An Interview with Footwear Designer Tabitha Simmons in Dubai

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Tabitha Simmons Pop-Up at Level One Shoe District in Dubai Mall
Tabitha Simmons Pop-Up Shop at Level Shoe District

We lead such busy lives, it makes no sense to walk around being uncomfortable all the time just to fit into a certain look or trend. Women need to stop doing this!

Tabitha Simmons might have launched her eponymous footwear brand in 2009 at the height of global economic insecurity, but her finely crafted shoes were an immediate success, even going so far as to win “Launch of the Year”. The appeal of her aesthetic is its timeless nature, touched with a hint of high-fashion glamour. It’s no coincidence that her shoes bear familiar names like ‘Alexa’ (as in Chung) or ‘Karen’ (as in Elson). The response to her designs has been overwhelming, and for that reason Simmons recently made her first appearance in Dubai at a gorgeous pop-up event at Level Shoe District in the Dubai Mall. The main focus of the pop-up was an exclusive line of disco-glitter heels she created just for Level Shoe District, but she also brought looks from recent collections as well, whose range proved the depth of her design skills. Savoir Flair sat down with Simmons and picked her brain about everything from her role as a style icon, how she maintains work/life balance as a mother, stylist, and shoe designer, and how her business is structured to accommodate the accelerating pace of the industry.

Read on for insight into Simmons’ rarefied world, and get to know one of the most exciting footwear designers working in fashion today.

Welcome to Dubai! Is this your first time here?

This is my first time! I arrived just yesterday.

You spend a lot of time traveling. Do you enjoy it?

I’m very lucky because I get to split my time between New York and Britain, but I also spend time in Italy because that’s where my shoes are produced, and truthfully I love every second of it.

When I think about Tabitha Simmons I instantly think “amazing shoes”, but you are also a stylist, former model, mother, and wife. What are some other passions that you have that most people do not know about?

I don’t have much room for other hobbies because the roles you mentioned take up a lot of time. If I’m not working, I’m taking care of my children, and if I’m not taking care of my children, I’m working [laughs] — but I try to play tennis whenever I can. I absolutely love it, so I’ll sneak in matches here and there. It helps me clear my mind, which I appreciate because the rest of my schedule is so demanding.

How do you maintain work/life balance?

I have to be incredibly, incredibly organized. Fashion is crazy, things change so fast. One day I’m organizing a shoot, the next day I’m throwing a party at a time when it’s hard to even get four people in the same room [laughs]. So I have to be strict about my schedule. But I love the challenge of it all. Everyday is different! I can be on my hands and knees working all day on a shoot, then racing around after my kids, and then before I know it I’m leaving for Dubai. No one day is the same as the other. It never gets boring.

Do you feel like if you ever had to narrow your focus to just one thing, you would become restless?

I think I would, because I’m so used to doing so many different things everyday and I’m always up for the challenge. There are so many decisions to make in a day: have we got our resort shoes shipped to Dubai? Is the model for the shoot booked? Who’s picking up the kids?

How is your business structured and what is your personal level of involvement with it?

Luckily, I still have a magazine job, which is 12 issues a year and very structured, so you always know what to expect and how to plan for it. The shoe label, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, which can be hard to keep up with. But, yes, I am massively involved in all processes from design and production to handling the social media for it all myself. I do have a wonderful team that supports me and helps me every step of the way, but I like to oversee it all because, well, it has my name on it and I very much believe in the product we are putting out.

As a designer, you have no doubt felt pressures to produce at an increasingly rapid pace. Do you succumb or hold true to your own schedule and way of doing things?

We’ve grown very, very slowly. When we faced hardship we worked through it, and yes, I do think nowadays there is massive pressure on designers because they have to work at a rate that is constantly accelerating. I don’t think that’s going to let up, because the internet has made this way of life kind of normal. Everything is moving faster and faster and I don’t think there’s a way to slow it down. So we respond to that by working hard to keep up with demand, but not in a way that is unbearable.

Does that affect your overall happiness as a designer?

No matter what, I’m going to keep going. It’s supply and demand. If we get the orders, we will fill them. We’ve been lucky, though, because as much as there is demand from the stores, there are no CEOs breathing down my neck and putting any kind of unneeded pressures on me. For us, the creative side and the business side are in balance. In both areas, we work extremely hard. The important thing for me is to make timeless shoes, the kind that a woman can wear for years and years. So, we’re not focusing on giving people trends, we’re focusing on providing extremely high-quality shoes that will last a lifetime and make women feel like they’re investing in something worthwhile. In years past, a pair of shoes was for life, but in the modern day we’ve moved away from that. I want to get back to that feeling with my shoes. I get really, really excited when I see women wearing pairs I made seasons ago, that makes me feel like I’m doing something right!

What major differences do you notice in the Middle Eastern consumer compared to those in the Western world?

It may be a little bit too early for me to say specifically [laughs], but one thing I’ve noticed is that they’re very open to new things, and they also pay great attention to detail in their clothing.

Do you consider yourself a style icon?

No. [Laughs] The thing is, I just dress the way I’ve always dressed, so I never really think about it because style has always been very instinctual for me.

Who are your muses?

I love some of the Old Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor. She was amazing. She was very experimental with fashion, and wasn’t afraid to try new things, and she didn’t have a stylist or anyone telling her what to wear.

Are your shoes named after women you know, or named after archetypal personalities?

It’s a bit of both. Some shoes are named specifically after friends, especially from my very first collection. I always named them after they were made, based on show friends my collection and seeing their response, like, ‘Oh, this is my favorite pair!’ Okay, that shoe is now called the ‘Karen’.

Do you believe you have to suffer for fashion?

Absolutely not. I feel like that’s a very old way of thinking really. We lead such busy lives, it makes no sense to walk around being uncomfortable all the time just to fit into a certain look or trend. Women need to stop doing this! I like life, living, happiness! There is no reason to compromise any of those things for fashion, or be tortured for style.

And it’s not just what you wear either, let me be clear. In the styling world, people used to think you’d have to pull an all-nighter to make a great editorial shoot happen. That’s so wrong. You need to work smarter, not harder. Know what you want, be decisive about it, and be out of there in a few hours. Any kind of self-torture for the wrong reasons needs to end.

What was the inspiration behind your latest collection?

I have some that were based around the little beaded coin purses that were popular in the 1970s, so we did beading on them and then another version where we did a print that looked exactly like the beading. For the silhouette we also went 1970s, with the wedge heel and another pair with a chunkier heel. In the other line, we did really great Italian leathers that were ruched and made to resemble wrought iron latticework, and then there’s everyone’s favorite disco glitter heels, with that same chunkier 1970s heel that we created exclusively for Level Shoe District.

Do you remember a moment when you realized that you were doing exactly what you set out to do? That you had achieved a major milestone? What was it like?

Quote of the day, readers! Don’t rest on your laurels!

Not really. I mean, I’ve been very lucky, I know that. We just won a CFDA Award for instance, but it’s never like ‘Ah, you’ve made it. Look how amazing you are’. I’m always ready for the next challenge, and I always see my mistakes which makes me want to do better the next time. I’m always thinking, ‘what’s the next thing I’m going to tackle’? I’m always going forward. Never rest on your laurels! Quote of the day, readers! Don’t rest on your laurels! [Laughs]

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