Beatrix Ong is the one-woman tour de force behind one of Britain’s leading luxury footwear and accessories brands. Having started her career as Jimmy Choo’s Creative Director of Couture at the tender age of 22, it’s no wonder that now, only in her mid thirties, she is about to mark her eponymous brand’s tenth anniversary and even has an MBE to show for her services to fashion. TWENTY6 caught up with her in the brand’s year-old Sloane Square flagship boutique, lovingly decorated with Beatrix’s own personal trinkets, to talk roller skates, the 90s and biblical reawakenings.
The shop is looking great; talk us through the décor…
I designed it all and it’s meant to look a bit like home. We have a stucco wall, but then we’ve got a really subtle vinyl of a phoenix laid onto it, because I love phoenixes; and then everything on the back wall shelves is stuff that is personal to me. I’ve got Chinese lucky cats and a wooden Pinocchio, the little VW van is mine, because I love surfing; and there are also some old books.
Is it important for you to keep things personal?
Yes, for me, my brand is really personal. There are elements where it’s definitely a business, but it’s a business based on me, so I’m always questioning what it’s doing and where its going. I think about it a lot; I know to name a collection “Happiness” or “Simplicity” sounds really basic, but really the brand is all about a journey. You know, I started it when I was 26, so I think I’ve changed quite a lot as a person in that time, and my experiences good and bad shape the brand. Plus, in the context of a business, if you start designing stuff you don’t really believe in, then you’re just not going to be happy doing it, and I think that’s true of everything really. You’ve got to be passionate.
So SS11 was all about happiness; is AW’s “Simplicity” a continuation of that?
AW is like a true sequel to SS. I feel that right now there’s so much change going on generally with people I know, or just in the world; and everyone is in the pursuit of happiness. SS to me, is all about laughing and about sunshine, and it’s just light. It’s also about nudity, and looking good naked; so there were quite a lot of nudes to elongate the leg and I like spring summer shoes to be barely there, barely noticeable but there’s something flattering about them. AW is an extension of that where it’s all about the line as opposed to anything else. So it’s really paired down to the minimal, minimal essence of the shoe, and I’ve taken away details like stitching as much as I can, and everything is folded or it’s raw cut. It’s really, really simple, nothing more, nothing less, it just is.
How do you get to the stage where you can pinpoint the essence of a collection?
Normally it’s just about getting as many ideas down as possible. So I just do millions of tiny sketches everywhere and then I pick out the ones I really feel strongly about and actually those little sketches are the most important ones. It’s quite a long process, designing shoes; logistically having to put it all together, you know, you start having to compromise on certain things, and then the sketches become really useful as I look back on them to check that I’m following through with exactly how I thought they should look. But I like it, it’s a bit like a puzzle, you’re sort of putting down your most absolute fantasy thoughts about shoes and then you’re trying to work out how to make it into a reality. It’s a really nice process.
You come from a design rather than a fashion background, what made you to switch to shoes, and does that education inform your process?
I actually initially did a graphics and media design course, and the thing about shoes is that they require the same sort of restriction. I like having to be creative in quite a confined space. Since I was young I’ve always had an interest in fashion but I never really thought, “Oh I’m going to do that one day”. I wanted to be an architect at one point; I used to draw lots of houses, little ant farmhouses, and at another point, I wanted to work for an airline. I wanted to be a lot of things.
I did have really memorable shoes always. My first school shoes were really shiny black patent Mary Janes and I still have a version of them in my collection. But most of the time I used to spend on these black and red lace up roller skates.
A lot of your designs seem quite nostalgic; classics with a modern twist. Do you look to the past for inspiration?
I actually have a whole wardrobe of vintage, but in terms of style it really varies. I’ve got really beautiful 50s prom dresses, really slick 40s dresses and also sweet flapper 20s dresses. If I had to pick a decade, I actually really love the 90s. I was living in New York at the time, and it was really exciting. For me the 90s was really about diversity. Even the Vogues I have, and I have quite a lot of vintage magazines, are like Nick Knight with John Galliano 1940s mixed in, and then the next story would be Helmut Lang. That whole era was just about the celebration of everyone and it wasn’t overdesigned. Again, everything was pared down to its essence.
