As a little girl, growing up in the Essex countryside, Nicole Robinson’s favourite game was playing shops with her younger sister. Together they would lay their wares (usually fruit from the garden), outside their front gate and encourage passers-by to make a purchase. A typical childhood game perhaps, but also a precursor of things to come, with Nicole going on to run children’s shoe company, Papillon, while that little sister grew up to be none other than Anya Hindmarch, handbag designer extraordinaire.
“It sounds like we had overbearing parents whipping us into shape,” says Nicole. “But in fact, Anya, my brother (William, also a successful businessman) and myself had a very lazy childhood. But I think we have always been very focused.”
Papillon is indeed a huge success, creating beautiful children’s footwear. “I like to think that our shoes are classical, but with a fun twist,” says Nicole. “As a mother myself, I want children’s shoes to be practical and easy to wear, which is why the colours are muted, so they go with lots of different outfits.”
It was Nicole’s children, Isabella, 17, and Max, 15, who helped inspire the formation of Papillon back in 2003. “I was struggling to find decent children’s shoes, and had taken to buying them abroad,” says Nicole. “One day I got talking to another mother, Maggie, at the school gates, and she had the same problem. It was that discussion that sparked the beginnings of Papillon.”
Maggie Snouck, a former advertising executive, became Nicole’s business partner and more recently the pair have been joined by Felicia Brocklebank, who has brought her financial acumen to the company. “I would describe us more like sisters,” says Nicole. “We talk endlessly on the phone to each other, and when we’re not talking, we’re emailing.”
The company now boasts two stores – in Belgravia and on Marylebone Lane – as well as a thriving online business. “We design all the buckles, stitching, colour, leather and soles. We also keep a close eye on performance and fit, as we are very aware that no feet are the same,” says Nicole. “Our shoes are manufactured in Portugal and Italy, so we regularly make trips over there to see how things are going. The leather storage rooms at the factories are amazing places. I love the smell and to look at the rows of different colours and different textures of the leather, suede and patents. You get a very different view when you look at something on a roll rather than made up into a shoe.”
Once the shoes are made up, they are tested on children. “My own children have been incredibly patient testers in the past, but they are getting a bit old for that now,” says Nicole. Such juggling of work and family has been made easier by working alongside other mothers. “We try to share things out, so, for example, we’ll usually take it in turns to travel abroad,” says Nicole. Nevertheless, she admits that if you asked her daughter Isabella whether she successfully juggles her life, the response would be in the negative. “She would definitely say that I don’t. She likes to tease and make fun of me. But the fact of the matter is, as much as you’d like to keep all the balls in the air all of the time, life simply doesn’t work like that.”
This healthy dose of pragmatism also extends to the business. “We will probably open more stores, but I think it’s important to go gently, gently. So while we’d like to become a bit bigger, I think we’re happy to be not too big.” The perfect size and perfectly formed. Sounds a little like a Papillon shoe.
Check out what inspires Nicole Robinson in our article A few of my favourite things
Papillon won Best Footwear in the Junior Design Awards 2011