Interview with Tracey Neuls

Tracey Neuls, founder of the eponymous shoe brand, on hanging shoes from the ceiling, designing with plasticine and wanting to introduce alcohol to the shoe-shopping experience

Words: Stevie Martin
Images: Joseph Fox

Have you always loved shoes?
I have! And I feel quite thankful for that, because you have lots of people who don’t know what they want to do. But when I was nine, I remember making shoes out of toilet rolls and cardboard boxes, and sitting in my mum’s closet with all the shoes around me... it was something I always wanted to do. But I’m Canadian, and there were no footwear colleges anywhere in Canada, so I went into fashion design instead. After a 10 year career in fashion I thought, OK, there’s a school in the UK I can go to, so let’s do it now!

Did your career in fashion influence the shoes you design?
It all goes hand in hand—some of my designs will have a little detail on the heel, or the top, that will make the factory groan whenever they see it. Like, “What is this?! This doesn’t go on a shoe!” But it’s all about balance.

A lot of the shapes I create are sculptural, so I don’t always want a crazy top piece on it. Some are classic shapes that have been going since 1850, and are also traditionally male; juxtaposing something like that on a woman’s shoe conjures up memories, but it’s still completely fresh. Fashion is theatrical, and so are the shoes, which is why I present them in this dramatic, different way

Talking of presentation, why do you hang them from the ceiling?
To celebrate the detail! You usually go into a store, there are super-bright lights, and loud music and, while this is fine, I feel like it distracts from the product. Also, when a shoe is on a shelf, you only see the top view, but you see everything when the shoe is actually on a foot. It’s like a sculpture, and you want to see every angle possible.

Originally, I wanted to have cocktails and shoes—friends coming in, the shoes flying around, everything so dynamic!—but licensing has been an issue, although I’m still looking into it. When we first opened this store, I was baking bread in the back just to have that juxtaposition of different senses. 

What inspires you to design a shoe?
I think there’s something lovely in the innocence of childhood. You see a kid playing and they don’t care about anything, they’re talking to themselves and doing their own thing. I’m big on memories and nostalgia, so I create my designs out of plasticine and take them to the factory.

The smell of it takes you right back—like that freshly baked bread—and of course the factory hates me for it. I turn up with my little shoes saying things like, “So here’s a green one, here’s a little blue one” and they’re so not used to that. But they do it.

Apart from that nostalgia element, why do you use plasticine?
It’s a way of translating from your brain to your hands, a sort of communication between the body and the mind. Plus, I’ve been doing it for ages and learned it as a kid! It’s important to me not to grab Vogue and trawl through, looking at what other designers are doing, because if you’re not doing exactly what Vogue tells you to do at that moment, then it won’t go out of fashion in six months’ time.

My favourite moments are when mothers and daughters come in and shop, because when that happens you’re transcending time. It’s impossible for us to say that there’s a particular demographic we’re focusing on, and I love that—a 14-year-old will be like “I want these ones!” while her mum is trying on something else, all in the same store. 

The shoes are almost mini works of art. How should they be worn?
If you wear a ring, you don’t think, this turquoise won’t go with anything! You just throw it on. Shoes should be more like that. I’d hate it if someone came in and was like, “I’ve got a green jumper, what should I wear on my feet?” Wear whatever you like! You don’t need a pair of shoes to go with specific items of clothing; you can do something vintage on top, or a bit of Chloé, or a bit of Japanese... just make it your own.

Do you have a favourite shoe?
Well, the neon shoe we do has been going for a long time. The company has been going for 15 years, and neon and natural are company colours, so to have that still in fashion is kind of great. To me it has the same attributes as a trainer—not that you’ll be running too much in it—but it kicks the ass off any Nikes or Converse. You can go to clubs in it, and you can wear it in the day. It’s all-purpose and I just love that.

How have you found Marylebone?
I completely love it! The people are so real! From the first moment we set up shop here, we had people rocking up on their bicycles saying, “Good on you, we can’t wait for it!” and some other people would be all, “We saw your new article in so and so! Nice one!”

You go to Notting Hill and there’s a vibe, but in Marylebone there are no preconceived notions. You’ve got actors galore, French galore, young people, old people... there are guys flogging sausages down the road and you’re like, how can you be minutes away from the world’s most famous shopping street and flog sausages? It’s so great.

Tracey Neuls in her Marylebone shop


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