My Life In Fashion: Penelope Chilvers
All products on this page have been selected by our editorial team, however we may make commission on some products.
I lived and worked as a painter in Barcelona in my twenties, so design was something that was always a part of my life. My job was restoring murals and painting surfaces, furniture and things like that. Working with artisans gave me a real appreciation of craftsmanship.
It was when I moved to London with my two girls and had a big lifestyle change that I had to reinvent myself. I felt totally unemployable at the time, as I’d never really worked successfully for anyone before, so I had to find my own niche. I was in my thirties and knew I couldn't recreate the world I’d had in Spain over here.
I had a pair of Spanish riding boots from my time in Barcelona that an artisan had made especially to my own measurements, and it just so happened that a lot of my girlfriends loved them and really wanted some. I started trading from my kitchen table by having similar boots made for them. I was still doing some other freelance design work, but it just snowballed from there. I had just one man making them and the orders grew organically.
Being a designer and wanting to be creative at every turn, I wanted to design a second boot and a third boot, and that evolved into a collection of six styles which I took to Paris Fashion Week. I showed at a tradeshow called Tranoi, and just lined them in a row on a tabletop. As a result of that, I ended up selling them worldwide. I had interest from the likes of Japan, Spain, Italy and America, and I came back with the most incredible order book. I gave up the freelance job and it took off from there.
Opening our first store on Ledbury Road in Notting Hill was definitely a milestone. I hadn’t been to business school, so to get to a stage where we could think about opening a store was incredible. Prior to that, I was just taking wholesale orders online or customers would come to the studio.
Cate Blanchett came to the studio one day and we had the most wonderful afternoon together. Someone had called and said they had Cate Blanchett filming Robin Hood in Wales and she’d come across my boots in a tiny little country store there, but they didn’t have the right size. They asked if she could get some from the studio when she finished filming. She came in shortly after – she was just the best company and we had a real laugh.
The business had a real moment when Kate Middleton and Prince William announced their engagement. There was a shot of her sitting on a shooting stock wearing our boots – it wasn’t recent but that was the shot that went viral all over the world. The phone didn’t stop ringing for three days. It was extraordinary. It makes me smile just thinking of it. The Princess of Wales (as she is now) and her mother have been long-standing customers.
When it comes to business, my advice to anyone is to go with your gut. In retrospect and with age, you become wiser and more confident, and I wish I’d trusted my gut instinct more earlier on. Also, believe in yourself. You meet so many great and inspiring people throughout your career but, if you have that niggling feeling telling you something isn’t quite right, trust yourself.
Ever since I started the business, I have wanted to be sustainable and responsible when bringing products into the world. Producing products for a world that is saturated with stuff is not something that sits easy with me; so every day I’m checking in and making sure we make the right choices – from making things that last if you look after them, avoiding plastic and waste to managing the quantities, working with small factories and using up any excess.
I recently met Maria Raga who is the ex-CEO of Depop. She’s had an incredible, inspiring career and kindly offered advice on how we might be able to recycle responsibly and successfully, which is something I’m determined to explore further this year.
I’ve had a lot of support and encouragement from women both personally and professionally. My closest girlfriends are always enthusiastic and generous, even when I feel like giving up – which I do on occasion when I can’t see a way forward. Both my daughters have always been incredibly supportive since the beginning. When I had to work, they understood, and their opinions matter every step of the way, every day – whether it’s design, work ethics or brand building. They both work for the company in vital roles that they have forged for themselves.
Someone I admire is Cath Kidston, a very successful founder and creative director who has built a brand with her own name above the door. What’s intriguing to me about Cath is that everyone I’ve met who’s worked for her speaks so highly of her inspirational leadership and constant encouragement and camaraderie within her team.
I am a supporter of The Prince’s Trust initiative, Women Supporting Women, which was established in 2018 to help young women who face disadvantage and adversity to transform their lives. It’s a passionate group committed to providing the right help to nurture, inspire and empower young women to build their own futures through employment, education, training or by starting their own business. I love the idea of women offering support to other women and we are donating a percentage from all full-priced sales of our new capsule collection to WSW.
