Penelope recently caught up with Scarlett Kilcooley-O’Halloran from Britsh Vogue.
See what she had to say below.
Walking into Penelope Chilvers’s Duke Street shop in Mayfair isn’t the usual experience of entering into a retail space that opened a mere six months ago. It feels like it’s been open for years, with its mementos, artefacts, natural textiles and exotic decoration – a hint to its owner’s exploratory attitude – inviting one in. This aesthetic is, however, balanced beautifully with what it sells – timeless designs with an irreverent twist. A harmonious tale of two halves – just like its eponymous founder, who before she found her flair for fashion, was an interiors designer in Barcelona.
“While living in Barcelona, I used to enjoy riding in the Collserola Park with a friend and my business partner at the time, and we were on the lookout for the perfect riding boots,” explained Chilvers of how she got started. “I decided to commission a pair for myself from a talented artisan – who made boots for famous bullfighters and Hollywood film stars in the Seventies – to create my dream boot made to my measurements. When I came back to London all my friends wanted to order some, so I made them for them and started to work on creating a mini collection of six new equestrian inspired boot styles with the artisan.”
Little did Chilvers know where these boots would lead. Her first attempt at a trade show during Paris Fashion Week proved fruitful (albeit much to her surprise: “I sold the collection to stores all over the world taking orders on the back of an envelope, with no order form and no time to run out and buy one!”) and before long she was traversing Europe with her new venture, splitting her time between her new London base and her workshops in southern Spain where everything is made.
“We really are a cross-generational brand and our celebrity fans range from rock to royalty,” Chilvers said of her customer. “Alexa Chung has been wearing my designs for many seasons – you can often see her sitting front row at London Fashion Week wearing my velvet slippers – and other celebrity fans include the Duchess of Cambridge, Rihanna and Cate Blanchett to name a few. My ambassadors are all intelligent women who are always on the go, and I still get a thrill when I see someone wearing my designs walking down the street or at the airport in security queue. I do spend a lot of time in airports.”
Intelligent and thoughtful design with a hint of bohemia is something that transcends through the brand, from the shop interiors, to the stamped paper carrier bags, to the company’s logo.
“Our logo incorporates a little man with his head literally thrown up into the air,” smiled Chilvers. “I drew it as a logo for my business card when I was in Barcelona. It’s my symbol for the design process. Everything is up in the air – creativity starts when you let go.”
It was a recent trip to Botswana that provided Chilvers with the inspiration for the new collection. Combining the practical elements of footwear required for safari with “what looks good at camp”, it was a friend’s old stool covered in red needlepoint and khaki canvas that provided the starting point. But it was the overwhelming impression of the community that she encountered that impassioned her to create it.
“I learnt how safari tourism is so effective in the conservation of the African countryside and its wildlife,” she explained. “I listened to many of their concerns for the future of Africa’s ecological and sociological systems, and left with a tiny understanding, and huge passion and respect for their knowledge and expertise. The new collection’s palette is sympathetic to the African countryside. I designed some needlepoint in homage to the stool, with the help of a piece of antique African fabric that I found in Portobello market.”
Despite her success, Chilvers is delightfully down to earth – the genuine warmth between her and her employees is clear to see – and enthusiastic about what she does, happy to open up her private notebooks, bursting with swatches and sketches, for all to see.
“My creativity is what gets me out of bed in the morning, but financial success is what drives it,” she revealed candidly. “A designer’s energy is fired by the challenge to design something well. Good design is beauty and function coming together to make something irresistible. When it’s on your foot it should make you feel good.
Objective achieved. Everything about Penelope Chilvers – the brand and the woman – makes one feel good.