Maurice Clarke, Florentine Sole Man
Maurice Clarke has designed footwear for all the famous fashion houses - and now he's out on his own
Meeting Maurice Clarke I have the feeling of knowing him well. This soon makes complete sense as we are both 'Serious Shoe Lovers'. Our mutual 'Sole Love' pre-dates Carrie Bradshaw and even Imelda Marcos. Soon we're reminiscing about Salvatore Ferragamo: The Art of the Shoe, at the V&A in the late 1980s. Eighteen months after seeing this exhibition Clarke was working for Ferragamo and "couldn't believe it".
Although there is no set template of what a shoe designer should look like I think Clarke looks the part, being stylish in a tweed jacket, glasses and a great pair of brogues. He has, he tells me, always been obsessed with footwear.
As a young child, one of four, growing up in Drogheda, Clarke would scrutinise the feet of the faithful as they queued up for communion at Sunday Mass. "I'd never heard the word 'catwalk' but that's basically what the aisle of the church was. Sunday morning was a big deal, you'd polish your shoes and get all jazzed up to go to Mass." Although the young Maurice was already obsessed by shoes, "I didn't realise you could actually make them for a living," he says. "In our house shoes were re-heeled and resoled, they weren't just thrown out."
After school Clarke got a place at NCAD (the National College of Art and Design in Dublin) where he specialised in fabric print and fashion design followed by Cordwainers, in London, then the only school in the world where students could learn the craft of shoe-making. "The Shoe School was half shoes half saddles," he tells me. "It was the only place where you could learn to pad and cut. People were stitching saddles," he reminisces, "and other people would come in on day release from Borstal to make small leather goods."
While at Cordwainers (which is now part of the London College of Fashion) Clarke beat 450 other applicants to win the prestigious Royal Society for the Arts Bursary Award that allowed him to spend a year at Grenson of Northampton followed by a three-month pattern-cutting placement at the world-renowned Arsutoria in Milan.
Since his first job with Ferragamo, Clarke has worked on the footwear and accessories lines of several of the better-known designers (including Celine, Jimmy Choo, Chloe, Mulberry, Calvin Klein and Tods) over the past twenty-five years. The designer's working life has been divided between Florence and London with long periods in New York. "I feel so incredibly grateful to have found my talent and passion early in life," he says. "It has allowed me to travel the world and the thrill of helping a ready-to-wear designer bring a 'total look' to life by making the perfect pair of shoes is indescribable."
Clarke has now launched his own line, The Merchant of Florence, named after his second home. The label's first release is, hardly surprisingly, a line of shoes. Clarke has produced a pair of hand-made ballet flats/slippers which come in four colours (Black, Midnight Blue, Cardinal Red and Fuchsia) in fabric made in Como. There are four different designs (three Celtic, The Claddagh, the Celtic Brooch and the Celtic Tri-Spiral while the fourth is the Florentine Iris, the symbol of the city) in gold thread. All of the shoes are produced in Tuscany using techniques that date back to the Renaissance. While the slippers appear delicate Clarke says "my shoes reflect my background - they're meant to be around for a long time. They're not 'fashion' - they're apart from fashion."
Clarke is somewhat disappointed at the way the fashion industry has evolved. "There used to be two fashion seasons a year and now it's four. I wanted to do something that didn't fit into that mould, something that wouldn't be so transient and I think these slippers are timeless."
They're also a tribute to Clarke's Irish heritage, of which he is extremely proud. He sees the slippers as just the first step and would like to do a whole range of accessories using the same symbols. "Id love to use the Celtic symbols and help to promote Ireland and Irish fashion abroad."
The Merchant of Florence collection is available at the Só Collective, a contemporary Irish Lifestyle store hosted at the Kildare Village and at Corso Como 10, Milan from July. mauriceclarkeshoes.com
Sunday Indo Living