Penelope Chilvers: a conscious force of creativity and care

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I am passionate about keeping dying crafts alive. When I watch my artisans working with their hands I am reminded every time that their manipulation of leather makes beautiful crafted details that machines cannot imitate alone.

Fusing a conscious and sustainable approach to design with a unique eye for craftsmanship and form, Penelope Chilvers is one of the most exciting, current and understated ethical designers I have had the luck to get to know. I am so inspired by her collections and her ethos and it was with much joy that I took some of her beloved Spanish-made designs to beautiful Seville hideaway Trasierra last month to capture them in their element.

I caught up with Penelope and find her outlook and design process playful, unique and illuminating in a  world where traditional craftsmanship and aimless design shine all the brighter alongside the regime of disposable fashion and a constant craving for the new… I hope you do too.

How did your brand begin?

Before I designed shoes, I designed anything else, from fabrics to interiors.  My training was in Fine Art, and I started out as a painter. Some useful habits of work were formed there:  I draw to make myself understood, and keep a sketchbook in my bag with leather cuttings for the new collection.

Fine art didn’t pay the bills for me so I started taking on commercial projects like painting and restoring murals or leather antiques.

I have always enjoyed working with artisans and the first pair of boots I ever made was a bespoke pair for myself that all my friends wanted too. So it grew from that point on, starting from my kitchen table.  We still make that same first boot – the Long Tassel Boot – and it continues to be one of our best sellers.

There was no one, ‘light bulb moment’, I wouldn’t say.  I needed to sell what I made as quickly as possible before I could afford to start on a new style. I now design approximately 200 styles a year, and five collections, that cover all seasons’ needs and the lifestyles of my customers around the world, so I’m lucky enough to do what I love all year round now.

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What values lie at the heart of it?

In my mind, my customers lead adventurous and healthy lifestyles. They travel and enjoy longevity of use. We have recently put up a small collection of images, taken by my step-daughter Flora Hastings, called “Oldest and Dearest” that gives an insight into how people feel about Penelope Chilvers.

We make footwear for going places, doing stuff: ‘Après Ski’, ‘Safari’, ‘Equestrian’, ‘Not at Home’ and ‘At Home’ are written in gold leaf on the panels of my new shop in Duke Street. That’s what we stand for.

 How do you go about finding factories and sourcing materials?

My team and I work closely with our factories and have been lucky to enjoy long term relationships with them. In shoe making, each factory has a different expertise; it’s our understanding of the capabilities of certain factory, and their knowledge together that allows us to achieve the best quality possible.

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Why is handmade so important to you?

I am passionate about keeping dying crafts alive. When I watch my artisans working with their hands I am reminded every time that their manipulation of leather makes beautiful crafted details that machines cannot imitate alone.

 How do you set about conceiving each new collection?

My ideas for new collections queue up while I’m designing the previous collection!  I can hear myself saying “save that idea for the next one…” I collect ideas while travelling or visiting my local vintage market, Portobello Road. It’s usually a year ahead of seeing the collection that I am searching for my next moodboard.  

And sometimes I have to come up with ideas to use up extra raw materials in stock: I don’t like waste, and we have an area of design called ‘wastenotwantnot’ in each collection that serves this purpose. It’s an area of design I really enjoy – and a truly limited edition.

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What obstacles have you had to overcome as a sustainably minded designer in the current fashion landscape?

Nearly all our components are made locally, and my favourite leathers are still made close to our factories. I am keen to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible.  Local sourcing is the simplest route for a relatively small brand like ours: lone distance sourcing leads to delayed deliveries and suppliers having a minimal understanding of our brand ethos and needs.

I have been given advice in the past to source in the Far East, but looking back, I believe it was the wrong advice for us.

I’m tired of reminding our factories that we are a polybag-free company. It’s not a notion that many factories understand. A polybag serves its purpose; of course, in keeping products looking as perfect as possible after a journey, but it’s not for us. Our packaging is simple and plastic free wherever possible.  Consumers have higher and higher expectations of perfection in packaging and delivery online, and avoiding waste is still not a very successful concept in the fashion world. I think an obstacle we still need to work to overcome is communication, getting across why we do things the way we do.

Do you think people are moving more towards fair trade and handmade?

The return to local sourcing and manufacturing is an attractive concept; essential and historic; from growing your own vegetables to working with local artisans, because it gives you a better understanding of the quality you are buying.

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What do you think is holding consumers back?

A lack of time? Fast manufacturing is tempting for big businesses. We have to be patient.  Some of our boots take days to make, and require many steps that cannot be rushed. My store designs are inspired by the concept “Back to Slow”.  One of my artisans can disappear off to his partridge rearing, during my visits with him, which can be frustrating, and he’s always reminding me to remember the good things in life, enjoyment of food, our countryside and wildlife.

Which women do you admire?

Although I live in London, I am a country girl at heart. I admire and am inspired by men and women with outdoor lives, all over the world, that care for the landscapes we live in and strive for the conservation of our natural world.


Icelandic shoe and Leone boot: Penelope Chilvers

Shot at Trasierra

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