Sought-after shoe designer Penelope Chilvers, who has a boutique on Elizabeth Street, shares the story of her success

As told to: CallySquires

I made my first pair of boots in Spain were I lived in my twenties and early thirties. I was married to a Spaniard, and [my daughters] Africa and Gemma are half Spanish so we have roots there. We’re a British brand who are proud to make in Spain.

 It all started when I was a single mother back living in London, having given up a career in Barcelona to reinvent myself here. Everything kind of fell into place. I used to wear my bespoke, handmade riding boots, and my girlfriends started asking me to take make pairs for them as well.

Before I started making them, they were very much a straight-leg, unisex, wellie-type boot. I had them made like an equestrian boot – close at the ankle and in at the top of the calf. The fashion press really picked up on it at the time, and I was making them for a lot of editors (including at Vogue) and for celebrities – Cate Blanchett was one of my first customers.

I decided to go to Paris fashion week on my own with the smallest stand, and took orders from all over the world – from Europe and America to Japan and Australia. I wasn’t even sure how I’d be able to make them all, but I totted up the orders on the Eurostar on my way home, and that’s when I realised I really had a business. That was the real starting point for me.

Then I went straight to Spain to find people to make them for me, because then I just had one man who was horrified by the amount of work that was suddenly coming in; he’d disappear off wild boar shooting with no notice.

 Nowadays I work only with gold-rated tanneries and with leathers made in Spain, or sometimes in Italy through a Spanish agent. I try to source everything as locally as possible, whether it’s a buckle, zip or sole. All the raw material are as local as possible, and that’s the way my factories like to work as well. I know all the suppliers well having been in the industry for 20 years now.

I’m quite well known for having rejuvenated, or kept going, the ancient way of boot making. Which doesn’t exist in very many places any longer, it’s called the Goodyear welt, and in Spain there are only a few factories left. It’s something that was used in England in Northampton, and means you can easily unstitch and resole a shoe. It’s a robust construction and lasts for a very long time.

Most of my seasons start with a place, and the inspiration comes from a place. My favourite recently has been Rajasthan in India [for the brand’s conservation collaboration between Penelope Chilvers and the SUJÁN]. I’d never been before and it really did open up Pandora’s box for me. I’m going to have to keep going back, as I want to get to know it better. The landscape and wildlife there are extraordinary. It’s a different world and it takes you away from your daily life.

I go back and forth to Spain from February to April, so I always have this break in January where I can get away somewhere a bit further. This year, after India, I went to South Africa to shoot our summer collection, to an organic fruit farm called Tierhoek where we’ve shot before. They don’t use pesticides and they run all their farm machinery with old cooking oil. We rented some of their beautiful cottages on the mountain in the middle of nowhere. If you’re into trekking, you don’t see another person.

Then we stayed at Dorp, which is the only place to stay in Cape Town. I knew the owner who sadly died during Covid, but before she died she promised that we could use it for the backdrop for one our shoots. I feel incredibly lucky that my career has taken me to all these wonderful places, and that we are able to co-promote them.

This Spring we’ll have espadrilles and ocassionwear shoes dropping in store – people come to us for all those summer activities in London like the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon. We are so excited to take part in Belgravia Bloom, we’ve got the gardener Butter Wakefield who will be doing our store inside and out.

Butter will also be designing our stand at the RHS show, where we’ll be selling a floral collection. We’re upholstering the stand in the same fabric the shoes are made out of, and it was also the same material we did all the table runners in for my daughter Gemma’s wedding.

Gemma is an important member of the team, doing marketing, styling and directing and producing shoots when I’m not there. My other daughter Africa is a designer but she’s on maternity leave at the moment, looking after her five-month old son.

Working as a family works really well because the three of us speak the same language and immediately get each other. It’s probably difficult sometimes for the team, as often we finish each other’s sentences when it comes to talking about design or storytelling. For me it’s a treat to be able to see them so much.

We did make a pact not to talk about work outside of office hours, unless we’re on a travel trip where we’re working 24/7. It was a complete surprise that they both wanted to come and work for me. Gemma said once that she’d like to work for the business one day, and I thought, ‘You’ll be lucky, there might not be a place for you!’ But it did make sense as they were brought up with the business, and know the brand innately. And they’ve been an inspiration to me too, the way they dress and their own advice to me as a designer.

I’ve always loved pretty streets like Elizabeth Street. And I like to be off the high street not on one, because I think that we are a destination and we like to be part of a community. We’re evolving and very creative yet we also believe in quality and old fashioned service over everything.

We’re all about surprise at Penelope Chilvers. People think that they know exactly what we sell, and then they come in and see something new. We probably do 60 per cent new every season.

We’ve had all sorts of wonderful customers, from Rihanna to Lady Bamford.

The Penelope Chilvers woman is confident, slightly understated, not showy, loves craft and the artisan way things are made. She’s probably an adventurer and likes to buy footwear that she can wear in a versatile way. A lot of people wear our boots for horse-riding safaris, which seems to be a big trend at the moment.

The thing I’m most proud of? I went for a drink at the pub recently with all of my team – and looking around at 50 people, it still amazes me that we’re able to pay that many salaries and keep people working. I’m always surprised by it, as I still think of us as a team of six people on shoestring.

I love what we do and I hope that people understand what we stand for, I wouldn’t want that to get lost in growth [of the business]. But you can only grow, I don’t think that [staying static] is possible in business, you always have to aim above.