Patrick Cox walks to the beat of his own drum – and in his own shoe designs for that matter. An iconic shoe designer who has firmly established himself as one of the great fashion figures of Britain in the 1980s, Patrick Cox talks to us about the freedom of fashion in the 80s, how self-evolution doesn’t stop in your thirties, and why being accosted by a family of gorillas was one of the happiest experiences of his life.
You’ve led a pretty international life from an early age, is that right?
I’m originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the age of two, we moved to Nigeria and lived two or three years in Lagos before moving again to Chad. We lived in cities that don’t have the same names anymore because back then they were French colonial names and now they’re African names of course, so I’m not quite sure where we lived! Then we moved back to Canada before returning to Africa, this time to Cameroon, where my parents separated. My mother, brother and I moved back to Edmonton, but I got the hell out of Edmonton when I was 17 and moved to Toronto. I lived there for just over two years, then moved to London after turning 20 to attend shoe college.
So is London where you really got your start in fashion?
I’d worked for a Toronto-based designer called Loucas Kleanthous initially. I’d never been to fashion school or anything, I was just a kid, but they liked my style. They had me in charge of styling the fashion shows; rounding up all the accessories for the shoots, working on casting and even hair and makeup. The shoot designer noticed that I particularly enjoyed doing the shoes and he told me about of Cordwainers College (now a part of London College of Fashion, UAL). They taught footwear, leather goods design and saddlery in the east end of London. So I found the college by calling around a lot (there was no internet back then!) and in September ’83 I moved to London.
Because of the way I looked and the way I dressed, I got noticed in London; I guess I was on the tail end of the New Romantics era. I met Vivienne Westwood’s Worlds End team, literally in a club bathroom. They said ‘oh you’re that guy who shops in our store. We like you, you can hang out with us.’ That was the biggest acceptance I’ve ever had in my life. Vivienne Westwood was half the reason I’d moved to London – I was obsessed with what she was doing with her collections. Then Vivienne’s assistant became homeless and he moved in with me. At that time Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne had just stopped working together and Malcolm always dealt with the accessories side of any show and the styling. So when he left, they suddenly had no shoes six weeks before their Paris show in March ’84 so David, my flatmate, volunteered me. I went in to have a design meeting and I ended up doing the shoes for her show and actually even ended up modelling in it! That kind of launched me because the audience was made up of all the up-and-coming English designers. So word got out that I was the cobbler in town because there was no one else really . . . I mean there was always Manolo Blahnik, but Manolo was Manolo, it was a different world. So I started doing shoes! I launched my own collection in September ’85 – I had a little stand at the trade show at British Fashion Week and that was the beginning of it all!
What a beginning! All thanks to an encounter in a club bathroom . . .
Yes, and we’ll leave that at that!
“I mean I know we sold a load of loafers to kids who went dancing all night long but I didn’t really know how seminal it was until now with hindsight.”
So fast forward a few years and your shoes ended up being this cult hit in the UK garage scene.
I mean, I didn’t even know that – in Sophia Webster’s words –I was like a ‘god’ in that scene; I mean I know we sold a load of loafers to kids who went dancing all night long but I didn’t really know how seminal it was until now with hindsight. I didn’t go to those clubs because I was a little bit older by then and was riding this success wave so I wasn’t going out dancing all night anymore. So that whole underground thing – I knew it was there but I wasn’t really part of it, my product was though!
So was it the Sophia Webster collaboration you did recently that really opened your eyes to the impact your shoes and your designs had back in the day?
I did know a bit, but that collaboration really brought it to the fore. Seeing the videos they made of people literally going crazy over me 20 years later, and then going into her office and seeing how the people who work there were just so excited to meet me; I was really surprised. Especially because I’ve sort of left the industry now, and living in Ibiza I have a different life here. I don’t get that ‘adulation’ much now, so it was nice! I knew I was a big part of English history, club history, the ‘Wannabe’ years but I didn’t realise how culty it really got. I knew we sold a lot of loafers, that’s it!
“My favourite reaction whenever anyone came into my showroom back in the day was just to see their smile.”
And how was it working with Sophia Webster?
I was blown away by working with Sophia. My favourite reaction whenever anyone came into my showroom back in the day was just to see them smile. And I remember seeing Sophia’s shoes for the first time and just smiling and wanting to know ‘who is this.’ It’s so hard to have an original voice because everything’s been done but she really has that voice and I felt a kinship with her. In an interview that she did, I saw that she said, ‘I became a shoe designer because of Patrick Cox’ and I couldn’t believe it! She told the story of seeing the shoes I did with the water in the heel and the Eiffel Tower and the Big Ben, and Statue of Liberty, and that her sister had a pair which she idolised and that’s what got her thinking about shoe design.