The new capsule launched on International Women’s Day. It’s our second collaboration with designer India Hicks and a percentage of all the sales will go to the Princes Trust. She is a Patron of the Prince’s Trust, as well as a mother of five! It’s inspired by India’s life in the Bahamas and is a whimsical collection with dreamy feminine pastels and sandy hues. There are three hero styles – the Devil’s Backbone cowboy boot in powder pink, the Castaway heeled ankle boot in sand suede and the Shifting Sands ballet pump in butter-soft leather.
I often shop when I travel. On my most recent trip to the Bahamas to shoot this collection, my first stop had to be India Hicks’s store, The Sugar Mill. As well as stocking our brand, it’s a treasure trove of brands from all over the world, all with distinct points of view.
I commissioned Alex Al-Bader, founder of Soler, to make me a silk crepe dress to wear on the trip. I wanted something to complement my Devil’s Horseback Cowboy boots in pale pink suede, which have inspired an injection of feminine marshmallow hues into my wardrobe for spring. Soler has the best dress shapes for me and they are made to order to ensure a perfect fit. Alex’s workshop is just around the corner from our shop in Notting Hill.
Travel inspiration appears in bucket loads on my mood board each season, and we always love starting a collection with a trip somewhere where we can delve deep into that country’s history and artisanal skills. Two years ago, we went to Guatemala for inspiration for this summer’s collection, and we are lucky enough to have been invited back to shoot the collection at the most amazing boutique hotel, Hotel Casa Polopó on beautiful Lake Atitlan – where it all started.
When I’m visiting the factory in Spain, I always make an effort to dress well. The staff on the factory floor look so well groomed for work and the seamstresses on the sewing machines have beautifully painted nails, which assures me of their attention to detail when making our pieces. So, I imagine if I dress with care to visit them, it shows mutual admiration.
I think people love the wearability of our shoes and boots. Customers get to know us for comfort, quality and versatility, and that’s what makes them come back time and time again. There must be something that’s innate and recognisable to our customer. They’re not superfluous to people’s lifestyles. They also come to us for something new.
Style is something that definitely evolves with age. I think when you get to a certain age and put on a white shirt, it has to be a really fresh white shirt. I wear a lot of shirts. I always loved how transformative it can be to wash your hair and throw on a crisp poplin shirt, especially when you’re feeling a bit run down. My uniform for design time is a blue or white shirt and jeans.
My personal style is quite eclectic. I love vintage and I love second-hand clothes. I love shopping in markets like Portobello Road. And I love a good pair of jeans – currently Reformation jeans and I’ve just bought a high-waisted, straight-leg pair from Iris which are probably my most comfortable. I love Ulla Johnston for dresses with a difference. I wear a lot of dresses and boots. It's always easy when you just have to throw on one piece. I prefer to buy less and make things last.
I’ve had some of my absolute favourite boots for 20 years, but I’ve really looked after them. I love them because they’re my most comfortable. I love polishing boots, I find it so therapeutic. If I don’t need to be anywhere else on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I sit and clean all mine and my children’s!
My oldest leather pull-on boots have taken me for miles, including on a pilgrimage to El Rocio in southern Spain – I was invited along by my artisans. I love to polish them and wear them in the countryside in England, Spain and beyond. They get so comfortable with wear due to a cork-filled sole and Goodyear welt construction. We have copied these ‘old friends’ recently for our latest performance boot, the Inclement Pull On.
One of my favourite shopping finds is a boot polish tin that I bought in a charity shop in Ledbury in Herefordshire. It must be at least 70 years old. I would love to make them for our customers who also love to polish their boots but, so far, I haven’t been able to find the manufacturer. I also recently bought an amazing jacket from Portobello. It’s sleeveless and long and it’s a Welsh blanket that’s been repurposed into a waistcoat – I just love it. I also found a great vintage quilted A-line skirt which I’ve been wearing with chunky boots and a jumper.
One of my most treasured possessions is a ring my husband bought me for my birthday, by a designer in San Francisco called Maud. It’s just two circles and I wear it every day. One of my best friends in New York had one and I thought it was amazing.
Shop The Latest Penelope Chilvers x India Hicks Capsule Below
DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at email@example.com.