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With Prize Money From the CFDA, Shoe Designer Paul Andrew Eyes Expansion

One minute he’s moving up the ranks at Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. The next, his two-year-old eponymous line wins the 2014 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. But, according to Paul Andrew, “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

When Paul Andrew designs a stiletto, he takes a particular pleasure in knowing that its wearer will experience something unique. To Andrew, a footwear and accessory veteran who launched his eponymous line in the fall of 2012, a shoe is not just an object. "It has to be something that you can put on your foot and wear and feel confident and sexy and comfortable," he offers, comfort being the key word, a trait not usually associated with a single-sole stiletto. Yet he’s not only offering comfort in the traditional sense of the word — freedom from pain, physical ease. With Andrew at work, high-heel wearers can rest assured that style and sex appeal will never be sacrificed.

At the moment, Paul Andrew, the man and the brand, is celebrating his 2014 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund win, a victory that comes with a lot of firsts. For example, he is the first shoe designer to win the competition. His company, at just two years old, is the youngest brand to claim the prize. And he’s the only Brit — so far — to receive the awarded $300,000 in cash and valuable business mentoring. It's a hat trick of accolades that is certainly worth noting, and that has already helped propel the Paul Andrew brand to new heights. As victor, he is currently one of the most talked about Englishmen in New York — in fashion, at least. But how did this all happen so fast? And what does he plan to do now? It seems worth finding out.

When I arrive at his West 58th Street studio, just before 3 p.m., I have a few minutes to look around before we talk. In one part of the office, two girls hover over a laptop, chatting. Bins of shoes, stacked three high, tower over a cozy chair in the waiting area. A curated selection of designs from his pre-spring and spring 2015 collections looks over the entrance, the display a de facto wall that separates the foyer from Andrew’s desk. And when he's ready, Andrew and I chat surrounded by sketches, colorful fabric swatches, art books, photographs, catalogues raisonnés, African sculptures… He is a man of many interests.

“It’s interesting,” he tells me, his English accent cool, in control, “I was always into fashion, from the time I was 12 years old.” His father, who worked for the Royal Family as an upholsterer for several years, may have been a conduit for his obsession with design, dragging Andrew along to help return the upholstered furniture back to its owners. “I remember he used to give me a little pocket money for [the trip] and I always used to buy a fashion magazine,” he recalls. “I used to pull out all the tear sheets and put them all over my wall. I inherited my grandmother’s sewing machine and was making my own clothes out of discarded sheets and any piece of fabric I could get my hands on.”

The love for shoes, he admits, came a bit later. Andrew, the older of two boys in his family, recalls his mother and her “deep closets.” “She was always so confident and that certainly prompted something in me,” he explains. “I remember hours sitting in [her] closets, studying every detail of the shoes. Initially, I was always sort of looking up to her and thinking, ‘What would she like to wear?’”

Growing up in the Southwest of England, in a small rural town close to Windsor Castle, Andrew dreamed of the big city. Luckily, his mother would indulge him. “I used to beg her to take me up on the train to London and I would peruse the shops of Harvey Nichols, looking at those magnificent Christian Lacroix clothes,” he remembers.

One thing he keeps referring to about his childhood is that his behavior must have seemed “so weird” for people to witness. “I used to save my pennies to buy Vogue magazine,” he exclaims. But when he mentions it, he does it with a keen sense of pride, happily reliving the memory. Maybe buying fashion books and spending hours looking at shoes wasn’t typical behavior for boys in rural England, but his curiosity was a blessing — Andrew knew exactly what he wanted to do in life.

By the time he got to fashion school, his professors were pushing him, allowing him to focus entirely on footwear by his second year, nurturing his talent. He worked hard. He learned how to make shoes at the cobbler shop. Then, at graduation, something incredible happened.

“I put my collection forward during graduate fashion week in London. All the fashion schools used to show their top 10 designers — all the colleges across England and there [are] quite a few of them. A number of those designers are chosen and one is granted the winner.”

In 1999, for his graduate collection, Paul Andrew won.

His win captured the attention of Yasmin Sewell, the buyer for Yasmin Cho, a popular store in London at the time. Sewell purchased Paul Andrew’s entire collection. “She is the one who introduced me to a lot of people in fashion,” explains Andrew. Sewell even gave him a place to live in London when he landed his first apprenticeship at Alexander McQueen.

“There was literally no money. I think there were four of us putting that collection together,” he says of his time at McQueen, a short stint of a few months. (This was before the French holding company Kering purchased the Alexander McQueen brand.) “[The job] was unpaid, but, believe me, we worked just as hard as the full-time employees. It was so fun and invigorating and I learned so much from that experience.” He got to see the design process from start to finish, work with the fabrics, the materials, the colors. “[Lee McQueen] just had this incredible ability to take an idea that you were proposing and take it to a totally different dimension, something that you would have never considered that made it his own.” Smiling, he continues: “Whenever I’m in a moment when I’m building a collection that feels too plain or too merchandised, I often think of those experiences. What would Lee do? How would he take it to the next level? I cherish that moment.”

After his time at McQueen, Andrew’s father began to put some pressure on him to get a job that paid money. Fortunately, American Vogue had written an article about his graduate collection, offering him an invitation to come to New York to meet with some American designers. “[I was] introduced to all the greats — to Ralph, to Calvin, Michael Kors, and Narciso,” he says. Narciso Rodriguez offered him a job. He was to help launch the shoes and accessories line. Without hesitation, Andrew packed his bags and moved to New York.

