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How Nina's designs are calling the shots

Despite her obvious beauty -- saucer-sized blue eyes; pale complexion with a splattering of freckles; tousled, shiny, brown locks; and a pin-thin figure -- painter and shoe designer Nina Divito admits to feeling aesthetically inferior to the two models who flank her for a photocall to promote her latest endeavour.

Quiet, shy, soft-spoken and unassuming, it's obvious Nina would rather be at home alone in her studio doing what she does best -- designing.

And although she's in a long-term relationship with Brian O'Malley, one of the two men who transformed Krystle nightclub into Ireland's premier celebrity hang out, Nina is rarely spotted out and about on the Irish social scene.

Promoting herself, she tells me, doesn't come naturally. "I still find it very difficult. I find it really cringey. I have to get better at it," she says, laughing, and then adds: "I don't see myself as a business woman. That would not be my strength, but I have to learn."

Nina has just designed a range of covers for the iPhone 4, which are available in Carphone Warehouse. The sketches are of Nina's bestselling styles from her first footwear collection, which sold out in Brown Thomas.

Today, the Foxrock-born designer's enviable figure is shown off in a tight-fitted, black, pencil dress, complemented, naturally, with a pair of her own shoe designs. "Since I can remember, I was fascinated and obsessed with shoes," she says. "In school, I was stronger at art, I wasn't great academically, but I wasn't 100 per cent sure about what direction to take."

She studied fine art in Dun Laoghaire before moving to London to study model-making. It was costume designer Leonie Prendergast who informed her about a shoe-making course in London College of Fashion. At first, Nina didn't believe a course so perfect could exist.

"At this stage, I had been in college six years," she says. "My mum was saying, you should be a surgeon at this stage. I thought, maybe I was pushing my luck with my parents to see if I can do one more year, but I really felt that I had found my thing."

She had found her "thing", though success wasn't immediate. She sent out hundreds of CVs to designers, but heard very little back. All the while, however, she was sketching and painting shoes. "One day, my aunt saw a pile of shoe sketches in my room. She was like: 'Wow, can I buy that?' I said: 'You can take it'. She said: 'Do me one favour, you need to do more of these.' Within a week, she was saying: 'Well, so and so wants one.' She was ordering them. She said: 'Go and do an exhibition. If it doesn't go well, it doesn't go well.' So, I did my first exhibition. I still remember the shock at how well it went. From then, it just took off and I could never supply the demand for the paintings."

It was at the height of her success as a painter that Nina became very sick. She was diagnosed with opsoclonus-myoclonus syndrome, a rare, debilitating illness that affects the nervous system. "It's not something that I like to go into in great detail," she says quietly but apologetically. "I am definitely through the worst of it now. Every now and again, I need to take it easy, but I learned a lot from it. It makes you realise that you have to mind your health."

It was an inspiring chat with shoe designer Manolo Blahnik that spurred Nina into pursuing her long-held dream of bringing her paintings to life. She travelled to northern Italy, along with her mentor and business partner Eddie Shanahan, in search of the best shoe-makers. "I remember the first time I went to the factory; I remember seeing these design giants names on boxes -- Gucci, YSL," she says, her voice trailing off. "I thought what am I doing here? I'm really out of my depth. When I put the designs in front of the man (the head of the factory), he got to the third page and straight away jumped up, and started shouting and waving his arms. Then I looked to Giorgio [the translator] and said: 'I am really sorry. This is not going how I thought it would.' And he said: 'No, it's not. It's going better. He's really excited.'"

Nina's second footwear collection currently takes pride of place alongside heavyweights such as Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo in Brown Thomas's shoe room. Her designs aren't cheap, but the quality is second to none. And, unbelievably, they're comfortable. "Because I am a woman, I have been wearing heels for years. I want them to be beautiful, but I want them to feel beautiful too. I hate being crippled at the end of the night."

Recently, Nina has had meetings with top international buyers, and all have expressed an interest, but understandably the climate has made them more cautious. The bigwigs, she says, will wait until she has three collections under her belt before they'll invest.

Not having enough hours in the day, Nina admits, is her biggest problem, as she tries to juggle collections, along with frequent travel and other commitments. Getting to a stage where she could employ an army of helpers would be "a dream come true".

It's a hard graft and a brutally tough business, but Nina loves it none the less. "It's something that unless you're passionate about it, and you love, I don't think you could do it."

The limited-edition Nina Divito iPhone 4 covers are available in selected Carphone Warehouse stores, while stocks last, priced €24.90

Sunday Independent