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If the Shoe Fits, It’s Tabitha

Glenn O'Brien converses with Tabitha Simmons and Karen Elson

Tabitha Simmons received a degree in film and set design from London’s Kingston University but got sidetracked into fashion when she was recruited for a modeling stint. She caught the fashion bug as a model, and always a unique dresser, she naturally segued into styling. She’s still at it, working with AnOther Magazine and various Vogues, often teaming with Steven Klein, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Sorrenti, Mario Testino or Craig McDean, the latter being her husband and the father of her children. She also consults with designers such as Alexander Wang, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Rag & Bone on their collections.

Early in her career, Tabitha met Karen Elson, and the two British models naturally became best pals and coconspirators. Since then, both have blossomed into great successes, with Tabitha creating her own immensely popular high-end shoe line, and Karen transitioning from supermodel to rock star, showing off a great singing voice. For this conversation Karen, while cooking dinner for her kids in Nashville, talked to Tabitha, who was working in Milan. Glenn O’Brien eavesdropped and kibitzed from New York.

Tabitha Simmons: We’re all here! Can you believe it?

Karen Elson: I’m so excited to talk, in fact. So, how do we begin, Glenn?  
Tabitha Simmons & Karen Elson Photo: Steven Pan

Glenn O’Brien: We’re talking about shoes. Are you both wearing shoes now?

KE: I am making dinner, and I am going to be an absolute downer and say that I am actually wearing sort of a really pair of socks . . .

TS: Do you know what, Karen? That’s exactly what I’m wearing . . . 

KE: Ha-ha. They’re the most unglamorous things.

TS: Maybe we should have done this talk in the morning, and then we would have been all really properly shod.

GOB: Well, I’m wearing my really fancy George Cleverley gusseted cap-toe shoes that I got for Christmas.

KE: Speaking of fancy shoes, I only wear Tabitha’s shoes. Any event that I have, any time I’m in New York, the only thing I wear are these great Tabitha shoes. Tabitha is the sweetest bird, and she sends me shoes. I got a box over Christmas of . . . Honestly, Tabitha, they were SO good. It’s outrageous. Those beautiful red shoes that you made. What is the style called? They’re really beautiful. They look like a fan almost . . .

TS: Oh, the French Maid!

KE: Oh, they’re so gorgeous. They’re so beautiful. I love them. I’m going to wear them on my birthday next week, and celebrate another year.

TS: You’re going to be going for it. [laughs]

KE: Basically, yes. But I want to know, Tabitha, from you, because I’ve known you since you were how old? When I first started modeling, I went to Japan, it was my first trip really away from home, and Tabitha was there, and we became friends. Tabitha always, from day one, had an obsession with shoes. I remember in New York, when we were young . . . and that’s not to say that we’re old now; we were younger then . . . you would walk around in a pair of old vintage ice skates. I remember you were always one of the first people to wear things . . . like a crazy pair of Dior boots that you used to wear, which you might still have, sort of like a tiny kitten heel, but they laced up REALLY high, and they were so beautiful.

TS: I’ve still got them!

KE: It always made sense to me when you started making your shoe line. I knew you would do it, and I knew yours would be the most chic shoes I’ve ever seen. Because I am always so impressed by you. I really am. I am so impressed by all the ideas you get. I would imagine that after a few seasons maybe you could start repeating yourself. I would, anyway, if I was in your position. But it’s always something different. I’m so impressed by how creative you are and how the colors always . . . It’s like the combination of colors are always so interesting, and the little embellishments that you do, they are so quintessentially YOU. I am always so impressed, because I feel like you do it to the very best quality that you can do, and it always makes perfect sense.

TS: I love dear, dear friends speaking very, very highly of me.

KE: You always were my stage mother back in the day. I’m going to be your stage mother now. Seriously. Your eye is incredible, but also it’s not just having an eye. I realize how much thought and effort goes into the production of your shoes as well, and how much attention to detail there is. You go to Venice and you go to the factory; I know how important that is. You know what I mean?

TS: It’s been so much work!

KE: I really appreciate that when I wear your shoes. Maybe it’s because I know you so well and know maybe better than most people who just buy a pair of shoes what goes into each pair of shoes. But I’ve got to say, like, you feel it in the shoe. Like, you feel the quality that you’re getting to me. That, to me, like, it’s indescribable. You’re definitely at the top tier of what you do, for a reason. That’s my opinion.

GOB: Well, if you were blindfolded, and someone put shoes on your feet, would you
be able to tell if they were Tabitha’s shoes?

KE: Yes, I absolutely would. Yes. Because I know the fit. I do know fits, simply because I used to wear a pair . . . When I was playing more live shows, I’d always wear a pair of Tabitha’s shoes on stage.

TS: They were called the Karen.

