NEW YORK, United States — “Freedom lies in being bold,” luxury footwear designer Brian Atwood told BoF, quoting American poet Robert Frost. “That’s what I started the company with — never compromise what you really love to do.”
Atwood loves colourful, sexy, statement heels. And in a little over a decade, he has built an enviable reputation as the go-to label for just that. His shoes are sometimes over-the-top and almost always vertiginously high. Multi-coloured snakeskin sandals are finished with leather lacing and a five-inch stiletto, while latticed suede platform heels are intricately dotted with tiny studs.
With their verve and unabashed sensuality, Atwood’s designs have also captured the hearts of red carpet regulars. Indeed, the closely-followed website Red Carpet Fashion Awards named Atwood Shoe Designer of the Year in both 2010 and 2011, a nod to his popularity amongst instantly recognisable faces like Victoria Beckham, Zoe Saldana and his good friend, the superstylist Rachel Zoe.
In recent years, the Brian Atwood brand has expanded in a number of directions. A partnership first established with The Jones Group in 2010 led to the launch of contemporary shoe line B Brian Atwood. A bag collection, featuring embellished minaudieres and crocodile hobos, debuted last spring. And after The Jones Group acquired a majority stake in Brian Atwood, last summer, the company launched e-commerce, jewellery and its first flagship store, on New York’s Madison Avenue, in quick succession, with a bridal collection on the horizon.
“I think I always knew I would be a designer,” says Atwood, who grew up in Chicago, in a houseful of women, with his single mother and three sisters. “My mother was always dressing and into fashion,” he recalls. “I loved the element of what it did to a woman, how it changed what she felt like and the perspective people had of her.”
At the age of 20, Atwood moved to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But his entry point to the industry wasn’t a design gig. “Omar’s [Men] agency in New York approached me at a club, and said, ‘Would you model?’” he recalls. Soon, Atwood was shuttling back and forth between New York and Milan, “modelling and doing the shows in Europe.”
By the time he gave up modeling, at 25, he had begun freelancing at a sportswear company in New York. “But I didn’t know if I was ready to go into that Seventh Avenue mentality,” he says. “My friends who took jobs [there] were complaining because everything was produced overseas. It was very budget-conscious.” So Atwood turned his sights across the pond. “In my eyes, Europe was still about just making beautiful things.”
In a stroke of boldness, Atwood called Versace’s casting director, who he had met while modelling, to inquire about open design opportunities at the brand. After he dropped off a handwritten resume, “they called me that day,” Atwood says. “It was kind of like being a struggling artist and [then] Picasso calls you! ‘Hey, do you want to work with me?’”
In 1996, Atwood became the first American designer to ever be hired by Gianni Versace. “I was the only person in the design studio who spoke English,” he remembers. Versace — who took to calling Atwood by an Italianised version of his name, “Brianino” — started his young apprentice out designing ready-to-wear for the house’s younger line, Versus.
It was around this time, just before moving to Milan for the Versace job, that Atwood received the first inkling of what the future would bring. “I remember going to this psychic who told me, ‘I see you being famous for something to do with feet,’” he recalls. “It made no sense to me, because, at that point, I hadn’t designed shoes. I still have the cassette tape somewhere.”
Indeed, it wasn’t long before Gianni promoted Atwood to chief designer of Versace’s shoes and accessories. “I’d always sketched shoes and knew that was a very important factor in the whole look,” Atwood says. “You can make or break a dress with the shoe. But it was never anything that I’d thought about until Versace asked me to design the shoes.”
At that time, the footwear business was a mere fraction of what it is today. “[It] was basically matching the shoe to the dress. It wasn’t about these shoes being on their own. I didn’t know that there was a business in it yet.”
Not only did Versace put Atwood on the path to shoe design, but Gianni and Donatella taught him to “never compromise on what you believe in. In the ‘90s, they literally did whatever they wanted to do. It was full-on luxury. Whether you loved or hated what [Gianni] did, it was what he did. That has always been part of my design process — do it, not everyone’s going to like it. But do what you have passion for.”
