Fifteen years ago, Patrick Cox‘s Wannabes (the pre-Prada Sport, hybrid loafer) created a style revolution from Earl’s Court to East Hampton. The iconic shoe secured a place for the designer in the footwear Hall of Fame, but what of his second act? Patrick Cox the brand is alive and well, albeit in the midst of a rebuilding stage: it celebrates a 20th anniversary this year (banking on Russia as its next big market), advertising campaigns have started to appear in magazines, and the designer remains a society-page fixture. Via phone from his base in London, Cox talks to Jason Campbell about his personal and professional evolution, the sole of his latest designs, and why his shoe whoring days have come to an end.
JCR: How are you marking your 20th anniversary?
PC: To mark the 20th anniversary, I had a sit down dinner at Nobu in London. I invited 100 people to dinner, with Elizabeth Hurley as my date. She’s been a friend for close to 20 years. 350 of my closet friends then came and danced away till 2 or 3 in the morning. I myself — as part of the new message that I have grown up a little bit — hosted the dinner, had a lovely time, and walked around the room of the party. I left and was in bed by 1am, which is not so normal for me.
JCR: Patrick Cox the man is showing a grown-up side, but what about
Patrick Cox the brand?
PC: Patrick Cox, the brand? Well, it’s the exact same message. It all started when I turned 40, I’m now 42. I just started to question a lot of things. My life for the last 16 years consisted of every second week in Italy, and then in the last couple while at Charles Jourdan, it was Monday-Friday in France, Italy, my London home on the weekends. After two years of that, I was pretty ready to kill someone. I was just a hired cobbler (laughs). I just went, "I don’t want to do this anymore, something has gone horribly wrong here and I need to figure out how to fix it." So I hired a new managing director — this is while I was doing Charles Jourdan — and he said, "What do you like doing? What don’t you like doing?" And I determined that designing shoes is what I love (laughs) doing.
PC: Well I think it’s natural. I think, you know, no one even missed
Wannabes. Clients didn’t even miss it. In saying that, though, there’s still a loafer element to the collection. I wanted to return to how I was in the beginning of my career. The 20th anniversary is all about going full circle. To me, we started out as something niche and British that was produced in Italy. But I think over the 18-20 years, I got a little bit sucked into the Italian shoe system. And maybe I lost my way a little bit and with the huge success of Wannabe — that started to dominate everything we did, and started to, obviously, be very present in the psyche. And when everyone said, "Patrick Cox…oh, square toed loafer." And I would always get phone calls from luxury goods companies every week and saying, "Can you do a loafer for us?" And I was just like, "I just don’t want to be a loafer guy." And when I took the Jourdan job, I took it firstly because I love the label, and I love the history of the name, Mr. Jourdan, everything. But also it was a nod to my ladies’ shoes. Finally someone noticed that I can do something with the heel, something more feminine and not just hire me to do a loafer.
And then I went to Manolo’s (Blahnik) retrospective. Manolo is an amazing man and a friend and I was walking around the retrospective with him thinking that this man is roughly 60. I don’t know how old he is, but roughly 60 and most of his good stuff has been from the last 20 years. He just got into his groove at 40. And I thought, "I don’t want to have a retrospective of 20 years in a museum full of loafers." I’m proud of what I did, and I don’t ever want to disown the Wannabe thing, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed for life. The holy grail of footwear is women’s shoes, it’s not a men’s brogue or a men’s loafer.
JCR: Do you think you have — I don’t want to say a new loafer — but do you have an iconic shoe in the current collection?
PC: You never know (laughs). It’s like lightning striking. If it happens again in my career, wow, amazing. The fact that it happened once is already amazing.
JCR: What is the new design philosophy on the label?
PC: Much more niche, British, rock n’ roll, more personal. Nobody needs
Patrick Cox to be a full Italian label. Nobody needs to do something that they can already get from elsewhere. So it’s more about being true to myself. This whole decision, this whole twenty years. It’s all about the quality of life. If I’m going to work and work my butt off, I’m going to do it on my own terms. I’m going to do the creative, beautiful shoes that I want that don’t follow trends.
