“I’m someone who makes mistakes” – Dawn French talks failure
What greater career high could there be than Dame Judi Dench calling your company’s customer care line to thank you for “saving” her with one of the products you had designed? How about if she also mentioned that you had been recommended to her by the Queen?
That’s precisely what happened earlier this year to Lisa Kay, footwear designer and owner of Sole Bliss, a company specialising in comfortable shoes, which she runs from a modest base on the outskirts of Watford. It wasn’t a total surprise to Lisa, who was aware that Queen Camilla is a huge fan of her designs. In fact, she has 11 pairs and counting. The range was originally designed for women with bunions but it is now reaching a much wider audience with those seeking relief for their poor, put-upon feet.
Lisa, 59, recalls: “Dame Judi asked her assistant to pass her the phone and said: ‘It’s Judi Dench here, I just want to thank you enormously for the shoes. I broke both my big toes and these are the only things I can wear.’”
“We were curious to know where she had heard about us and her answer was: ‘The Queen Consort is a very good friend of mine and she told me I have to try these shoes.’ So we asked what she needed them for and were told: ‘The Coronation of the King. You’ve saved me!’”
Softly spoken Lisa, a mother-of-two and grandmother of one, laughs incredulously at this association with the upper echelons of British society. To be on the radar of queens of both the country and the big screen was not part of her plan when she identified a gap in the market and launched her shoe business. Her primary aim was to design elegant, dressy shoes with heels comfortable enough for women with misshapen, wide and often painful feet to wear for extended periods, such as weddings.
In fact, it was while struggling to find footwear to accommodate her own painful bunion that, six years ago, Lisa steered away from her general accessories business to concentrate on shoes.
So certain was she that there was a market for her comfy shoes that she closed her four shops – three in London, one in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire – and pumped the profits into internet-only business Sole Bliss.
“Around 10 million women in this country have problems with their feet, including bunions, so we realised that catering for them could be a business in its own right,” says Lisa. “I was already designing shoes for our previous company and noticed that any patterns that accommodated foot problems were always the most popular.”
“Dame Judi Dench came on the phone and said: ‘The Queen Consort told me I have to try these shoes. You’ve saved me!’”
The company started out with four designs – two medium-heeled and two high-heeled – and, within a month, Dame Helen Mirren was seen on the red carpet in a pair of its Pandora three-inch stilettos. “When people have a choice of any shoes in the world and they’re wearing yours it’s bound to have an impact,” says Lisa proudly. “Things really took off from there.”
And it seems Dame Judi’s not the only high-profile woman to whom Camilla has endorsed these specialist shoes. Last year, when a journalist questioned Dame Mary Berry about her pink mid-sized heels, the baking supremo said, “They’re from Sole Bliss. The [then] Duchess of Cornwall recommended them to me.”
Lisa spent five years working with a podiatrist to perfect the shoes, which have a triple-layer of underfoot memory foam. They also feature a discreet ‘bunion bed’ plus an elasticated panel on the inside which stretches, if required, to fit wide feet or bunions. ‘Shock-resistant’ rubber heels absorb the impact when walking and standing, reducing the strain on feet and legs.
With Queen Camilla successfully doing the company’s PR, I ask if they should perhaps put her on the payroll. “I think she might be a bit busy now,” says Lisa, laughing. “She pays for all her shoes – the royals don’t accept gifts. When Camilla first wore them [to the Royal Cornwall show in June 2018], there was a bit of publicity and a huge spike in sales. We ran out and we don’t usually because we’re always well stocked. That shoe [the Ingrid, with a two-inch block heel] continues to be our best seller – maybe because it’s got the royal stamp of approval.”
Other fans, who may or may not have bought their footwear on the Queen’s say-so, include actors Dame Emma Thompson, Dame Joanna Lumley, Olivia Colman, Julia Roberts, Jodie Comer and chat show supremo Oprah Winfrey.
With such a star-studded clientele, it’s no surprise business is booming. But, three years ago, at the height of the pandemic, and when Sole Bliss had just launched in the US, the future looked bleak for a firm specialising in shoes with heels. Lisa could never have predicted that it would now be on course for a turnover of £10 million in 2024, having pretty much doubled annually since 2017.
In part, that’s because the Manchester University economics graduate, who was an accountant before going into business with her then boyfriend, now husband of 35 years, Roger, 62, is more inclined to problem-solving than blind panic. “Of course, I panicked at first,” she says. “With everyone locked down, women wouldn’t be wearing heels for a while. So I decided to do something I’d been thinking about for a long time. I spent hours on calls with our Italian factory, putting together a concept in trainers and flats with the same triple cushioning that makes our heels so comfortable.”
“The shoe Camilla first wore continues to be our best seller – maybe because it’s got the royal stamp of approval.”
At the start of the pandemic, Sole Bliss had 100 designs; by the end of this year, it will have notched up 300 – a mix of heels, flats, boots and trainers. Last year, Lisa hadn’t quite anticipated the level of demand for heels post-lockdown, so this year she made sure she had plenty in stock.
Lisa employs 16 people at the company’s headquarters in Bushey, Hertfordshire, where she concentrates on design and production, while Roger runs the financial side of the business. They are once again focusing on US expansion and, to that end, will be spending time in New York and Boston this summer.
Despite their success, life isn’t all work and no play. Lisa and Roger plan to tag on a holiday while they’re in the US and have also recently returned from the South of France. And with eldest son Ollie, 33, becoming a father to baby Max last October, will Lisa be on hand for childcare? “I’m not a grandmother who is going to spend a few days a week looking after the baby, because I work,” she says. “We had him when they went away for a wedding. It’s great, though you’re extra careful as it’s not your own.”
The couple are still in the house where they raised Ollie and his brother Zak, 29. “I want it to be a place my grandkids can come,” says Lisa. “It has a nice garden and we like gardening now.”
Queen Camilla, who last year said gardening is “one of the most relaxing things anyone can do”, would undoubtedly approve of that, too.
View Lisa’s latest collection at solebliss.com
Written by Helen Carroll