French Sole first began life in the 1960’s when shoe designer Jane Winkworth was a teenager and holidaying in the South of France. As a life-long devotee of everything “ballet” Jane adored wearing ballet flats. After stumbling upon a tiny store in St Tropez which sold a range of brightly coloured ballet flats, she bought several pairs. She decided there and then that one day she would design and sell her own range of ballet flats for everyday wear - and so the story begins.
An aspiring ballet dancer as a little girl and with a passion for art and the ballet, Jane wore only flat ballet pumps throughout her childhood as a teenager and into her adult years. Throughout the sixties and seventies she purchased these difficult -to- find shoes from either Annello and Davide in the Charring Cross Road, Freed, Gamba, or, sometimes from Mondaine in Oxford Street, Fenwicks in Bond Street or Galleries Lafayette (which in those days had a store on Regents Street in London).
A friendship with Michael Gamba led to his company Gamba making a few pairs for Jane to her own design and Annello and Davide soon followed with a capsule collection of ballets for Jane with little ankle straps, buttoned down with “teddy- bear eye” buttons. Jane had these made using brightly coloured suede’s and sold a few to her friends (including my mother Antonia Scott - a childhood friend) – the idea was born!
After boarding school at St Christopher School in Letchworth, a brief spell at art school was followed by a variety of jobs in art and fashion, including selling boots and feather boas at the original Biba store in Kensington Church Street and painting pictures of shoes which were sold to friends.
Fast forward through Jane’s marriages, divorces, family life and children and Jane returned to work in the mid-eighties restoring porcelain and fine china for the V&A Museum in London and for wealthy private clients.
Still constantly on the look-out for ballet flats and ballet inspired flat pumps, a Spanish holiday in 1988 resulted in the purchase of the entire stock of French ballet style shoes made by Labelle from a tiny shoe shop in Marbella which was going out of business and closing down . Arriving home with a suitcase full of shoes, Jane discovered that hardly any of them were her size and so calls were made to friends to come and buy them from her –it was a complete sell out!
The idea started to take shape! Why not start a business specialising only in this one style - selling just the humble ballet pump in a variety of colours and nothing else? Jane made contact with several shoe manufacturers in France including Repetto and Ballerines -de -Provence and was able to buy some very basic but not very attractive ballet style shoes which were either “end of lines” or cancelled orders. Small quantities to start with, just to test the market and which Jane sold through tabletop charity events such as the N.S.P.C.C. fairs at Christmas and from summer fairs around the countryside.
From day one- the shoes sold out. By lunchtime, Jane’s tables were empty of shoes, she was packed up and gone and her charities all benefitted from her success. By 1989 and after several of these hugely popular and successful charity event sales, Jane met by chance in a London hotel, an elderly and eccentric French shoe salesman called Philippe Cassalis who worked for the Hirigoyen family of shoe -makers in France.
The company was struggling with economic problems and Jane and Philippe discussed Jane’s idea of a specialist business selling only ballet flats, but made using original textiles, fabrics and leathers with different and unusual colour combinations never seen before. Philippe loved Jane’s chosen name “The French Sole” (later changed to just plain French Sole) and he took the idea straight back to France to the Hirigoyen family who loved Jane’s ideas, loved her chosen name and agreed to supply Jane with their classic ballet flats, which the company had been making since 1950, but using Jane’s own materials and using her own colour variations to make a completely unique concept in shoe retailing never seen anywhere before.
Over the next few year French Sole sold just at charity events and then through a mail order company, followed by the first store in Fulham and then on to Sloane Square, the Kings Road, Marylebone and now today at the flagship store in Mayfair at 26, Brook Street where French Sole occupy the entire building of five floors of showrooms and offices above the now famous little store.
The Hirigoyen family later took the idea to New York and set up a similar venture with an American partner company, calling themselves The French Shoe Outpost and then changing this to French Sole and now as FSNY operate a similar concept, but not using Jane Winkworth’s unique designs and with no attachment or involvement at all with Jane Winkworth’s French Sole which is now trademarked throughout every country in the world, with the exception of the USA.
Several years later, an opportunity arose with a wonderful Spanish shoe making family with three generations of craftsmen shoe makers all working alongside tanneries and artisan tanners within the village of Elda near to Alicante in Spain. All Jane’s unique and now globally acclaimed ballet flats could be made using a much wider variety of styles and finishes and in exquisite and unique leathers, together with a much wider range of heels and soles than Jane was currently using in France and so a brilliant working partnership was formed with the Spanish factory and the family who own the factory and making all the high end luxury and bespoke shoes which were so in demand from Jane’s famous fashion and celebrity clientele who were flocking to her doors for her shoes.
Today, the original French Sole by Jane Winkworth is regarded by all the global fashion press and by fashionistas around the world as the absolute originator of ballet flats as a fashion classic as a shoe closet staple and as the “Real Deal” when it comes to beautiful, unique and exquisite ballet flats. Today, all Jane’s immediate family are now many years into working for and building up the business. Jane’s son Ben set up the hugely impressive and successful sister company London Sole in America in 2002 and lives and works in Los Angeles where London Sole ballet flats fly off the shelves of the Santa Monica and San Francisco stores to huge acclaim. Whilst daughter Rebecca, has the job of fashion forecasting, trend watching and accessories buying for the retail stores. Even her husband John Winkworth has been dragged out of a blissfully quiet retirement to manage all the finances. Not wanting to leave anyone out - Jane has enlisted the help of her adored seven year old granddaughter Bee , who is now busy designing shoes and is the model and “face” of the range of children’s shoes that are designed by Jane and sold exclusively by Harrods, Knightsbridge.
French Sole is a family owned business and run completely by the family and today it continues to grow more successful every year with Royal and celebrity customers still queuing up for every new collection that Jane produces after almost twenty five years of designing little ballet flats. A wonderful story of a unique concept idea that took roots and continues to grow through dedication, vision and hard work from a woman devoted to art and ballet.
Jess Contomichalos, Editor