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One step ahead: Footwear Designer Tracey Neuls

Staying ahead in the shoe industry is a test of style and substance. Luckily, Tracey Neuls’ timeless footwear is made for life, as Luxury London discovers by joining the designer for some sole searching in her Marylebone Lane boutique

The last time Tracey Neuls wore shoes that weren’t really made for walking, she was nine-years-old and tottering around town in homemade cardboard sandals. “I’ve always loved shoes,” she tells me when we meet at her Marylebone Lane store, Bobo the French bulldog sprawled by her feet. “When I was little, I remember making them out of toilet paper rolls and Kellogg’s cereal boxes, with the odd staple coming through.” 

Now a seasoned footwear designer, you won’t find empty boxes of blister plasters in Neuls’ handbag; you could walk for miles in her shoes. “Comfortable is such an ugly word,” she concedes, as she absent-mindedly twirls shoes that dangle from ribbons attached to the ceiling. “I want women to be individual and unique, but most importantly, comfortable.”

With all this at the forefront of her mind, there are no six-inch stilettos on display here – nor orthopaedic-chic mules that octogenarians alone could pull off. Instead, her lace-up sporty, rubber-soled Geek shoes vie for attention with sculptural Boy pumps that flick up at the toe, arch at the heel and end in a compressed, bouncy point. Today, Neuls is sporting a pair of Oli boots that are so cushioned they could give Nike Airs a run for their money. “The leather gets better with age,” she says. 

Everything is a little offbeat: a heart-shaped toe here, a curved heel there, but somehow it works and has earned Neuls a fan club whose devotion borders on evangelical. During our interview, a woman who has travelled from Bristol arrives to try on some Pert Discos after being inundated with compliments about a similar pair she purchased three years earlier. It’s a long way to go for pumps.

Neuls receives the praise graciously, with a smile. Even after more than a decade in the business, she evidently enjoys interacting with customers on the shop floor. She bought the premises in 2005 having been attracted to Marylebone Lane because “it wasn’t overtly high street like. Since we opened, we’ve had such lovely customers,” she beams. “I think people like that we offer something a bit different.”

There’s certainly an element of the unexpected to Neuls’ intelligently crafted footwear, and this is echoed in the design of her shop, where the shoes are suspended from the ceiling rather than displayed on shelves, and interactive installations – it has been transformed into a childhood den and a school classroom in the past – give the space a playful feel. In the early days she tells me that she used to bake bread in the back, so it would add another dimension to the retail experience. It’s no surprise that ‘queen of shops’ Mary Portas is a fan. 

A distinct lack of footwear colleges back home in Canada meant that Neuls ended up taking a sideways step into fashion before moving to the UK in 1997 and enrolling at Cordwainers College, where alumni include Sophia Webster and Rupert Sanderson. She launched her eponymous label in 2000 after winning the New Generation prize at London Fashion Week.   

“The course was wonderfully practical,” she enthuses. “I considered a number of other schools but they placed emphasis on sketching these big whimsical designs. If all you’re focusing on is the sketching, the likelihood of the shoe actually functioning is pretty slim. I always try to have equal proportions of style and substance.”

She admits it takes quite a confident woman – or man, as she’s started dabbling in men’s shoes – to wear her designs, and although creative types are the most common customer through her door, she has found footwear to fit the bill for high-powered bankers, too. In place of a pointy court, Neuls proposes her Bigtop high heel – a sculptural shoe with a 3D circle design, it has a single piece of Italian calf leather pulled over the heel to create a silhouette that follows the natural contours of the leg. It was sculpted, like all her creations, from plasticine before being presented to the factory in Portugal. “I drive the artisans crazy: ‘You’re making clothes for feet!’ they say to me, but I like to bring elements from the fashion side of my background into the collections.”

I really love the idea of an Eames chair getting better with age, and the same goes for shoes

Neuls designed the Bigtop 15 years ago and it still remains a strong part of her signature. “I really love the idea of an Eames chair getting better with age, and the same goes for shoes,” she explains. “I want customers to have an emotional connection and attachment to what they walk away with.” The aforementioned heart shape toe on the Oli boots is an homage to her first collection in 1998; the Geek meanwhile is her longest standing shoe, which has gone through numerous iterations, including as an innovative, reflective cycling version that was nominated for the Designs of the Year award in 2014. 

“It bothers me that you can go from shop to shop and virtually see the same styles in different colours. You could just knock down all the walls in between,” she laments. Fortunately, there’s no danger of Marylebone Lane becoming homogenised –individuality continues to thrive. Neuls has a second shop on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, near where she lives with her husband, daughter Viola and Bobo (who is now napping by the heater), but she says the sense of community in Marylebone is unrivalled. 

“When we were setting up, people would pop in to find out how it was going. I couldn’t believe how friendly they were. A man stopped his bike one day to ask if I’d seen an article about me in the paper. The next day he returned with the cutting,” she smiles. “My proudest moment isn’t a design as such, it’s this little community that we found to grow.” 

29 Marylebone Lane, W1U, www.traceyneuls.com