The Aesthete

Ahead of the Curve

Stylist and shoe designer Tabitha Simmons boasts the enviable combination of a thriving career, a beautiful family and a truly fabulous closet.

by Annabel Tollman Photography Backyard Bill

I first met Tabitha Simmons on the back of a camel on a beach in Morocco. I think we were both about 12 (a fib) and interns at Dazed & Confused (Tabitha) and Wallpaper* (me). Tabitha was the raven-haired consumptive beauty who worked at an achingly hip magazine and I was the milk-fed Home Counties blonde who wouldn’t know cool if it slapped her across the face. Surprisingly enough, we became friends.

Tabitha’s styling career started the same way mine (and all good Cinderella stories) did: working in retail. “It’s problem solving. All these women were different sizes, not like models, and I’d help them with all their outfits.” After studying TV and set design, Tabitha was discovered as a model while working in Joseph and from there discovered styling. She modeled on shoots styled by Katie Grand, who then gave her an internship. Tabitha subsequently assisted Karl Templer before branching out on her own as a stylist and later launching her own shoe line. Along the way she managed to squeeze in getting married to fashion photographer Craig McDean and having two sons, Elliott and Dylan.

In her own words, when pressed to define her style, it’s feminine, Gothic, Victorian, English, quirky.

An unspecified-yet-embarrassingly-large number of years later Tabitha has the same alabaster skin, same jet-black hair, same pointy-toed, spiky-heeled, coltishly-legged, Wednesday Addams look. In her own words, when pressed to define her style, it’s “feminine, Gothic, Victorian, English, quirky.” In my mind’s eye, Tabitha’s signature pieces are a lace-up Victorian boot, skinny jeans and something darkly cape-like and vaguely akin to something that Johnny Depp would wear in a Tim Burton film. So it’s a surprise when I open her wardrobe and discover lavishly fringed McQueen cocktail dresses, flamboyant printed Balenciaga dresses and gold baroque Dolce & Gabbana numbers, including their Sophia Loren-esque kitschy tomato print dress. According to Simmons, “My style changes—one minute it’s something sexy and corseted by Dolce, another time it’s dark and rockery.” She says her favorite pieces are Dolce and McQueen one-offs that never even came down the runway (Simmons has worked with both houses on their runway shows), and, quite frankly, who wouldn’t favor such treasures?

It is a universally overlooked truth that style evolves and adapts just as its owner does. I realize that as I’m looking at Tabitha’s closet like an ancient aunt looking at a child and saying “My! Haven’t you grown?” The rocker garb still gets a look in—Simmons wails with semi-mock distress about the loss of her favorite tailcoat, which she left on a plane. “Clothes, to me, are filled with memories, I remember where I’ve worn them. I become quite attached to clothing. Stefano and Domenico used to call me Charlie (as in Chaplin). I wore that tailcoat with everything and anything.” Why the tailcoat fascination? “Probably because I used to love Adam Ant. I wore an Adam Ant T-shirt to the menswear show and a little chap asked me, ‘Who is Adam Ant?’” Now we’re both elderly aunts. The discovery of a pair of vaguely Miss Marple sensible school-y Mary-Janes that Tabitha once bravely sported to a cooler-than-Christmas The Kills concert in Montauk, brings us on to shoes.

Simmons branched out from styling and launched her own shoe line in 2009, which seemed like a natural progression. “When I was styling, I’d make my own shoes. Rocking horse shoes." Does she mean rocking-horse shoes, or big club kid platforms? "I got the set guy to build them.” Working with designers on their catwalk collections also fueled the passion. “I loved working with the shoes, consulting on the lasts ? and the heel. Then the constructions come in. I fell in love with the process. It was something that I felt like I would love to do.” 

Virtually every woman has a shoe fetish, but for many different reasons. Some love them because they always fit, some love them because they make you stand differently, some love them because of their transformative powers. A shoe designer must have some definitive answer on their strange magic. “Shoes are hugely important, they recycle everything in my wardrobe. I bought this vintage burgundy dress in Nashville five years ago. I dug it out because I got this shoe. The shoe gave life to the dress. You can wear the same dress and give it a totally different attitude. Picture this dress with a little tiny kitten heel versus a big platform.”

When I design, it starts off with the woman, then the mood and then the function...

Simmons has managed to carve a niche for herself in a shoe world dominated by two juggernaut brands. Her shoes have a stylistic trademark — off-kilter irreverent styling with luxe details — that has quickly established her brand. The “Bailey,” with its bitchy ankle strap, is already a classic. “When I design, it starts off with the woman, then the mood and then the function. Being a stylist, I’m so used to trends happening really quickly. With shoes I wanted to do something with more longevity. The ones I am wearing are from the second season. I still see people in shoes from my first collection.” Truly something all of us would like to hear when parting with hard-earned cash for a pretty pump or a lovely sandal. Simmons concurs: “The things I spend my money on are shoes and tailoring. And cocktail dresses.” And really, what else is there in life?

Rummaging in Simmons’ closet, I spot two pairs of McQueen Mary Janes from 2006 that I also once owned and with whom I have subsequently parted company. “I have a problem throwing shoes away. I’m a bit of a hoarder,” Simmons says. Looking at them now, I wonder if I made a mistake; they still look relevant. Her first pair of designer shoes were, of course, Manolo Blahnik — black patent with a diamond shape. “I think I still have them! People always think that stylists have wardrobes and wardrobes of stuff, but too much stuff means that I don’t end up wearing it (This contradicts her hoarding quote – does she hoard shoes, but get rid of clothing?) Motherhood also makes you practical.”

I’d see Tabitha, years later, in Milan, (the timing/tense of this is v. confusing) Maybe say: I saw Tabitha tk years ago with her husband and their two children over boiled eggs and marmalade on toast at the Principe di Savoia.  It all seemed so frightfully civilized, family life on the road easily taken in their stride. I ask how she deals with it all without succumbing to Lululemon-land. Or get rid of all this para except for following quote, and add it to the end of Motherhood makes you practical.  “I think you have less sleep. And there’s never a quiet moment. It’s made me much more organized.  I was tidy in my work, but the rest of me was a mess. Never tidied, never owned a piece of furniture.”

A need for longevity, whether its due to being terribly English or a reaction to the transience of fashion, permeates both wardrobe and home. The Simmons-McDean house is divinely pale and delicate and much more formal than I had expected from two very cool downtown Brits with two small children. I had imagined something warehouse-y, with polished concrete floors, rather than delicately beautiful oak floors easily scuffed by a studded stiletto heel, and pale sofas that are the enemy of rogue magic markers. It was apparently a slow process to arrive at its current state of elegance. “It took two years to decorate the living room. People would laugh. It was empty. We spent six months sitting at a little table with garbage cans upturned for seats.” Every purchase, she says, was painstaking. “Can I live with this table for the rest of my life? The table would be the same amount as a dress, but the dress would be an easier purchase.”

She points out a table with legs carved to look like dragonflies that was her first purchase at auction and a delicately mothy porcelain skull, bought from Christie’s via a champagne-fortified telephone bid. A framed McQueen textile features winged beasties, and the sofa has a pillow with dragonflies. I point out a dragonfly-butterfly theme. “Yes,” she says conspiratorially. “Don’t tell Craig. I don’t think he’s noticed.” And once again, we are 12, riding on the back of a camel and chasing dragonflies, albeit wearing better shoes and pretending to be grownups.

Cover Look: Layered fringe dress with mesh top detail, Alexander McQueen; "Dulcina" Shoe, Tabitha Simmons.