John Lobb was a determined fellow. As indomitable as the nature he admired when, aged 21, he travelled from his native Cornwall in south-west England to London – on foot – with aspirations of becoming a master bootmaker. A century and a half on, Paula Gerbase, artistic director of the shoe brand he founded, is using the Dartmoor landscape that Lobb passed through to inform her work.
‘When I started my role [in 2014] it felt important that I educate myself as to where he came from and literally put myself in his shoes and make the journey he took,’ she says. Dartmoor’s open moorland and dramatic rocky tors made an impression on Gerbase, who was born in Brazil and lived in the United States and Switzerland before settling in London 14 years ago. ‘I found the primitive landscape very moving,’ she says.
She had been exploring the company archive and working on an identity rebrand when she came across an old russet-coloured shoebox that she liked. ‘That was in early autumn . When I visited Dartmoor later, all the ferns had gone red. I had found that old Lobb shoebox and then I found the same colour in nature. It was an obvious sign that I had to use it again,’ she says. The new identity – with russet shoeboxes – was rolled out at the beginning of this year.
Gerbase has been back to Dartmoor many times to document the changing seasons, and has a particular interest in its native grasses and mosses, some of which she is experimenting with growing at home, alongside her existing plant collection. ‘We’ll see how much luck I’ll have with that in central London,’ she says.
The designer created artificial Dartmoor tors in a London showroom to present her A/W 2016 John Lobb collection, for which she reintroduced a walking boot from the archive and developed a new way of crafting welted shoes – a construction she calls ‘tensile’.
But to present the S/S 2017 offering, she took fashion editors to Dartmoor. ‘I wanted to immerse people in what Lobb would have seen when he journeyed to London,’ she says. ‘And I wanted to explain where I was coming from with my direction for the brand. It seemed relevant to get people to put one foot in front of the other, connect with the earth and interact with each other in nature, rather than in a showroom in a city.’
Six plinths displaying the S/S 2017 collection were placed along a route that started at Two Bridges, in the heart of Dartmoor, and meandered eight miles north. Gerbase introduced further examples of her tensile construction. ‘What I’ve achieved with this advanced way of making welted shoes is a lighter and more flexible shoe,’ she explains. ‘We travel a lot, men travel a lot.’ (She won’t comment on whether there are plans at John Lobb to introduce a women’s collection – she wears men’s.) ‘I have created something that provides comfort from the first wear, but you can replace the sole and your shoes will last a lifetime if you care for them properly.’
Gerbase has used the expertise of artisans working at the John Lobb factory in Northampton – some of whom are the third generation in their family to work there – to develop the technique. ‘It is amazing to have that level of knowledge informing both our ready-to-wear and bespoke products,’ she says.
A self-confessed control freak, Gerbase finds being in an untameable environment frees her mind to be at its most creative. Since 2010, she has had her own clothing label – 1205 – which presents both men’s and women’s collections. She visited the Atlas Mountains and travelled with a Berber tribe to explore her inspiration for the latest collection. ‘I was thinking about intense heat and the need for clothing that is light but will still protect you from the sun. I think you have to feel those conditions to explore your thinking.’
For pleasure, recently, she went on a road trip from Marfa, Texas, across New Mexico to experience Donald Judd’s concrete boxes and Walter De Maria’s steel rods. ‘I returned with the view that in my lifetime I need to visit every piece of great land art in the world,’ she says.
Gerbase is someone who will drag you to a remote location and wake you up at 4am to experience the dawn in a particular place. It is when immersed in such an experience that she finds inspiration. ‘You can spend all day looking at colour charts and pictures on the internet, which are valid methods of designing and I do that too, but I am looking for something else to take over. That is what inspires what I put out with both John Lobb and my own label,’ she says.
‘I realise, as designers, we sometimes forget that what we do is not art. It is applied art, and design is so much about fulfilling needs,’ she continues. ‘But we constantly need to evolve and observing what you can’t control helps me immensely.’
As originally featured in the September 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*210)