send a lot of shoes, and you never know which ones will eventually be picked. These moments are absolute magic when they happen. The shoe had been in the market for eight years, so when Taylor Swift wore it, she opened it up to a whole new audience. On Twitter (presently called X), everyone was trying to decode the meaning of the wings on the heels because Taylor Swift always has a lot of symbolism in whatever she wears. It was a fantastic exposure.

What lies ahead for your brand this year?

During the pandemic, my kids’ shoe and sneakers factories closed down. We spent a long time to look for the right factory to restart those lines. We found two great production factories in Spain, so I am excited to start work on those collections again.

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