So I just sent her a DM! I thanked her for the nice words about me and said that I’d love to work together. She probably thought I was nuts at first, but after that, it flowed smoothly. I loved working with her and her team.
Unfortunately, we launched right after lockdown hit this year so all the big launch events were just gone which was such a shame. But the reaction online was amazing. We were worried at first about launching something at such a difficult time, but nobody criticised us, they were all loving this nostalgia vibe we had, saying ‘this is the best thing on my feed’, ‘can’t wait to go dancing again one day with a pair of these’, it was really nice, it was all positive.
“People sniff a fake story a mile away these days, and this was just so real, people loved that and relate to that.”
I’ve always felt that everything I’ve done in my career was very real. I was never just designing a product, I was always designing based on what was going on in my life at the time. I think everyone really felt the ‘realness’ in the collaboration between Sophia and me because she was so part of that scene and is a dancer. People sniff a fake story a mile away these days, and this was just so real, people loved that and relate to that.
So what were your inspirations – you were successful because you were doing something so different. Where did the ideas come from?
I came at design from such a different angle to the rest of the footwear industry. We never really took part in footwear fairs, we took part in fashion fairs. I think that was a big statement – we were fashion, we were sold in fashion stores underneath an outfit, we weren’t originally sold in shoe departments, until the Wannabe years when we were so big we were sold everywhere, but before that, it was fashion boutiques that carried me. I just had a different point of view; I think it was naivety! I didn’t know any better, there were no role models for me. The first article ever written about me was in The Face magazine and they called me the new Manolo Blahnik and I didn’t know who that was!
“The first article ever written about me was in The Face magazine and they called me the new Manolo Blahnik and I didn’t know who that was!”
I was coming from middle-of-nowhere Canada, my fashion references were Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty on TV, no Yves Saint Laurent, etc. – that all came later, my knowledge was gained on the hoof. At shoe college at my first day of school, my teacher said ‘draw a shoe’ and I think 90% of the class drew a pink or red stiletto and I was drawing a square-toed thing and the teacher held up my drawing and said ‘we’re drawing shoes not cars’ but that came back to haunt him!
But I was just doing what I wanted and I thought that was the point of fashion. And in those hard times in England, when the economy was in a bad place, what else did you have but your own creativity?
My inspiration was my day to day life. The male inspiration was me – I’m the sample size, English size eight, European 42. Every shoe design was tried on my foot my whole career. If I would wear it, it was in, if I wouldn’t wear it, it was out. There was no marketing department saying ‘we need a shoe to suit a teenager in Japan or a mall rat in America’, it was just me going, yes I like it, it’s in. For women it was just women around me – my shoes are very of the moment. We did things that were retro but always with current references. I rarely went back into history, it was the things I’d seen on TV I guess as a bored out of his mind Canadian teenager! It was very pop culture, that’s why I identified with Sophia because she has that pop reference in what she does.
“If I would wear it, it was in, if I wouldn’t wear it, it was out.”
Through all of your career, you must have been travelling a lot too.
Yes, I opened stores all over the world, from very early on in my career I moved all my production to Italy and I was the only one who could speak English and Italian so I did everything to link with them. I opened the stores in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, London. I literally went to all the stores about once a fortnight; it was an insane schedule but I knew no better and I loved it.
It must have been great travelling around and seeing the different way your shoes and your designs were consumed by different cultures too?
Yes, and I think designers really trade on information – you know what’s going on here or there, then simulate it in your work – just knowing what’s hot in Tokyo or what’s hot in New York, I think that influences you greatly. I’ve always been a vagabond since I was a child and I just love travel and it was so easy to travel back then compared to now.
“That’s the top experience in my life – my trips to Gabon. Just being in the jungle with 15 gorillas and no other humans.”
Have you been back to Africa and your childhood hometowns at all?
Unfortunately not as the places I grew up aren’t the most stable places at the moment, but I have been back to South Africa and Gabon; my friend is a conservationist and he has a project returning captive-raised gorillas to the wild so I’ve been there to visit his project. That’s the top experience in my life – my trips to Gabon. Just being in the jungle with 15 gorillas and no other humans. I’m very lucky that I could do that because he’s a good friend of mine so I went along with him. There are no other people there; in fact, the third time we went we couldn’t get near the gorillas because they’d really reverted to being wild which was the whole point.
But yes I’ve been to Africa a lot, I’ve been to Lamu, Kenya, all the way down the east coast, Egypt, Morocco, a lot of Africa.
Tell me more about your trips to Gabon, it sounds like an incredible experience.