KE: They were called the Karen shoe. Actually, Tabitha made them with a little smaller heel, because by the end of the show, my feet would start to go numb. I’d get off the stage and had very sore feet. And Tabitha made the shoe with a little less higher heel so I wouldn’t be in agony, and it’s actually the most amazing thing. I know the fit really well. It’s a specific thing for me around my ankle and around the bottom of my feet. I can tell when I am buying her shoes, because they have that shape. You know what I mean? It’s a friendship. You know what I mean? So when I put her shoes on, I know how they’re going to feel versus when I put on another unnamed designer’s shoes. Well-made, quality shoes all have a fit to them. It’s the same with clothing. You know when you’re putting on a Chanel tweed suit, it has that feel. It feels like Chanel. You know there’s the craftsmanship of quality, luxury clothing and shoes. It’s just innate. You know what I mean?

TS: Karen wears a lot of shoes.

KE: You can test new products on me . . .

TS: We both know that I can make a lower heel.

GOB: I was surprised that Karen asked you if you still have those shoes, because as far as I know, women never get rid of shoes.

KE: I do, from time to time. I have amassed so many shoes, stuff from fashion shows that designers gave me. They would give you the sample shoes, the shoes you might be wearing on the runway, and because it’s a sample, it might not fit so well, or you might have a size that’s a little bit too big . . .

TS: It’s not gone into production yet.

KE:It’s not gone into production, so they might be a little fragile. So you might just wear those shoes a couple of times, and they’re destroyed, and it’s that thing, like, “What do I do with these?” Most of the clothes, I don’t get rid of, just destroyed shoes.

TS: I never get rid of shoes. [laughs]

KE: Nothing too expensive, but I’ve definitely gone through my things at times and just said, “It’s time to let go of some stuff.” Because otherwise . . . I’ll be having my episode of Hoarders.

GOB: How many pairs do you have, Karen?

KE: Me? To be honest, I have no idea. I have NO idea. It seems like they’re scattered all over the world.

GOB: Are we talking dozens or hundreds . . .

TS: I have hundreds.

KE: Oh, I would say getting into the hundreds. But the funny thing about me is that I get very attached . . . Tabitha can definitely attest this . . . I get very attached to a pair of shoes, and I’ll just wear them out. I’ll wear them every day.

TS: Yeah, she does that.

KE: Like if I’ve got a pair of boots that I really love, I’ll wear them EVERY day, and then the dressier shoes that I have basically just serve a function for going to dinner at night or going to an event. So, obviously, they will be in my closet forever. But I keep them until they are absolutely destroyed. I mean, I have a pair of boots right now that I love so much, and they look SO awful. They’re just destroyed. It’s actually an old pair of Chanel boots I got maybe fifteen years ago. They almost look like they are sort of horse-riding boots, incredibly . . .

TS: Oh, I remember those!

KE: You know those, yeah? They’re SO nice.

TS: Yes. I think I borrowed those.

KE: I’ve had the heels and the soles redone so many times. But now it’s getting to the point where they’re just kind of done. It’s the shoe that had better days. It’s like, “What do you do with that now?” I’m very sentimental about the stuff. In a way, it’s very contrary to people in fashion, because everything is always in season, and it’s always out with the old, in with the new. But I honestly have sort of the opposite attitude, which is that I think if it looks good, if it feels good, you know? It might hide in my closet for a few years, but it’s definitely going to come out again.

TS: That’s how you can tell a good pair of shoes, exactly.

KE: I’m sure you deal with this all the time, just things staying in season . . . I remember a few years ago you had such an incredible collection of accessories and shoes. You had all this incredibly sparkly crystal shoes, and I was trying to get a pair. Every single pair that I wanted had been sold out. I called all the stores. Called the people at Miu Miu; they didn’t even have any. Then I was on the Internet, looking on eBay, looking everywhere for these bloody shoes. Of course, the next season comes around, and it’s like, “Oh, I want these shoes now.” So it’s a never-ending thing. I kind of forgot about those shoes. Then I saw a pair the other day on some shopping Web site, and obviously they’re now a helluva lot cheaper, and they still look good even though they’re a few seasons old. Now I’m asking myself, am I still as excited about them as I was? But I am.

GOB: So, Tabitha, you said you have hundreds of pairs. Do you have like a filing system?

TS: Yeah, I have a filing system, which is really embarrassing . . .

KE: I have Polaroids on boxes.

TS: Well, I normally do a summer wardrobe and a winter wardrobe. So all my boots get put away when it’s summer, then when it’s winter, they get all taken out again. So I switch them out.

KE: That’s very, very smart.

GOB: Do you have a special shoe closet?

TS: Yes, I have a shoe closet, and then I have a basement, so then the basement gets filled with shoes that I’m not using at that particular time. Then if I’m really not using them, they’ll go to the office and be archived. I never throw a pair of shoes away.

KE: Well, all your shoes should be archived.

TS: Yeah. So now it’s really, really hard to throw a pair of shoes away. I can understand that now. I had a vintage store for years, and I’ve got a basement filled with vintage clothes, and I so want to throw them away, but then I’d never know . . . One day, this could be a fun project (you know what I mean?), or there might be something here that I’ll want to make or something. You can’t throw that stuff out. It’s almost criminal to do it at this point.

KE: This is terrible. You’ve probably got the worst two people to talk to each other, because we really just want to talk about our lives.

