The rise of fast fashion pushed the King’s Norton shoe designer, Rachel Simpson into launching her own collection. It was the height of the recession and people said she was crazy – but 11 years on and Rachel has pulled it off
For anyone who shopped for wedding shoes a decade ago or more, you’ll be all too familiar with the cream satin block heel that was wheeled out as standard by bridal boutiques across the land. Thankfully current brides don’t need to suffer the same fate as the choice is vastly more varied. The likes of Jimmy Choo and Emma Hope cottoned on to the bridal market at the top end and at the other end of the price spectrum, the high street got on board. A gap in the market somewhere in between still existed, where brides hankered after a beautifully-made shoe that made them feel super special, but cost less than the dress.
Cue local shoe designer and ‘accidental businesswoman’ Rachel Simpson who, after designing for other people, launched her own collection in 2008. Rachel has been designing shoes since 2001 and worked with brands such as TopShop and Wallis on a freelance basis for seven years before going it alone, all the while making her own beautiful shoes on a leather sewing machine in her shed.
When Rachel received identical briefs from three different freelance clients, it pushed her to launch her own well-thought out, well-made collection. At the time Primark had entered the scene and copycat fast fashion was on the rise. Rachel recalls: “It was a catalyst for me. I thought, no. I don’t want to do this. I make proper beautifully-made shoes. I launched in 2008 just as the recession hit and everyone said I was crazy!”
Rachel designed the first collection of her now signature original vintage shoes. She says: “I didn’t look at anything in terms of trends and just designed what I loved, inspired by the shoes of the 1920s and 30s which had a timeless elegance and were beautifully made.” Rachel took her sketches to a large trade fair in Milan to show potential factories. She trawled the aisles, talking to people until she found a factory in Spain she liked.
“We created samples in spring 2008 and launched at the National Wedding Show in October of the same year. Consumer shows were great. We did Earl’s Court, the NEC and Harrogate, meeting people, handing out flyers and running competitions in order to build a mailing list.” With 12 samples, Rachel began phoning bridal shops, setting up meetings and putting in the hard yards to get her designs to market.
The business side has been more challenging than designing. Rachel explains: “Learning to define my own role has been hard. I started designing shoes and became an accidental businesswoman. I learned things like HR, marketing and managing people as I went along. It’s all grown very organically.” She adds: “Deciding which bits to delegate was hard. At first you don’t want to delegate, then you delegate and then you spend time monitoring. As the business grows the challenges just get bigger rather than running completely smoothly.”
The team of seven is based at the brand’s King’s Norton office, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. “We have such a lovely team now, but we’ve had to kiss a few frogs before finding the right fit. It’s taken time.” Rachel is often out of the office meeting people and selling so it’s important to have the right people back at base. “People say to me, ‘oh you shouldn’t be selling,’ but actually it works. No one is more passionate about the brand than me, so the meetings I have tend to reap the best rewards.”
The choice, as with all wedding purchases is about more than just style, it’s emotional and as well as consumer shows which still work really well, social media has been key in reaching potential and existing customers. “Instagram allows us to chat to customers and also to gauge the success of new ideas. We sneak peaked a deep forest green shoe on Instagram and it became one of our most liked posts and sold out. It also allows customers to suggest things. If enough people ask for something we’ll give it a whirl.”
Colour is one of the signatures of the collection and has evolved over the years since the first samples were created. As you’d expect, ivory and metallics feature heavily but there’s also teal, lilac and ice blue among others. Customers buy Rachel Simpson Shoes outside of the bridal arena and rather than being a one-hit wonder very few fall off the mailing list once married. “While we don’t want to split the collection into bridal and non-bridal, the collection can be worn day-to-day. We’ve just done a photo shoot focusing on day wear to highlight that.”
As for being based in Birmingham, Rachel wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m a passionate Brummie. We started out in the Custard Factory before moving to King’s Norton. Birmingham is an exciting place to have a business, it’s cool and there’s so much investment coming into the city.”