Catching up with French Sole founder Jane Winkworth
PUBLISHED: 15:01 14 December 2016 | UPDATED: 15:05 14 December 2016
Jan Raycroft catches up with a woman whose footwear keeps those in the know in our counties looking pretty and feeling comfortable
From recommending the best fish and chips or pubs near the village of Swallowfield south of Reading – and she’s found them – to the sudden arrival of Chinese tourists at French Sole’s treasured outlet there for dreamy shoes, boots and bags, it’s all a delight for founder Jane Winkworth.
But when we finally catch up Jane is both laughing and railing at the jams on local roads: “My life revolves around traffic right now, it really does. Camberley… that’s always hideous, the traffic, not the place… and all I want to do is get to Swallowfield.”
Don’t we all, for this is where Jane, known in fashion circles as ‘The Queen of Ballet Flats’ and her team made the ingenious decision to open up an outlet for her high end brand usually sold to the most discerning clientele at French Sole’s stores in Mayfair, Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Marylebone Village. You’ll also find them in top shopping destinations in 400 stores across the planet and here, in the likes of Harrods.
All kinds of exquisite French Sole brand ‘stuff’ ends up in the outlet – which currently can only open on Friday (10am to 4.30pm) and Saturday (9.30am to 1pm) because of tenancy arrangements and gate control where it is. That’s next to the French Sole warehouse at Lambs Farm Business Park in Back Lane, Swallowfield and, pleasant as the village and surrounding countryside is, it hardly bears comparison with the bright lights of the plushest parts of the West End for some fashion fanatics.
Not that this stops people coming from far and wide to snap up bargains.
“That’s something else that’s a bit ridiculous, but items from last season, samples, wholesale returns, perhaps sizes less sought in a particular market, just sell like hot cakes in the outlet,” Jane reveals. “As for the handbags, they are flying off the shelves almost before we can put a price tag on them.” Amongst the gems you’ll find items from core collections and signature shoes at greatly reduced prices.
No one’s that surprised when what we might call the Henley and Marlow sets craftily nip across into Berkshire to find French Sole bargains rather than take the train and underground to South Ken or Sloane Square (other upmarket destinations are available). After all, most of us who live in the Shires don’t stick to the ‘That’s so last season’ mantra when it comes to classic looks which keeps us happy.
We could even cope with the Duchess of Cambridge, sister Pippa and mother Carole nipping to Swallowfield – all have been seen in French Sole shoes – after all, Bucklebury is just 15 miles away, while Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have been welcomed at the King’s Road store.
But capital dwellers are actually travelling out of town, coming down to Reading and then heading for Swallowfield – which they’d probably never have heard of if it wasn’t for French Sole listing the address on its website alongside the more salubrious locations of its stores.
And there’s more. “The new one is Chinese tourists who come to London and must already have done their research. We’re getting them catching a train to Reading and then taking a taxi to the outlet to stock up while here,” says Jane.
That’s lovely for Jane and her business, but ‘Oi, what about the rest us… this is a local shop for local people’. Or something like that. Well, here’s the news. Nothing is definite yet, no papers signed, but Jane is looking at opening a full-time store in our counties, possibly in Marlow!
It’s going to take more than the queues at Marlow Bridge to slow down this glamorous lady whose three children with husband John (“I’ve had him for ever,” she says) have so far produced seven grandchildren to dote on.
She founded the business back in 1989 and when I suggest this was a ‘kitchen table launch’ she laughs: “Oh no darling, dining table… please!” We have to turn the calendar back to 1968 for when she launched her first collection, working with Gamba, Annello and Davide in London. Then a chance meeting in 1989 with a gent connected with what is now the business’s French factory saw footwear being made using Jane’s own designs, and with materials not normally seen on ballet shoes.
“At first I was selling to friends to raise money for charity, and it just grew from there,” Jane recalls. “As the orders came in I realised there was an actual business here.”
A mail order company was formed and the four London stores followed. Even today 10% of French Soles profits go to charity. The shoes are hand lasted by third generation shoemakers in partner factories in France and Spain, using only the very finest of Italian leathers. In the UK, long-serving employees love French Sole as much as the customers. “There are many staff who have been with us for donkey’s years – I can’t get rid of them!” laughs Jane. “It really is like one big family.”
Find out more at frenchsole.com, including details of the shoes, boots, bags and accessories, stores, offers and gift cards.