TS: We want to go into girlfriend-girlfriend-girlfriend . . . I’ll have to get you off the phone, Glenn. That would be very dangerous.

GOB: I only have a couple of questions. Do
you go up to Craig [McDean, Tabitha’s husband—ed] and say, “Do you like these
or these?”

TS: I have to say sometimes I do. He always gives you a really honest answer, even if you don’t want to hear it.

KE: Craig McDean will give you an honest answer. Yes.

GOB: When I tell my wife what shoes I like, she always wears the other ones.

KE: Really? That’s funny!

TS: Well, sometimes I listen to Craig, sometimes I don’t.

GOB: Okay. My other question is: Do you wear shoes for men or for other women?

TS: I wear shoes for myself. Karen, what about you?

KE: I don’t know. I don’t know! I think sometimes a bit of both. I wear shoes I love, obviously, and I love wearing beautiful shoes, but there’s definitely an element of shoes . . . of wearing a beautiful pair of shoes that . . . there is a part of seduction attached to that, don’t you think?

GOB: I think men like high heels . . .

TS: I mean, if you want to feel sexy, you put on the sexy shoes . . . But when you’re with your kids, you’ll wear something completely different.

KE: Absolutely.

TS: If you’re picking them up from school, you know, then you’ll like slip on a flat, or if you’re out to dinner, it’s something else. For me, shoes change with my lifestyle . . .

KE: But they’ve still got to look good. You know what I mean? Being your friend helps me immensely, because I can put on a beautiful pair of your flats and feel like I still look put together and feel decent. But your shoes particularly, I think, are very, very foxy.

TS: I love that word, “foxy.” [laughs] My next collection inspiration is foxy.

KE: The corset shoe! It’s so beautiful! So, definitely . . . I think women wear shoes sometimes . . . there’s status but it’s also seduction. Tabitha, I want to ask where do your inspirations come from?

TS: I think the inspiration comes from everywhere. It can come from friends. Like you, Karen, just sort of dropped that word foxy, and all of a sudden it sort of starts triggering many different ideas. Sometimes shoes come from objects, like my chandelier at home. Or I get a lot of inspiration from England as well as just being British. And definitely from travel.

GOB: Shoes really are different from clothes. I think women don’t keep clothes the way they keep shoes. Maybe there’s more like a personal connection, maybe because your bare foot is in there . . .

TS: I know. I think you bond much more with shoes than you do with pieces of clothing—I know I certainly do. I get quite sentimental over shoes. Also shoes can really change entire silhouettes. For example, you could wear a dress and put a little flat point on, and then you could wear that same dress and put a very high platform on, and it would give you a completely different attitude and a different projection—just by wearing the same dress with different footwear.

GOB: Did becoming a shoe designer change your relationship to shoes? Now, when you go out on the street, people will say, “Oh, there’s that shoe designer.” They must look at your shoes with more intensity now.

TS: Well, I’ve always been known for wearing quite quirky shoes. So, I think it hasn’t really sort of changed. It’s been quite nice, because people will say how much they love them, which is a big compliment. And when people repeatedly wear them, that means a lot to me. When I first started out, I wanted something quite timeless, and it didn’t have to be just for one season. I still see people in boots that I designed for my first collection three years ago. For me, that’s amazing. I think, “Wow, you bought that shoe, and you’re still wearing it, and it still looks good, still looks contemporary. It doesn’t look overly fashion, but it’s not out of fashion, and you can’t wear it.”

GOB: Do you ever see, like, trends that you find really horrible or weird?

TS: No, I’ve always said “never say never.” When I was a child I would say, “I hate that; I would never, ever be seen dead in that,” and then, five years down the line, I’m wearing it. So I try to avoid those sweeping statements. But at the moment, I am slightly over platforms. I think that’s something that’s sort of more personal, that I am over for me. There are so many women out there who love them and really, really want to wear them. But as a personal thing, I’ve sort of moved away from them because I used to wear them SO much for so many years.

GOB: Well, you can only watch so many girls fall down on the runway.

TS: [laughs] I know. One does sort of move and walk quite weirdly in them. But I haven’t thrown my platforms away. I’ve just put them in the cupboard, and maybe they’ll come up again in a few more years’ time.

GOB: You know what I find weird are those boots where your ankles are completely covered, and then your toes are sticking out. Maybe they’re over.

TS: They’re still current.

GOB: Oh, I had hoped they were over.

TS: Maybe you’ve got a couple of more seasons of that.

GOB: What kind of men’s shoes do you like?

TS: I like very, very classic men’s shoes, kind of understated.

GOB: I like women in men’s style oxfords . . . I like that, and I like the classic high heels.

TS: We have those. We have some men’s shoes with our line. And we have high heels.

GOB: I love your shoes.

TS: Oh, thanks, Glenn.

GOB: My wife wears your shoes. I was asking about your filing system, because she has like hundreds of pairs of shoes, and suddenly she’ll pull out a pair from ten years ago. I don’t know how she finds them.

TS: To me, that means a lot. That means it’s a great shoe, one that’s stood the test of time.  BG


The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien.

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