Forgive us for stating the obvious when we say that Liudmila, a footwear line pioneered by Kuwait-born designer Najeeba Hayat, is amazing. While the shapes are familiar, Hayat expertly toys with the silhouette to arrive at looks that are new and fresh, but luxe and extravagant at the same time. In her shoes, you can be a flamboyant courtesan, an eccentric heiress, or any other fantasy character your mind can come up with. Yet, Hayat’s journey to become a sought-after footwear creator was not easy. In Savoir Flair’s interview with the fascinating designer, she proves to be so accomplished at articulating her origin story and her driving passions that you feel like you’re living inside her head, if only for a moment. Her vivid words describe a time when she realized the chafing boundaries and restrictions of being born a creative in the Middle East, of how she fought an uphill battle for three years to learn her craft, and how she was inspired by the way shoes could be a form of escapism and fantasy. As easy as it is to fall in love with the beautiful looks in her collections, it’s even easier to fall in love with her brilliant and intriguing personality.
Continue reading for a glimpse into the life and mind of Najeeba Hayat and discover what makes one of the industry’s most talented designers tick.
Can you share with us how you got your foot into designing shoes?
I was a hardcore fashion addict since I was a very young child in a family that pretty much could not care less about fashion. The only thing I would buy myself every Eid was a new pair of shoes. My shoes were both beautiful, physical objects and portals to the place where I saw myself in the future. Somewhere exciting, dramatic, and creative. I was a kid. Shoes and novels were my drugs of choice. I grew up in Kuwait — I wouldn’t say there was all that much to do for a curious little girl with a demanding imagination.
I grew up in Kuwait — I wouldn’t say there was all that much to do for a curious little girl with a demanding imagination.
I was offered a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and cut my own path. My mother thought I’d gone off the deep end but grudgingly respected my choice all the same. I moved to Milan and studied footwear pattern-making every day for four months. Throughout that time, I was very much committed to the idea of creating my own line. There was a massive gap in the market for extroverted sparkle junkies like myself. When I started, I was a 22-year-old from Kuwait who did not speak Italian, did not know anyone in the industry, and had zero experience. I collected information from anyone I bumped into and basically hustled for three years straight until I arrived at the point at which I am today. I learned the language, learned the trade, did my research, and took no vacations.
I owe a huge debt to Victorian fiction for my fascination with the transformative powers of a dress. In Dickens’ novels, I would always pay close attention to the way clothing was described and how that defined each character. I was in love with the frivolity with which the characters layered their bodies with clothing, the various fastenings and buttons, the cap-ribbons, flounces, laces, morning jackets, boots. I was always saving and earmarking designs from this era along with the work of my idol and decorative genius Roger Vivier for Christian Dior.
I wanted to make magic shoes, birthday shoes, objects with a personality of their own. So much of design these days is about “framing the woman behind the clothes.” To hell with that! I am a fantasist, a dreamer! I want shoes to escape, to imagine, to amplify. I don’t buy a luxury good to show me reality; I want something to transport me, to place me for a little while in the pink 1950s New York penthouse of a certain embroidered-tunic-wearing, chain smoking Bohemian aunt, on a tropical island smelling of frangipani and danger, in the transformation scene from Sailor Moon!
So much of design these days is about “framing the woman behind the clothes.” To hell with that! I am a fantasist, a dreamer! I want shoes to escape, to imagine, to amplify.
I didn’t set out to be ironic with it. I wasn’t in the market for kitsch or tongue-in-cheek pop-arty appropriations of childhood snacks. I wanted go full on atmosphere and drama; it was a flamboyant confluence of inspirations from the very beginning. I wanted to do all of this but keep the shoes wearable every day. There are countless ways to imagine beautiful objects that do not involve placing a woman in a prison of pain. All of the boots and pumps I was obsessed with from the Victorian era were quite low. I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have a delicate touch and over-the-top detail on shoes that you could technically wear every day. I developed my own silhouettes, heels, and laces, and built on that. No one else was really doing it when I started out and customers have really responded to that!
What is your shoe philosophy?
Extravagance is essential.
How does being a Kuwaiti play into your work aesthetic and ethics?
It definitely makes you an underdog. There is no one from Kuwait who I could look to emulate when I started out and being from an oil state definitely did not help people take me seriously. Neither the foreigners I worked with, nor the people close to me, thought I would amount to anything until they started to see me being taken seriously by the international press and selling at important shops. It pushes you to be even more tenacious and driven because you have so much to prove. No one has seen a Khaleeji girl really make it before and I had too much pride to be the one who almost made it!
What was your first shoe-related memory?
Let’s not forget that time in high school I bought a pair of Jimmy Choo boots in October (in Kuwait, it’s still pretty hot) and wore them to school with our horrific potato-sack uniform shorts. People were all “Juba, what are you doing?” and obviously I just stared at them in disgust and carried on. I am not joking when I say that I am a fanatic.
Were you always drawn to mid-heels and kitten-heels?
Yes. I like to walk! Other than that, I actually think that design-wise you are more restricted with high heels. It easily strays into the hyper feminine or sexy categories. I was much more interested in taking what has been portrayed as a matronly height and spinning it into something fresh. Also, I like delicate curves and a leg in repose. There’s a lightness to it that I think it gives you a much more interesting canvas to work off of.
How many pairs of shoes do you own?
Around 150? 200? I don’t know!
If you had to pick a muse, dead or alive, who would it be?
Auntie Mame. She is a bon vivant par excellence and I want to live with that kind of intensity today and always!
How do you get dressed in the morning. Do you base your outfit on your shoe? Or is it the last thing you think of?
It all sort of comes together quickly and randomly. I grab what I’m feeling, put them together, pray it works, and look in the mirror while walking out the door. Life is too short to deliberate over one’s outfits too long!
Where will your shoes take you today?
Just the gym, unfortunately. Boring. I’m back in Kuwait.