Roy Luwolt is a man who wears many hats. As of 2018, he’s the sole Artistic Director of luxury shoe label Malone Souliers (now known as Malone Souliers by Roy Luwolt), founder of women’s shirting brand Absence of Paper and CEO of French fashion house Emanuel Ungaro.
A former venture capitalist and luxury brand strategist, he brings a unique point of view to the brand—product and consumer come first. “You have to remember, the thing I enjoy most about fashion is actually business,” he says. And when it comes to the results of this strategy, the numbers don't lie.
Beloved by women all over the world, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a red carpet or fashion week without at least one appearance of the brand’s infamous Maureen shoe adorning the feet of a celebrity or street style star. There is a reason why the shoe was the most copied shoe in 2017.
We caught Luwolt when he was in town to launch the made-to-order service at On Pedder to speak on all things luxury, and convinced him to take part in our very first Singapore Tatlersketch quiz!
Now that you’ll be managing all aspects of the business, what are the challenges that you think you’ll face? Do you see this as an opportunity for you to rebrand or change certain aspects of the brand? Roy Luwolt (RL) We've learnt to adjust in the absence of [former business partner] Mary. The beauty is that there are apprentices who have trained and learned under her, so naturally there was continuity. Some of the designers have been with us for a few years so there’s no real directional change. There’s certainly an ease and a relaxed nature to the products. We have a more youthful approach to the design ethos with the team.
Was it not youthful before? RL It was, but now more so. We’ve always had an interesting, demographic-free audience. Our first ever customer was a 16-year-old, but at [American luxury department store] Bergdorf Goodman it could be a 90-year old, so there’s never been restrictions on the kind of woman we target, and I think that is unchanged. Because we’re strictly a luxury brand, we have to be cautious about not forgetting the other side of that coin. I think having a collective design team rather than a hierarchy with a creative director is a really bold approach. I find it a really progressive and beautiful way to develop a melting pot of ideas.
How did your previous experience as a venture capitalist and a luxury brand strategist help in your current role at MS? RL It’s a natural development from back end to front end. I think that’s one of the things that’s missing in the industry and with a lot of businesses. You might end up with a fantastic product or brand but a really shaky business. People unfortunately don’t get the chance to learn creative direction at the same time as business and rarely do you ever get a situation in which a person can do both. So, you tend to either get wonderful designers or wonderful business people. I think being a venture capitalist and a strategist has given me a very consumer focused approach to business.
"You can fake or alter the size of clothing, but you can never adjust a badly fitted shoe"
Gemma Aterton in the Veronika
In your opinion, what makes up the perfect shoe? RL There’s no perfect shoe. There is a perfect shoe for a certain occasion, person, mood, day, climate and region. It has to fit a particular personality and lifestyle. There is no one size fits all for shoes.
I speak often on how shoes are the product category that demands the most precision in fashion. You can fake or alter the size of clothing. A badly sized ring or hat can be adjusted but you cannot continue to wear a badly fitted shoe. What makes an ideal shoe—I won't say perfect as that doesn’t exist—is that it understands the idiosyncrasies of the foot. That comes from communicating quality, fit and comfort to every particular person as the individuality of each foot is never identical.
So that is when the made-to-measure option comes into play, which On Pedder has acknowledged. That is the rarity and minority of the offering, but that extra step lends it that truth of luxury, which is, whatever you're spending an excessive amount of money on has to be worth it in the long run. The item has to acknowledge you, rather than you trying to fit into it.
The Maureen pump has become an iconic staple to the brand, was that by choice? Or purely by accident? RL It was on purpose, but I definitely did not believe it initially.
Why not? RL Because I'm a man who doesn’t wear women’s shoes, so what I saw wasn’t translating to me at the time! [Laughs] I've always been very cautious in my business to listen to the consumer. And in this case, I even mean my staff. Because majority of the company are women and they are the ones who can put on the shoes and understand the end product more.
I can be the most wonderful creator in the world, but I cannot have primary research on the product because I am not the consumer. So, when we have a collective of strong-minded women who are very clear about the shoes they are selling, I'll make my arguments and then step back and give them a chance to prove it.