By 2001, at the height of “Sex and the City” and the shoe fanaticism the American television series famously induced, Atwood was ready for his own label. “I remember going to Donatella and asking her permission. She thought I was going to quit. I actually stayed [at Versace] for another five years and did both. So no sleep.”
When Atwood launched his line, Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik were in their heyday, and Christian Louboutin was well on the rise. “It was taking a risk,” Atwood admits. Then, a few months later, “September 11th happened. I said, you know what, there’s really no great time to start a business, so I can’t stop now. It can’t get any worse. So I just stuck with it.”
In a luxury footwear market that’s now “more saturated than ever, having your designer imprint is key,” Atwood says. His customers “don’t want the simple things,” he’s found. “They love the fashion stuff, the statement shoes. It’s all about sex appeal, colours, silhouette, craftsmanship. Different details that you don’t really find. Just that extra special touch,” he adds.
The shoe that’s been his “core panino for so, so long” is the spindly-heeled Maniac platform pump, first launched in 2007 and inspired by Jennifer Beals on the promo poster for the movie Flashdance. “I was at a party in LA where someone was dressed up as Flashdance and we were joking that we should make a Maniac pump, because the song ‘Maniac’ was in the [movie],” Atwood remembers. “It started off in red patent leather, because she had the red pumps with that grey sweatshirt on.” The shoe’s success “was such a surprise, because it had been in the collection I think four years before it really just took off,” he recalls. Since then, he’s done the shoe in everything from quilted leather to pink python.
With a brand identity built, by 2010, Atwood set his sights on expansion. “Once you [know] what your brand is and where you want to position it,” he says, “that’s the guide for a store, for everything. Ready-to-wear, bags. It all has one purpose. I knew we really needed a partner to bring it to another level. ”
Enter The Jones Group Inc., Atwood’s licensing partner on his younger-leaning shoe collection, B Brian Atwood. Last June after almost a year of negotiating, Jones Group acquired a majority stake in Brian Atwood, its first luxury brand in a portfolio that also includes Rachel Roy and Stuart Weitzman.
“Before, it was me, myself and I doing everything — from FedEx to answering the phones to designing,” Atwood says. “It was me being the manager more than the designer. And I think that’s great to know and to learn, because if you can’t manage a business, it’s a hobby.” Now, with the operational support of The Jones Group, he says, “I can take the time to really understand what I want to do for a season. And start planning it out more.”
Nine months into the relationship, Atwood has debuted titillating ad campaigns (last season’s campaign featuring Candice Swanepoel was banned in New York City), a jewellery line, e-commerce and his first flagship store, on Madison Avenue right across from Barneys New York. “I don’t want to say it validates you as a designer, but having a store on Madison Avenue… people look at [you] differently as a brand.”
“Key” to his growth has been listening closely to customer feedback, says Atwood. “Talking to your customer at your stores and seeing what the customer’s buying, I think that is so important. [Because] what are you going to do, just have a store full of shoes and not sell any?”
So what has he learned? “It’s not only 20-year-olds who want a six-inch heel,” he says. But conversely, “some women don’t want or can’t walk in the high heels. That’s something we’re responding to very quickly. They like the fun fashion shoe — on a sensible heel, sometimes. Sensible…[it’s] not in my vocab, but we do it. I’m learning.”
He also interacts with customers directly online. “Sometimes I’ll tweet and say, ‘Guys, I need names for shoes, send me names,’ and I’ll have 1,000 names, which really helps me out when I’m thinking,” he says. “It’s fun to see the reaction, and you’re not giving up the luxury, you’re just putting it out there and getting more followers.”
In coming months, Atwood is set to expand his reach even further. International e-commerce is expected to launch in May and he’s “definitely looking for [new] stores.” The UK, Russia, Brazil, Los Angeles and Bal Harbour in Miami are all possibilities. A bridal collection is also set to debut this spring.
“I love sunglasses and eyewear. I love ready-to-wear. I know how to sew, I know how to pattern, drape. Everything,” he continues, but, then cautions: “The key to this brand will always be shoes. That’s the core business.”
So what advice does Atwood have for aspiring footwear designers?
“You don’t have to know what your style is in the beginning. You grow into that,” he says. “The key thing to understand is if you have passion, if this something you really want to do for the rest of your life.”