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Gemma Roe – Dreamer, Creative, Shoe Designer!

I love the Designer Showrooms at London Fashion Week – you get to see next season’s offerings from a wide range of designers and often the designer is there and ready and willing to talk about their creations. Last September my attention was grabbed by neon bright shoes that epitomised fun and transported me to a fashionable poolside…I was eating a knickerbockerglory in my daydream when I realised that it would be polite to talk to the lady on the stand (it’s not always the designer). Luckily Gemma WAS the designer and she was very happy to talk about her collection (her first – I was totally amazed), her inspirations and chat over mini Proseccos (when we could get hold of them – they went fast).  We hung out a bit but she was busy talking to buyers and I promised I would interview her on the blog. It’s taken a few months but finally we managed to get it done! Thanks to Gemma for your amazingly detailed answers which are inspiring and thought provoking!!!

How long ago did you start thinking about shoe designing? Have you always concentrated on shoes or do you design clothes as well?

I fell in love with shoes at quite a young age, although I didn’t necessarily have the best start with them. I have a high in-step which proved to be problem when trying to find pretty shoes to fit my feet.  My Mum and I used to spend weeks hunting for shoes that were not only stylish but also comfortable. The first shoes I had a small obsession with were Clarks Magic Steps shoes which had a hidden key inside the sole. I was a big fan of magical, fairytale films such as Labyrinth, Legend, The Never Ending Story, and Cinderella (I still am) so it was my dream to create shoes that had a sense of magic and fantasy to them!    

I was a very creative child who was heavily involved in all things art, design, music, dance and acting and used to be very active performing in shows, bands and songwriting. I went to stage school from the age of ten and had dreams of one day being on the West End or being a Pop Star!  My favourite part of being in shows was the costume rehearsal or indeed making the costumes! I was once Alice in Alice the Musical, a princess in Cinderella amongst many other shows at stage school and theatre. I loved the shoes I wore in Cinderella which were similar to the famous Manolo Blahnik ‘Hangisi’ blue satin buckle pumps worn by Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City.

So I guess I started thinking about designing shoes as a child although it wasn’t until I was studying for my degree in fashion illustration and design that I thought about it as an actual career. I did a project on shoe illustration in my second year and discovered how fun it was. I was already a big fan of the shoe illustrations by Manolo Blahnik and also loved David Downton. The first collection I designed was based on zodiac star signs. I’m a Virgo and have since discovered many shoe designers and fashion designers are Virgos. We have a good sense of attention detail and can be quite eccentric!  I knew I would have a creative career whether it be through music, acting, art or design. My plan is to incorporate all of my artistic passions in my brand expression. I want people to have a magical/fantasy experience though my work. This has always been important to me.

My debut collection was just shoes but I am planning to be a full accessories brand so will be introducing clutch bags in my next collection and will grow from there into other accessories. And maybe clothes. Who knows! 

Where did you study footwear design? What was your training like?
I started studying footwear formally soon after moving to London in 2009. I did my first course in shoe design at Central Saint Martin’s and then I went to Cordwainers, part of London College of Fashion which gave me a full understanding of the process of designing and making shoes. I also trained with bespoke shoemaker Paul Thomas in east London for a year which provided me with very technical training. I learned how to measure feet and create shoes that would fit the foot perfectly. I also studied Fashion Business at London College of Fashion and attended many seminars and events so I had a good understanding of the industry before starting my own brand. 

My training was pretty thorough although there are some things you have to learn as you go along. I have learned so much since starting my own brand which I couldn’t have learned in a classroom.  I also worked as a shoe consultant for two years before starting my own brand so this gave me lots of good experience. 

What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered setting up your own business? 

Honestly….lots! You have to learn to grow a very thick skin in this industry because it’s very competitive  so you have to be willing to always go the extra mile! I would say besides talent, education and passion  it’s also necessary to persevere, be patient and be nice to people. You will be surprised how much you need to use those three key things when faced with challenges.  When I started my brand I didn’t have a clue about certain things. I had to put together a thorough business plan, five year financials, meet with hundreds of investors, travel to Italy alone and learn to deal with a lot of rejection! I think there are many things that have helped me get to this point and one of those is being fearless. When you have a dream to create something special, you will jump over every hurdle until you reach the finish line. 

I have always been a very determined person and I believe that every person has a right to express themselves through their work. It’s just a matter of timing and meeting the right people. I worked hard to meet people that could help me create my dream and this took many years. It’s very expensive to create a luxury fashion business and if you’re not rich (which I am not) you have to find people that can help you financially and this is very challenging. I used to read stories about people who had overcome adversity when trying to create their dream including Madonna, the Beatles, Walt Disney and how J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before Harry Potter was published. I used to think, 12 times? I’ve been rejected by investors 500 times! But finally I met the right match and my whole life is changing. So you have to just keep going until you get to where you want to be, no matter what stands in your way.  

What advice would you give young designers planning on starting out in the industry? 

I would say to take note of everything I have said above and to also really embrace your imagination and your uniqueness. It’s also really important to stay positive and to not let any negative influences overshadow your own expression. There will always be people telling you to get a normal job or that it’s too difficult and competitive. But if you have a unique voice then I believe there is always room for this. The world is full of billions of people!  Although I learned many things as I went along, I also had a lot of fashion industry experience before I started. I have been fashion styling for nine years which I was still doing even when I launched my brand at London Fashion Week. There are designers that have started from nothing but this isn’t very common. So I would say to get as much experience, education, training, and support as you can and to grow a think skin! 