JCR: What is it about your current aesthetic that appeals to Russia, an important market for your return.
PC: Russia is our third biggest market in the world and it’s growing hugely. We have about ten stockists there. Our biggest is Tsum, the one in Red Square. Another store, Parad, has several branches all over Moscow. Then there is Opium, which is like the Colette of St. Petersburg — it’s a new concept store. They understand me for doing something young and irreverent but luxurious. The product counts, it is well made and it is still fashion-driven and expensive. It changes every season, it’s fun.
JCR: But it was no accident that Russia came up as a theme in your fall collection?
PC: That was strange. I went to Russia for Jourdan. I did a personal appearance in Moscow and opened a store and did press and everything there. Russians are very straightforward, very blunt. They haven’t had a lot of years in the service industry. So they just tell you what they think. I walk in the door, and they are like, you need to do this sort of thing, we need fur, we need this, we need rubber soles. So, I was like OK. When I got back, of course, I absorbed all of that. But I really had such amazing time in Russia and thought it was so beautiful and decadent and so exciting. And I just decided on a Russian theme, who knew half of the other designers in the world were onto a Russian theme this season? [laughs]
JCR: What about your aim in other markets. America?
PC: Well in America, it’s all about learning how to play the game. As a designer, I have always treated marketing as a dirty word. We don’t have a marketing department. To me it was product, product, product. In America, it’s essentially a corporate environment. You need to learn how to deal with the vice president, the director of merchandising; it’s not just the buyers. In fact, the buyer is the last person in the food chain. And by the time you get to the buyer they already know if they are buying you or not, they already know the budget. It’s all about me growing as a company, surrounding myself with much more professional people that can present a much more corporate image, not just this cute guy who does the cute shoes. It has to be more serious than that. I need to be a brand in America.
JCR: Does this attitude have something to do with the current marketplace? Is it a very different place than during your heyday in the ’90s? Do you think the marketplace is calling for a more serious approach generally, more marketing savvy, etc.?
PC: It’s more serious and there is more competition. During my heyday,
Prada was a small company, Gucci was just starting to re-launch with Tom, and Louis Vuitton was this company that did these plastic bags. The playing field was different. There weren’t these luxury groups. The competition in those days was more "name" designers. Now my competition is multinationals. You have to learn how to retain your individuality, how to still stay niche but be on the professional level they want. That’s what we are trying to do: walk that fine line between the two. I don’t want to sell my company and work for a big group. But I don’t want to be tiny, so I have to figure out where I’ve got to be between the two; how to still be individual and niche, but have a nice career. I think Manolo is great because he’s done it his way. He’s got offers left, right, and center to do this and do that. If he’s in the mood, he does one handbag a year; otherwise he just does his women’s shoes. He’s doing what he’s doing and everyone comes around to his way of thinking.
JCR: It’s an enviable formula for you. Break down your current product mix.
PC: We are unusual for a shoe company in that we are almost 50/50 men’s and women’s shoes. Most brands are 90% men’s or 90% women’s. Our women’s sales are growing rapidly because there’s more choice and women buy much more footwear. We’ve just started to do proper bags, we’ve done bags in the past but they were very sportswear. We’ve done proper bags for 1000 euros.
JCR: The collection that I saw in Paris is huge.
PC: I like to see a bigger collection. It’s not a young designers’ collection by any means. You will come in you will see evening and day; you will even see a wonderful sporty look and you will obviously find a moccasin. There are those different things I like to do. Because I’m not a shoe snob, I’m not like, "Oh, I only do stilettos, oh, I only do that." I even like a flip-flop, a jelly, and a sneaker. I’ve done a moon boot. I just get off on shoes!
Patrick Cox and Camilla Al Fayed
Patrick Cox ad a/w ’05-’06
3-5 selection of Patrick Cox shoes
Patrick Cox ad a/w ’05-’06
Patrick Cox a/w ’05-’06