So what would be your ultimate 90s shoe?
A really simple court with a super skinny heel; a bit office worker and a bit glass fronted house in Malibu, one of those really simple styles that does it all.
What else do you collect?
I collect loads of things. I collect books and magazines; my prized book is a first edition of Catcher in the Rye, and I also have a limited edition of Alice in Wonderland with really unusual typography, which I found in Florence; and I have an 1862 edition of Harper’s Bazaar where everyone’s in crinolines. I also collect globes, I love them but my geography is still crap.
Your MBE must be taking pride of place at home now? How was that experience?
That was a big surprise actually. I was in Hong Kong at the time and it was sent to another address. It would be different if I had the letter and I could read it but because it was over the phone, there was an element of “Hmm, I think someone’s pulling my leg here.” I still couldn’t believe when it was actually happening and I was at the palace, but it was so nice and such an honour.
How did you choose your outfit?
I wore Stella McCartney and Philip Treacy. They’re both obviously British, but those two particularly, I have so much respect for. I mean Philip Treacy; I love his design aesthetic and how it’s so unwavering. I think its so difficult being a creative and mixing it with commerciality, and it can be easy to sway from what you’re doing, and I think he’s just never done that.
And it’s the same with Stella McCartney; she’s really unwavering about her belief in not using leathers. I mean, I use leathers but I respect her in that she’s sticking to her beliefs, because something like leather is actually very easy to work with, so you’re actually giving yourself a bit of a problem in choosing not to use it. It’s amazing that she manages to achieve really great designs and great products but to still have her belief intact.
Of course, you publically support a number of charities. That must be a very rewarding part of what you do?
Its all about balance and I think particularly when you’re in an industry like “fashion” (laughs and pulls a face), people get really carried away… and that’s fine because you can obviously have fun with it, but it is important to see the bigger picture; and I think, when you can help, you should. And if you can’t, you can’t.
So yes, I work with the Hepatitis C Trust. It affects a lot of people, so it’s about awareness. And the problem with Hep C is that the majority of people who have it don’t actually know they have it and that’s why it’s spreading. It’s also lethal and it’s preventable. Boy George shot the last campaign and it’s been great; like a family coming together to support something. I’m also about to brief London College of Fashion for a project for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. The college was really instrumental in my career so I think it’s really important that I support them as much as I can, as much as they supported me.
What else is coming up for Beatrix Ong?
Well it’s my tenth anniversary in 2012 so we’re going to celebrate. We have some new limited edition shoe boxes, and it’s going to be fun. I’m also really excited about the SS12 collection.
Tell us more…
The inspiration is Eden. I guess it’s been ten years, so it feels like a renaissance. And it’s been the hardest collection to design. AW11 is about pairing it down and getting to the essence of things, and so SS12 is about starting again and thinking, “What do I believe in?” With Eden, suddenly I’ve gone a bit biblical; again it’s about simplicity, but on the other hand, I’m making it complex. Simple but complex. It’s really strong and I love the collection, and to follow on from that, AW will be really dark.
What were your ambitions and aspirations at the age of 26?
I started my business when I was 26, so my ambition was just to create really beautiful shoes.
Pick a word beginning with the letter 'B' which best sums you up...
I’ve got bumblebees on all my stuff because all my school friends call me Bee.
For each letter of the alphabet, pick a word that inspires you.
A – Anchorman:
The Legend of Ron Burgundy
B – Bravery
C – Community
D – Diversity
E – Energy: what everything is about.
F – Friends, foes, family and food.
G – Gifts: the kind people have, but don’t quite know it yet.
H – Happiness
I – Interiors
J – JD Salinger
K – Kindness
L – Love and Lust
M – Mum and Dad
N – Nineties
O – Oceans
P – Pleasure and Pain
Q – The Queen
R – Revolution
S – Sesame Street
T – Time
U – Universal/Unity
V – Vulnerability
W – Whim
X – X-rated
Y – Yes: much more inspiring than No.
Z – Zzzs: one of my favourite past times, sleeping and dreaming.
For more information and to see the latest collections from Beatrix Ong, visit - beatrixong.com