Fashion

Thursday 21 August 2014

Meet the high-fashion shoe designer with real soul

Katy Harrington

Published 07/06/2014 | 00:07

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If the shoe fits: Liam Fahy at home in London surrounded by some of his designs. Photo: Hannah McKay
If the shoe fits: Liam Fahy at home in London surrounded by some of his designs. Photo: Hannah McKay

Liam Fahy, the laid-back designer with Irish roots whose shoes are the toast of the fashion world, explains how his work ethic was earned and learned as a child

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Just inside the entrance to Liam Fahy’s apartment is a tall, unremarkable white cupboard — but what turns your head are the rows of shoes lining it. Intricate baroque black patent cut-out heels; sexy pointed red and black water snake stilettos; gladiator style calf-skin lace-ups; exquisite Sarah Jessica Parker-worthy black satin high heels with bow ties — all expertly crafted, all lovingly handmade, all eye-wateringly expensive.

In the minimal but stylish living room sits Liam Fahy, the totally unpretentious, softly spoken, chatty, laid-back and (I say this in the best possible way) not very fashiony, designer who makes some of the world’s most expensive shoes. 

His father comes from “a village full of Fahys” outside Galway. “When I grew up in Africa I thought I was the only Fahy in the whole world and Liam was a made up name,” he explains, offering me a teacake.

Fahy’s Irish/African roots are on display in his home. On the table sits a sparkly green top hat (a remnant from a St Patrick’s Day charity millinery event he judged) while the walls are decorated with wooden African carvings and artwork. His grandfather was a military man so his mum grew up all over the world, moving around from Libya to Cyprus and to Germany until she met her husband in Covent Garden in London. His parents moved to Kenya, and then to Zimbabwe, where they have been for over 30 years.

His upbringing was an unusual mix of exotic Africa and traditional Irish. Both Fahy, his brother Rory and sister Briege were taught by nuns in a Catholic school while at home his father kept pet owls and snakes and frequently issued warnings such as “No one go into the washroom, the cobra got out.”

Today as winner of the British Fashion Council’s NewGen Award, Fahy’s shoes are lusted after by the fashion elite and loved by editors at Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Described as a “testament to Italian craftsmanship” and made by the same hands that work for Chanel, Louboutin, Givenchy and Dior, Fahy’s creations are getting attention worldwide but his creativity comes from Africa.

“Here, if you want [to eat] Carbonara it comes in a packet, but there you have to make everything from scratch… if you want furniture in your house, you design it and the carpenter makes it, so everyone is forced to be a bit creative in a way.”

Fahy’s first job couldn’t be further from the ultra high-end fashion world he inhabits now. He started making trainers in China, “churning them out in factories with thousands of employees” where they produce “a million pairs a week and you have to drive from one side of the factory to another”.  With little creative input in China, Fahy left for Italy, the home of luxury fashion, where he became the protege of shoe designer to the stars Rupert Sanderson. If China taught him about work ethic, Italy was where Fahy learned craftsmanship.

“It’s so different from China… there’s only one pattern cutter, instead of two floors of them. They don’t do shortcuts.”

On average about 35 people are involved in making each pair of Fahy’s intricate designs, with a prototype costing €1,250 upwards to produce, but that doesn’t mean he’s rich. “The designer doesn’t get much of the price on the label. A lot of people assume if you have the most expensive shoes you make the most money, but you sell a lot less than someone on the high street.”

Only 200 stores in the world can afford to stock Fahy’s shoes. Many of his customers are Saudi Arabian and Russian millionaires who can afford python or crystal encrusted heels costing €1,250 or slippers for €600.

And yet, there is something about Fahy that is strangely at odds with his world of high fashion and even higher prices. He lives in a quiet suburban part of London and prefers B&Bs to five-star hotels.

For eight months he decamped to a remote part of Zimbabwe to live rough with a local tribe and he insists on employing a Zimbabwean charity run by women with HIV to make the dust bags for his shoes. “Every time I go to Africa it puts it in perspective”, he says, “Some call it poverty, but it’s very interesting to go from this world to that”.

As a man who makes his living selling teeteringly high heels, I ask if he is worried about fashion’s current obsession with flats?  “The heel will always come back, it’s been unchallenged for years” he says, “but there’s a pendulum of trends — fat heels, skinny, pointed, round, horrible squares every now and again.” While square toes and the billion-

selling shoe craze that are Crocs are his fashion nightmare, his favourite shoes are a pair of sky-high wedges he made in collaboration with a team of technicians who helped fit the shoes with 200 flashing LED lights, powered by microchips, about 15 feet of wiring and a custom-made circuit board to fit the design.

Fahy also senses the appetite for “fast fashion” slowing down. His girlfriend collects vintage clothing and accessories and he marvels at how quality has lasted. Hence, he explains, he wants to design things that are “evergreen, not ephemeral and short-lived”.

Despite being a creative mind Fahy also has a business head. He knows the importance of good management, especially in fashion where the fail rate for new designers is enormous.

Striking the balance between being creative and commercially successful is something he is keenly aware of, and has discussed with Dublin-based designer Thomas Pink.

Awards, press and celebrity fans play a big role too. When a celebrity wears his shoes on the red carpet there is a “huge spike”, he says, but because every pair is limited edition and samples cost thousands to make he has to be very selective who he says yes to.

So who is the one woman he would never refuse? “My mum!” he says without hesitation. 

Spoken like a true Irishman.

Liam Fahy’s ‘Summer Rain’ collection is available online at www.LiamFahy.com

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