For The Love Of Shoes: How Sophia Webster Built Her Eponymous Luxury Accessories Brand Webster will be speaking on a panel at the 2024 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Saturday, February 3.
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It's that time of the year when all of us in the UAE start eagerly anticipating the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which will be held this year at Dubai's InterContinental Festival City and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library from January 31 until February 6. Book lovers will again get a chance to hear from both local and international authors, which include entrepreneurs who have decided to share their experiences in the business domain with the world at large.
One such author you need to keep an eye out for is British designer Sophia Webster, with her promising to talk about her entrepreneurial journey as a shoe designer and business owner; however, unlike many female leaders in business, Webster will not be talking about self-limiting thoughts. "These are not so much my personal experience," Webster explains. "My internal voice has always been very loud, and I tend to go forwards with an idea with quite a lot of belief in it, and I tend not to fear failure. I'd say to combat self-inhibiting kinds of feelings, it's so important to authentically document your story- that way, you have an archive of what you've done, and you can 100% own it. No one can take your history away from you."
It should be clear here that it is with this confidence that Webster is sharing her own story in her first book, Oh My Gosh, I Love Your Shoes!, which she'll be promoting at this year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The book details how her eponymous brand became internationally renowned for its unique, creative and uplifting designs, leading Webster to become the first female shoe designer to be awarded the prestigious Vogue Fashion Fund. All of this serves as a unique testament of the self-confidence that Webster obviously possesses- After all, it led her to build a brand that eventually got Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and the Kardashians among its clientele. But before we dwell into the details of how she built her eponymous footwear line, Webster recalls a particular moment when her hard work and determination had finally paid off. "After I launched my brand aged 26, I stood in my first selling showroom, and recalled how, just a few years prior, I had been a waitress serving canapes at a Stella McCartney event, aspiring to run my own company like her," Webster says. "As soon as I knew my shoes had delivered to stores, I made a point of going on Net-a-Porter's website to scroll down their list of designers, and find my name. There it was, right next to Stella's! It was a really big moment for me."
Working in tandem with her husband and business partner Bobby Stockley, Webster distributes her brand through over 200 retailers worldwide
After obtaining degrees from the London College of Fashion (Cordwainers' College) and the Royal College of Art, Webster found herself working for many different footwear companies, and eventually became an assistant designer for British footwear designer Nicholas Kirkwood for two years, before launching her own line in 2012. "Before starting my company, I grew up in the workforce at a time when the fashion industry was unchecked, and hustle culture was the norm," Webster says. "But owning a business and having responsibilities meant I had to unlearn some of these ways of working during my internships and as a design assistant. I've had to think beyond how I, as an individual, could achieve my goals, but also how, collectively, I could do this with my team in a sustainable way, where things were operationally effective, and my team felt part of something bigger."
The Sophia Webster brand features a diverse range of footwear, from heels to flats, as well as handbags and accessories, and other products, all of which are designed to highlight femininity.
"When someone opens up a box of my shoes and slips them on, I want them to smile," Webster says. "In 2012, when I launched, a minimalist aesthetic was prevalent in fashion. What I wanted to offer was very different: color, story-telling, and, above all else, joy. I think the market was ready for that. As I've matured, I still very much aim to bring a smile to my wearer, but I try to make my shoes easier to accessorize. The fun and detail may be in the texture, or embellishment, but much more often now, the color of the shoe will be solid."
The brand's footwear is synonymous with fairytale-inspired details, such as patent leather butterflies, velvet bows and glitter soles.
Another distinctive feature of the Sophia Webster brand is that its footwear is crafted with fairytale-inspired details, such as patent leather butterflies, velvet bows, or glitter soles. For Webster, it is her signature Chiara silhouette -a pair of sandals with a 3D butterfly wingthat has cleared a path for her brand towards success. "With aspirations to start my own brand, I knew I had to come up with a really memorable silhouette, and when I eventually sold this shoe in super vibrant colors, it went viral on social media, probably because it's very photogenic and Instagrammable," she explains. "As time went on, we evolved the butterfly wing in all sorts of ways: I designed an angel wing, ballet flats with the wings on either toe, heels, handbags and 'mini-me' kids' shoes with the butterfly motifs. These products have organically amassed a following of their own, and I think that's because butterflies are hugely symbolic creatures."
Webster is also known for responding to trends, such as in 2020, when she introduced two new collections to the range with a focus on positive impact and audience diversity. These included the Upcycled collection for which she reused past seasons' surplus materials to create new shoes, as well as the Extended Sizes collection, which included producing a selection of her key styles up to a size EU46/US15.5/ UK13. The latter thus saw Sophia Webster become the first luxury footwear brand to introduce this widely inclusive size range. Talking about the process that goes into building her collections, Webster says that she works very closely with her design and communications teams. "I creatively direct my four designers to build out the shoes, handbags, and kids ranges- usually three drops a season, plus any special projects," she says. "Around the product, there will be regular discussions with the product development and merchandising teams, while with my comms team, I'm often planning and creating content with them or directing them."
Working in tandem with her husband and business partner Bobby Stockley, Webster distributes her brand through over 200 retailers worldwide. "I sell globally through my e-commerce platform, and our direct-to-consumer market has grown a lot over the last few years, and it is nearly equal to wholesale," Webster explains. "Our biggest sales regions are the US, where we're stocked with Bloomingdale's, Saks, and Neimans, amongst others. In the UK, we're stocked with Selfridges and Harrods amongst others. The Middle East is also a very important market for us, with us having a presence in Level Shoes District, as well as Bloomingdale's and Harvey Nichols."
Sophia Webster will take part in a panel at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Saturday, February 3
In her book, Oh My Gosh, I Love Your Shoes!, Webster illustrates her entrepreneurial journey through 365 sketches of her favorite designs, each evoking its own memories. However, as an entrepreneur and designer, Webster admits that she did face challenging times too. One was through the course of the COVID-19 crisis, when she had to drop the previously well-organized flow of work to one where she was mostly alone, operating from her house. "It was like the early days when I did everything myself," she says. "In terms of leadership, the pandemic really ramped up our search for purpose, and our sense of gratitude for what we did have. Bobby had already been doing a lot of work on our company culture, and trying to articulate what we were doing it all for, so that our team could feel this too. Operationally, everything was very stripped back, and we took this chance to review how we were doing things, and what we could do better. It was actually a very clarifying time."
Another troublesome period for Webster happened in 2017, when her father was assaulted and suffered a brain injury, which had "a huge knock-on effect on her business". She adds, "He has remained in a hospital setting ever since. It goes without saying that the toll on my family has been huge, but in terms of the business, I just wanted to disconnect. I stopped personally posting on my feed, and I didn't want to do any customer-facing activities. We'd just taken on investment, and I should have been building on this injection, but my mind was elsewhere and Bobby had to steer the business through it." But while this episode happened six years ago, and Webster has since found her rhythm again, it still carries an important lesson that she wishes to share with fellow entrepreneurs. "Be wary of how quickly things can change," she says. "These days, I've got a different perspective, and I let the little things go much more readily."