There’s more to Penelope Chilvers than shoes. Luxury London talks to the Duke Street designer about travel, saving the planet and planning new adventures
I’ve done a first and designed a shirt,” Penelope Chilvers confesses to me over a Fernandez & Wells coffee in the Duke Street Emporium, two doors down from her Mayfair boutique.
“Well, it’s more of a jacket actually.”
The ‘shacket’ in question is a patchwork piece that she has created using the raw materials left on her factory shelves. It is part of Chilvers’ ‘waste not want not’ line, which stems from her love of the natural world and interest in environmental issues. “The urban planet is growing so fast, I’m concerned about the nature that we have in and around it,” she says.
While this may be the first foray into clothing under the Penelope Chilvers umbrella (and, according to her, the first step towards slowly becoming a lifestyle brand), it doesn’t signify a completely new creative path for the designer.
Chilvers graduated with a degree in fine art before moving to Spain – her childhood holiday home and now it appears, spiritual home – to pursue a career in painting. She lived in Barcelona for several years, where she applied her artistic flair to various projects, including woodturning and helping to restore the Museu Picasso. This is where her journey into footwear design, and now burgeoning brand, all began.
“I was lucky enough to live in a nature reserve in the hills just north of Barcelona, and I used to go riding at the stables there. I had a pair of boots made for me by an artisan, who I struck up quite a friendship with,” says Chilvers.
“It sounds very glamorous but it wasn’t. It’s absolutely what people do when they’re into riding in Spain. A few years later, when I came back to live in London, everyone loved my boots, so I started selling them to friends.”
After that, Chilvers sold 100 pairs to a boutique in Notting Hill, before taking a mere six pairs to Paris Fashion Week.
“I put them on a table at Tranoï [the international fashion trade show] and sold them all over the world: to Italians, to Americans, even to Spaniards.”
Chilvers’ signature lies in her affinity with Iberian culture, which clearly permeates her designs, campaigns and store concepts.
"The pre-collection is inspired by Andalucía and the colourful adornments that people and horses dress up in for festivals."
“All my collections are inspired by travel, and I go backwards and forwards to Spain where I make everything. The pre-collection, which came out in June, is inspired by Andalucía and the colourful adornments that people and horses dress up in for festivals.
“I went to South Africa and we stayed on an organic fruit farm called Tierhoek cottages. The neighbours were inspiring people – they farm organically and use local restaurants’ cooking oil to fuel their tractors. They lent me the valley to shoot the campaign (pictured).”
Chilvers also recently visited the Wild West-esque town of El Rocío, also in Andalucía, with the up-and-coming model and daughter of the Earl of St Andrews, Lady Amelia Windsor, to shoot a short film.
“We bought a dress together and Amelia had it fitted in the back of a little tent in the market, then we joined some people to dance. It was very equestrian-inspired but also very colourful and eclectic.”
In the film, Amelia’s traditional dress is accessorised with some of Chilvers’ new season styles, including saddlebags from her Castanet capsule collection that were made using a decorative layered leatherwork technique called trocollage.
“It stems back to the history of the Arabs when they lived in Spain and brought horses over the peninsula,” explains Chilvers.
Lady Windsor might be 36th in line to the throne, but she isn’t Chilvers’ most regal fan. The Duchess of Cambridge was first spotted wearing a pair of the brand’s brown tasselled boots in 2004, and has been snapped wearing exactly the same style several times since – the most recent sighting was in May.
“I think the Penelope Chilvers customer is quite a practical, adventurous woman aspiring to a healthy lifestyle,” summarises the designer. “Whether it’s in the city, the country, at a party or at work, it’s an easy look that is not too try-hard and not too pretentious. It’s effortless and cross-generational.”
While much of Chilvers’ inspiration originates from her experiences overseas, Mayfair also has a special place in her heart, particularly around Duke Street.
“It’s an old area, but what’s happening here is very exciting with Crossrail, and our lovely new neighbours like Private White and E. Tautz,” she says.
“I’m particularly enamoured by the history of our shop at 69 Duke Street, because it belonged to the amazing 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser. People like Willem de Kooning – who is one of my favourite artists – showed their work here, and Yoko Ono apparently met John Lennon here too. It was a very glamorous place to hang out,” Chilvers adds.
Despite her affinity with Spain, Chilvers seems to be just as enthusiastic about exploring the history of Mayfair, and this – not to mention her inimitable bright designs and displays – makes her one of the most colourful characters on Duke Street.