It’s also handy to always carry a mini sketchbook around with you. I carry one with me everywhere. I get crazy ideas when I’m out running, in the gym, in the shower so I always try to take notes and then quickly sketch it out when I can.  It’s also really good to attend shows such as LineaPelle in Milan to see the new trends and to meet people in the industry. It took me a whole year to find a suitable agent and factory in Italy that would work with me because they are all so very busy manufacturing for large brands. Depending on the type of shoes you want to create you can consider other countries that may be more open to work with new brands. Because my shoes are very intricate it was only really possible to have these made in Italy. I did consider having them made in Brazil, Spain or Portugal but the factories said they weren’t capable to make them so I knew I had to stick with Italy (which is my favourite place on earth so I am happy about that)! I have been travelling to Italy for the last thirteen years and have many best friends over there so it also made sense on that front too! And of course you can’t beat the amazing food and romance! 

Who are your biggest shoe design influences?

My love for Manolo Blank’s shoe illustrations was the reason I wanted to become a shoe designer. His designs are so expressive and carefree and yet very feminine and beautiful. I love nature and colour this is also evident in his designs. I love very creative and fun designers such as Charlotte Olympia and Sergio Rossi. I love that they push the boundaries of creativity and colour but also each have their own unique style. As a designer you want to see your shoes worn on women’s feet rather than just a piece of art to be admired. The reaction I received at Fashion Week was very encouraging and confirmed that I am doing something right! I also love the men’s shoe brand Mr Hare and was very inspired by his story of how he started designing shoes which is different to the norm. 

Where and how do you get inspired? 

My creative process is quite vast. I live in a fantasy world most of the time! I used sit and day dream during the lessons I didn’t like at school and also any office jobs I’ve had over the years. I just wanted to be creative all day long. I grew up in the Warwickshire countryside until I was 18 and the view from my bedroom window was of fields of horses, so nature is a always a big inspiration in my work. I started drawing from the first time I could hold a pencil so It’s always been very natural for me to sketch everyday. I used to also paint portraits and large canvases so art is always a massive influence in my work. I’m a member of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and love going there to soak up the creative exhibitions and always come out feeling inspired. I recently saw ‘Fabrics of India’ which was amazing. The work is so intricate it’s mind boggling! 

I usually like to start playing with ideas within a theme and this always organically grows into other ideas. For example, my debut collection ‘Tropical Disco’ started out by being inspired by the tropical garden at the back of my Italian team’s studio in Florence and then I started looking at the Amazon Rainforest (which I dream of visiting one day soon). I’m a massive fan of colourful fashion photography such as the work by Miles Aldridge and Jamie Nelson so strong colour combinations were brought into the collection.

My Mum and I are very close and she is a very stylish lady. She was in her 20s when I was growing up and I used to love raiding her closet and trying on her shoes. She still had glamorous clothes and shoes from the 70s and I think the glamour of the 70s era is very much present in my SS16 debut collection but brought in to the modern day. Very Studio 54! If I could live in any era it would be the 70s!

I use Pinterest everyday too which is a great way for me to document anything I find interesting. I think I have about 30,000 images on there! I couldn’t live without it now. I get a lot of inspiration from travelling, London streets and people, films, cinema, books, art, theatre, nature and just having fun playing around with ideas. I like to illustrate all of my designs but I then re-work them in the factory because things always work differently going from 2D to 3D.  

If you weren’t designing shoes what would you be doing?

This is a difficult question because I love so many things! It would definitely be something creative where I could express myself. Probably a Pop Star! I’m a massive music fan and love the ‘style’ of very creative, quite eccentric artists such as Marina and the Diamonds, Lady Gaga and Sia. I love how they create a story and fantasy world around them through their creative costumes, lyrics and music videos. I loved Madonna and Mariah Carey growing up and learned to sing listening to them! I love all types of music though from jazz to hip hop and I love dancing. I used to play eleven instruments at school but only really stuck with singing and playing bad piano! I played steel drums for six years and have also been the lead singer in two bands! I still write songs now so you never know! I would like to bring music and performance into the brand somehow so watch this space!

I also love fashion styling and I’m a massive fan of Anna Dello Russo. She’s like a living piece of art. But I feel very at home designing shoes because I get to put everything I love into them. I think I will start to get more into playful art when I have the time. I love the work of Drawberston. Check him out!

What was it like showing at London Fashion Week last year for the first time?

It was an amazing experience and something I had dreamt about since I was at University. So to actually be there showing my own shoe collection was a dream come true! It was great to see the positive reaction from press, buyers, stylists and bloggers too! I’ve since had shoe requests from stylists to dress artists such as Jillian Hervey from Lion Babe, Fleur East, Little Mix, Lady Gaga and Marina & the Diamonds plus others. When it’s your first collection you always wonder whether people will share the same love that you feel for your own work. It’s a very personal expression of your imagination and many people have helped create the dream for the show from the factory to the British Fashion Council. 

I loved meeting the other designers in the designer Showrooms at LFW and learning about their experiences. I think being part of LFW gave me good recognition as it’s quite difficult to get a place in the show because it’s very competitive.  There were lots of great fashion shows and parties during the week so it was great to make some new friends! I’m very much looking forward to having my own themed presentation one day. Hopefully, for my next collection so I can really create a fantasy world for my shoes. This is my dream!

What are your plans for 2016 and beyond?

I will be going out to Florence where my factory is based for about four or five months to work on the next collection of shoes and my new collection of clutch bags which I’m very excited about. I will also start working on my London Fashion Week presentation with a team of set designers and plan to show in Paris this time too. I will be introducing other accessories over the course of the next five years including children’s shoes, mens shoes, handbags, jewellery and eyewear. My ultimate dream is to have my own store in a few years so I will be working on these plans with my team also. Everything sprinkled with a touch of magic! It’s a very exciting time in my life and I’m happy that finally all my dreams are coming together after years of hard work! 

Gemma’s shoes will be available soon at www.gemmaroe.co.uk

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