An interview with bespoke shoe-maker Anita Neilson
Anita Neilson is a commercial photographer, writer, has just completed a PhD and as if that is not enough, last year began making bespoke vegan shoes. Anita has always loved various forms of crafting and regularly designs and makes her own clothes but making shoes isn’t exactly an easy or common craft that people take on. We find out what inspired her to take this ‘step’ in her artistic journey.
First, explain how you became vegan?
My sister became vegan in 2014 and she nagged me constantly about what I ate, so I tried Veganuary in 2015. Sadly though, I didn’t maintain it and went back to a pescatarian diet. I justified this by telling myself that I needed to eat fish and eggs for omega 3 fats, as I’d had breast cancer in the past and I had read lots of studies which said omega 3 was beneficial for cancer prevention.
I also volunteered at an animal sanctuary and they sold their chickens’ free range eggs to help to raise funds. I used to buy those eggs as I thought I was helping the sanctuary and I didn’t know then that if eggs were left in the chicken huts, the chickens would eat them to supplement their own nutritional needs.
I remember my sister asking me how I could work at the animal sanctuary, claim to love animals and still eat animal flesh. That question made me feel uneasy and cemented my decision to go vegan. I tried again, cutting out all animal products. Even my husband joined me in fact, he was the main driving force as he did all the cooking. We both started to look and feel much better and realised that we loved this lifestyle with a whole world of new tastes and textures. There was no going back.
What led you to design and make your own vegan shoes?
Once I’d changed my diet, I wanted to change my lifestyle too, buying vegan, cruelty free clothing and make-up for example. I have always enjoyed designing and making my own outfits, and being a self-confessed shoe-holic, I would often design a full outfit around a fabulous pair of shoes. The more outrageous and striking, the better.
Unfortunately, my usual favourite, quirky brand that I regularly bought could not guarantee that all the materials or glues they used in the manufacturing process would be vegan. This really bothered me. I had made so many lifestyle changes to lead a vegan lifestyle, I couldn’t bear the thought of buying another pair of shoes that used animal products, despite my addiction, just to look good. The only solution was to make them myself.
How did you learn to make and design shoes?
I often designed and made my own clothes, so it didn’t feel too much of a leap to envision making my own shoes. Shoes are my passion, having more than three hundred pairs, I love how they complete an outfit. I used to decorate plain shoes, making them over as my own creation, so when my husband suggesting that I do a course in shoe making, I leapt at the chance.
In 2016, I attended the London College of Fashion to do their course in shoe making. I took all my own vegan materials and fabrics and out of a class of ten, I was the only participant that made a non-leather, highly decorated, vegan shoe. I was delighted with the result and felt I had found my calling.
How would you describe your own signature style?
I want my shoes to loudly proclaim ‘Here I am!’ My shoes must be outstanding and yes, the pun is intentional. They are part of the outfit, not just to compliment it, but the materials and trim are also coordinated to my outfit. Above all, they are proudly cruelty free.
How do you design a new pair of bespoke shoes?
The design for the shoes will originate from the client’s choice of outfit or fabrics. I sketch ideas for the style of shoe including the type of toe and heel shape and trimmings. I enjoy designing and 3D printing unusual heel shapes, many leave an imprint on soft surfaces such as sand, making an impression as you walk.
Using co-ordinating fabrics, trims, gems and bows I then create a bespoke shoe that will perfectly match their outfit giving it the ultimate ‘wow’ factor.
What is the name of your business?
I trade under the brand name ‘Immogen Neilson’. I chose this name because I have always loved the name Immogen and if I’d ever had a daughter that would have been her name. My business is my ‘baby’ so calling it ‘Immogen Neilson’ felt right.
What plans do you have for your business in the future?
I hope that the original, outstanding nature of each pair of shoes will speak for themselves in terms of quality and design, while providing clients with the opportunity to purchase a product they can trust to be cruelty free. I would like my passion for unusual designs that are free from animal by-products to be recognised by larger, quality retail businesses and they would consider taking me on as a designer. I love creating shoes for special occasions such as weddings, media presenting or proms, so I will continue to create cruelty-free shoes worthy of that ‘Here I am!’ factor for all clients, vegan or not, to enjoy without having killed an animal in order to do that. Changing perceptions takes time and I want to be a part of that.
Written by freelance writer Marina Clement.