Working in the U.S. has had a tremendous impact on Andrew. “Entering this American fashion system, where it’s much more organized and structured and business-oriented — less for the art, and, I mean, that’s certainly there — it’s more about, ‘We’re in business. We’re going to sell some product,’ learning that side of fashion. It really gave me this great grounding for the rest of my career.”

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It’s a wise insight, as applicable to the entire fashion world as to future CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund members hoping to mimic his success. If he talks about his past, his observations are meant to guide others, not to gloat. There is, of course, a lot more to Paul Andrew’s story. He will make mistakes and find new obsessions. He will work for Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, who will teach him about the best factories and tanneries in the world. Maintaining his artistic integrity will become vital. And only after all that will he decide to launch the Paul Andrew label.

The idea of starting his own company had been in Andrew’s mind for many years. “I didn’t realize I would be working for other designers for so long, but I am glad I did because that experience has been the best thing for me. I could not recommend that to an emerging designer more — to really cut your teeth with established companies, learn from them.” He pauses. “But what really prompted me to start my own brand was that I felt that shoes —about two and a half years ago — [were] so heavy and chunky, all of these platform shoes all over the place, [that was] never my personal aesthetic. I’ve always been about a more refined and elegant look. Something just clicked for me: This is going to come back. I’m ready for this new wave of fresh silhouette again.”

This is a story he’s told to many interviewers. It feels rehearsed, even if all of it is true. But when I ask him about the difference between designing and engineering a shoe, the idea of creating something from start to finish, he comes alive.

“It’s something that was really born with my father, working with those artisanal needles and machinery to produce that amazing furniture for the Royal Family, just being around that craft and the idea of making things. I’m not just designing. I want to be physically crafting whatever I’m doing. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the factory and making the first heel prototype and cutting the patterns because I’m so conscious of the fact that I want things to be comfortable. I’m working with these artisans to create new innovation in footwear. We’ll ensure that it looks like a sexy stiletto heel, but it [will have] hidden comfort inside that you don’t necessarily see from the outside. You just put it on and you find it there.”

As he’s saying this, I wonder if that idea of comfort is what truly makes him stand out among the competition. Paul Andrew’s shoes are attractive enough. Many are stunning. Some are wild. A few have distinct signatures. His slingbacks, for example, are unique. Many of his pumps have this wing detail that is unmistakably Andrew.

“That was just me doodling and sketching for hours to try and re-imagine the classic pump, give it a signature detail. I’m so proud that came out in the first season because it’s become something that is recognizable with the brand. A lot of celebrities have been wearing it recently — which obviously is a great compliment — and it also happens to be one of the bestselling shoes in the collection. If you talk to retailers, the bestselling silhouette often times is the plain pump, so to give them something that is a plain pump with a slight twist is a… I don’t know. It’s been like gold dust in a way for the collection.” Gratefully, he adds, “Thank God.”

One retailer who carries Paul Andrew is Capretto Shoes in South Miami, where Jason Salstein acts as the head buyer. Says Salstein of Andrew: “[He] is the return to sexy, sophisticated, modern, classic shoes. His attention to detail and quality is impeccable. His passion for construction and making a heel as comfortable as possible is evident in our customers’ reactions when they slip a Paul Andrew shoe on their foot.”

A reaction from Vanity Fair Accessories Director Daisy Shaw: “His shoes are so comfortable. You can wear them regardless of where you’re going.” Andrew chimes in, pointing out the nitty-gritty: “The ankle straps, instead of being fixed into the sole, are actually slotted into the insole. What they’re really doing is cupping your arch so there’s no gaping and they really hold you solidly into the shoe.”

Now, with the attention of thousands of women, almost every major retailer, and the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund judges, what lies ahead for Paul Andrew? The $300,000, he says, will go in to different elements of the business. But, he admits, there’s still a lot of work to be done with the fit and comfort.

For Andrew, if it’s an idea, it’s also an obsession. “I think I’ve mastered something,” he says, “but there’s a lot more that can be done and I will invest part [of the CFDA money] to ensure — and I know this is a bold statement — that my shoes are the most comfortable in the market and simultaneously, the most sexy and beautiful.”

He also hopes to explore other categories.

“I’ve been talking and timing with my team and meeting with factories about launching a men’s shoe collection. And while nothing is set and I haven’t really hammered out the sketches yet, that’s definitely something on my master plan for the next 12 months. There’s also, potentially, the idea of my own e-commerce. I see how well the collection is doing with our online partners and Anna Wintour has urged me to launch.”

Andrew will work with Tory Burch, too, his mentor assigned to him by the Fashion Fund. “What Tory has built in such a short amount of time is unfathomable. She has established her name and a certain silhouette in the world of shoes and design.”

In the near future, he will have the opportunity to ask Burch anything. Andrew will continue to learn, to push himself as a designer and a businessman. Maybe he will stop feeling like this could all one day disappear, something he told me during our meeting. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless, Andrew will keep churning out hundreds of sketches, following each model through every step of the design process. He will still be nervous at his showroom appointments. (“I become like a typical artist, you know, that hate[s] the work until you have someone give you the recognition that it’s actually good,” he says.) And once he’s done, gets that pat on the back, and feels the slightest sense of relief? “I’ll already be working on the next collection.”