The coat of arms for the Maureen is all about simplicity. It's a flattering and versatile product and can be worn anywhere from the red carpet, to the office, to a casual weekend. It is really the hardest to create a simple product. Putting all sorts of feathers and embellishments, that's akin to slapping stuff on top of a meal that's already made. Less is more, and that's why the Maureen is the copied shoe in the world last year.
"The fact that high earners and high net worth individuals spend money on something does not make it luxury, it just makes it expensive."
In an era where fashion has become so fast-paced, is the made-to-measure aspect of the brand an effort to bring back a time where people had their clothes and shoes bespoke? RL Before we launched, we made sure we had the sensibility of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, two major sources of inspiration for the ethos of the brand. I didn’t plan this, but I discovered that almost every brand I've developed or founded had an element of feminism. I was trying to bring what men already had in the luxury sector to women. The same applies to our latest brand Absence of Paper, a brand specialising in white shirts for women. Bizarrely enough, there's nothing like that in the world.
Our shoes have the same luxury elements that [Italian brand] Berluti has, where you can buy a pair of shoes and wear them for a lifetime. We cater to that, which is why we actually have a lifetime warranty with our shoes—that’s something you never find anywhere. And that’s because it's product first for us.
So, our sensibility with the shoes being of such particular quality, is again us trying to be honest and authentic to what luxury means. Luxury has got to be anything but pain, and I mean any kind of pain, except for monetary of course. [Laughs]
Your definition of luxury is very interesting. RL Think about it this way, obviously fast fashion is not luxury, but fast fashion tries to be contemporary and affluent. Those are two very different things. The fact that high earners and high net-worth individuals spend money on something does not make it luxury, it just makes it expensive. There’s a difference. For example, if I were to sell you your magazine and it costs more than the average magazine, the fact that you spent a little bit more means the item has to have exponential value that you can't find elsewhere or has exclusive attributes.
Now the next level is if you were to ask me about a particular page from last month’s magazine, I shouldn’t shut you down and say that’s last month's content. I should be very open to delivering information and dialogue so that you are buying into a tribe, rather than buying into an item that is perishable once its purchased.
To define and deliver luxury in this space, we are doing the opposite of fast fashion. We don’t want to be in every store in the world; we don’t want to make a million pairs of shoes. Rarity is going to be a very sustained element. The made-to-measure service is not here to counteract anything, it's here to deliver that personalised offering that just goes beyond off the shelf. We want to redefine what luxury is and take it back to how it was done in the beginning. Do it slower and better, that's what craftsmanship is. Anything that’s rushed, is never good—or good enough.
Do you have more people buying into the made-to-measure option? RL No, we’re not a made-to-measure brand per se. We are a brand that offers that service. The people who chose that option tend to already be customers of the brand who want something extra. It’s the minority of the business, not our focal point. If it was, I would have to scale it, and you can't scale made-to-measure. It’s a paradox to even consider made-to-measure as your business. We’re offering a minority of the business because we have the facilities, position, interest and the skill set. Its terribly important to keep doing that to remember just what luxury means. It takes longer, it costs more, but the end result is totally worth it.
How particular are you about choosing your stockists for your brand? RL Well first of all, take a look around. The On Pedder store is amazing. The distribution strategy is a specific tactic we’ve developed from the start. It is a part of our positioning strategy. When you're not trying to build your own stores, placement is important. It becomes a validation and an authentication of our position in the market. If we were placed with contemporary labels, you would assume Malone Souliers was a contemporary, affordable line. We're defined by the counterparts we have in the store.
There's also the element of loyalty which comes into play as well. I want On Pedder to know they can always count on us to say no to a lot of other stores because we’re more interested in building this symbiotic relationship for a longer-term period. I could have the most wonderful communications plan but if I was in every single store or the wrong stores, then something is amiss. The worst thing that I can do for my business is mess up the brand to try to fix it, because changing consumer perception is one of the most expensive things anyone can do in a business.
"The way you feel, and the sentiment you have for a brand when it comes to luxury, is a lot more about your own intuition, rather than the practicality of the matter. Luxury isn’t there to be practical, it's the difference between buying a sports car and renting a van."
The Singapore Tatler Sketch Quiz x Roy Luwolt