Yes, although not the ‘getting there’ part! You have to fly London to Paris, then Paris to Libreville, then we went on a military plane, then it’s an off-road drive for about eight hours then you get to a river and you had to travel upriver for several hours often including clearing fallen trees out of the way. It took a while! But once we were there – it was amazing. I mean, you’ve never seen stars like this before and it’s just in the middle of nowhere. Of course, if anything goes wrong you’re in trouble though! But it’s incredible.
“If I hadn’t discovered disco at a young age I’d be working with animals!”
I have a real love of animals, I always have. If I hadn’t discovered disco at a young age I’d be working with animals! Part of the reason I moved to Ibiza actually was to investigate opening an animal rescue sanctuary here.
On one of my early visits to the gorilla sanctuary, we crossed the river to where the gorillas were and they came right up to us, got right into our faces to really take a look at us and then the ‘teenage’ gorillas came up and things got really crazy. They’re so fascinated by human bodies! These two females and a small baby were literally on top of me; they’d ripped off my shirt and were all over me, licking and the baby even used my stomach as a toilet! It was really wild. I mean, it could have gone very badly, but it didn’t and it’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life – just that connection you get with animals when you’re looking into their eyes and there’s a sentient being looking back at you.
That all sounds so incredible! You’re very lucky to have had that kind of access. So besides Gabon, what are your favourite travel memories?
I used to love the Aman resorts so much. The one on Moyo Island, the Amanwana – I went there for a week at Christmas once and we ended up getting stuck for three weeks because of bad weather and it was an amazing paradise. One morning we could see this splashing out in the bay and this whale had gotten separated from its pod and then a two-metre wide manta ray was there playing with the whale. So we got one of the fishermen to take us out on a boat, me and my boyfriend at the time, and I just jumped into the water; everyone else was asking what the hell I was doing but I wanted to play too! That’s just how I feel about animals. I could feel them brush against me and I could see these giant shadows moving around me.
“I’d gone deep sea fishing and caught some tuna and I didn’t actually eat fish at the time, but we gave the fish to the hotel and I remember Issey Miyake saying it was some of the best sashimi he’d ever had.”
That was an amazing trip. Issey Miyake was there at the same time as us; I’d gone deep sea fishing and caught some tuna and I didn’t actually eat fish at the time, but we gave the fish to the hotel and I remember Issey Miyake saying it was some of the best sashimi he’d ever had.
Other than that, it’s my trips to Tokyo. I’ve probably been to Japan more than 50 times and it’s just mind-boggling. It’s a bit more westernised now sure, but it’s amazing. And in Japan, I was more of a brand, not just a cobbler like I was in the UK. But their energy, the architecture, the foreignness of it, it’s amazing – I’ve never been anywhere else where you walk two metres off a main street and you’re just lost instantly. It felt so other-worldly. And they’re so self-sufficient in the fashion industry there, they’re just doing their own thing completely.
So what are you up to these days?
Not too much! I’ve finally finished a few small projects, and now waiting for planning permissions here for a larger product but things are very slow here! Mañana culture…
I’ve become a lot more spiritual, I’m doing a lot more to do with nature, I even enjoy gardening now which I never thought I’d say! I have an old English bulldog and during Covid I fostered a dog from a rescue centre, half pitbull, half American staffie which I never thought I’d have but he’s heaven and he’s really waking up my Ibiza – my other dog is too old for walks but with this one we go hiking, we go to the beach, we go all over.
“But it’s all been about slowing down now. I’m not ‘that’ Patrick Cox anymore – I’m just trying to figure out who I am now.”
But it’s all been about slowing down now. I’m not ‘that’ Patrick Cox anymore – I’m just trying to figure out who I am now. The difference between 16 and 36 years old is huge, so why isn’t the same true between 36 and 56 – why are we not allowed any more development? So that’s where I am – finding myself again! You continually evolve, but society says whoever you are at 36, that’s it, you’re that person forever but no, that doesn’t work. What made me happy in my 30s, 40s, I don’t even think about anymore. I’m looking for the next chapter. I’d like to maybe buy somewhere here, do it up, sell it and buy the next place. I think I’m very much leaning more towards architecture and interiors now. I’d like to do up a whole house, then move on to the next one – establish a Patrick Cox ‘look’ here in Ibiza.
So you think you’ll stay put in Ibiza?
Yeah, I’m so happy here, I don’t want to leave! The thought of being in a shoe factory in Italy every two weeks now makes me break out in hives! Even London, which I loved living in for years, but I look at friends living there now and I don’t have any envy at all! I did London at a really great level for so long, but now I feel like I’m good here. I’d love to be involved in an agro-turismo hotel or even in a new beach bar or something – something where my taste and my experience can play a role, just see if who I am and what I’ve created over the years can bring something to the table. It’s definitely the best place for me for this chapter of my life.