Breakfast at Babington House on a sunny Friday morning and the shoe designer Penelope Chilvers is telling a rapt audience how she grew her business from an almost accidental sideline to the global brand of today.
It’s a riveting story, that definitive lightbulb moment, an original idea combined with extraordinary drive and an obsession with perfection.
Penelope, (Penny to her friends), married a Spaniard and initially brought up her two children living in the hills of Barcelona where she rode every day (no surprise that riding and equestrian history is a passion). When she returned to London, friends were envious of her custom-made riding boots which she continued to wear every day in town.
She began taking orders for the long tassel boots (still a best-seller, 12 years on), sourcing the finest artisan hide and having the boots made up to her meticulous standards by an artisan shoemaker in Spain.
Six months later she took a tiny collection of the boots to Paris Fashion Week and
the orders flooded in, causing her shoemaker to throw up his hands in despair ‘and disappear off wild boar hunting.’
Undeterred Penelope found another small factory to work with and began forging her label in earnest.
She says: “It’s a tough old world shoemaking with little glamour. But I am a hungry girl and a hard worker. ‘
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, she still spends hours on the factory floor ‘walkng down the line and seeing how happy people are in their jobs.’
Four years ago she opened her first London shop and the range now includes a men’s line, trainers, heels and clogs.
The broad appeal of Penelope Chilvers is the combination of comfort (‘the dreaded C word’, Penelope quips) and beauty. The boots feature a Goodyear welted sole, a rubber and cork base made from the same material as the famous tyres, velvet court shoes are made to dance all night in.
She says: "I think the more relaxed you look as a woman the more attractive you are. I like to design footwear in a practical way, boots and shoes that you can do exciting things in, go on holiday, have an adventure.'
As with many true artisans there is usually a story behind the pieces – when designing Penelope is inspired by the Romeria de El Rocio, a religious pilgrimage in Southern Spain which she walks each year with some of her factory colleagues. We love the gold and silver pendants featuring the Lady of the Rocio, the pilgrimage’s patron saint.
Vintage dance shoes are another obsession, she recreates them with her beautiful t-bar sandals. Her sneaker collection (named after discos she used to frequent) have heart-stopping design features like the new Dreamer, a white leather brogue stuck on a trainer base. How perfect is that?
Penelope has had some luck along the way. The Duchess of Cambridge is a fan, when she wore the long tassel boots on her Canada tour recently, the online store (where most of her business is done) went into overdrive.
Good news for us West Country folk, a Penelope Chilvers store has arrived at Kilver Court Designer Village
in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. On sale at significant discounts are many of the best-loved designs for both men and women. We’ll see you there.