Twenty years after founding the business that bears his name, the 49-year-old Frenchman now sells more than half a million pairs of shoes a year. Following the launch of his first UK men’s boutique, on London’s Dover Street, he retraces key steps from his route to the top:
Don’t sweat the practicalities. When I start a drawing, I don’t worry about manufacturing technique: everything technical can be resolved afterwards. I always let creativity drive all of the elements of my work.
Try out bizarre ideas. One day, years ago, I was looking at some shoe prototypes and comparing them to my drawings, and they just looked too black. So, I grabbed the model’s nail polish and said, “Can I try something?” I painted the sole red and it made the colours really pop. From then on, I decided to paint all my soles red.
Whatever the customer wants, do it. I have always done special orders for certain customers. On one occasion, a gentleman came to me and simply said “I want you to design a shoe that is really extraordinary. I have a lot of gems, and they should be involved.” My red soles are a part of my identity because people relate them to me, to my shoes and to my work. So I designed him a shoe with a sole paved with rubies. I said, “You understand that she won’t be able to walk in them?” He replied, “Don’t worry, she won’t be in that position when she’s wearing them.”
Keep the egos out of the workplace. I started 20 years ago with a staff of two: one plus me. Twenty years later we have, well, a little bit more than that, but I really couldn’t work if it was a hostile environment. In a creative business, if you’re happy it will come out in your work. I don’t see how you can be happy if you don’t like the people you’re working with and if they aren’t a joy to have fun with.
Always bill. I don’t give away my shoes to celebrities for free. I’m only happy when people like what I do and make the effort to buy them. I would not be happy to see people in my shoes if I knew that they had to be paid to do it, that they had to be pushed. I want to make other people happy with what I do. I wouldn’t get any satisfaction if it was forced.
Never relent. Nobody in my family was in this business, but I pursued it because it’s my passion. I’m obsessed by freedom and the belief that you can build something for yourself out of your dreams.
Word of mouth is more valuable than any billboards. I saw it as a good sign that in the middle of August, when there is no one around, I could open my first men’s store in Paris without advertising it – and from the first day it started to take off.
Trust me, it’s different for girls. I opened the Paris men’s shop because when you mix men’s and women’s products in a store, the environment changes: the size of the men’s shoes are so different that they always look like, there is a French expression, “an elephant in a china shop”.
Forget five-year plans. The secret of my longevity is in not having any direction. As I never had a plan, all of my success has been a nice surprise and I have been able to do things at the correct moment. Every day of my work I’m reminded first of all to enjoy it and to let things grow organically. I never really thought I would start a company. I really just wanted to design things.
Originally published in British GQ, December 2012.