FASHION How does a successful London-based architect change career and become a shoe designer? Jack Yan talks to Jori Papa, whose unique designs have been winning acclaim internationally
First published in the September 2020 issue of Lucire KSA
Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.
The fashion industry has a tendency to present each collection as ‘new’, but there are labels where you think, ‘That’s quite reminiscent of last season,’ or, worse yet, ‘That’s quite reminiscent of another designer’s work.’ But then there are collections such as the shoes from Jori Papa, where your reaction is, ‘This is truly new.’
Papa’s work applies bold geometric forms, punctuated by an inventive use of colour, and, in some cases, a dose of humour—qualities that you wouldn’t normally lay at the feet (pun unintended) of a shoe label. Some designs blend tribal art with modernism. She doesn’t follow convention, yet the results are stylish and attractive, a combination that is difficult to achieve in the realm of shoe design.
Except Jori Papa—formally Jorida, though most people call her by the shortened form, and that has become part of her brand name—isn’t just another shoe designer. Her training was in architecture, and she found success in that field for many years, based in London. And eventually, her passion for fashion design surfaced, then flourished, with Papa finding early success in a collaboration with Heelena, creating the first fashion shoe with a foldable heel. A prototype was presented to great acclaim, and her main line continues to win plaudits from her growing fan base.
It’s a long journey for a designer who grew up in Albania when it was still under communist rule. Born in its capital and largest city, Tirana, Papa still recalls how the country was under ‘a strict communist dictatorship, completely isolated from the rest of the world.’ Nevertheless, those early years were happy ones, and they also presented her with her first taste of fashion. ‘My childhood is filled with great memories though, from playing with kids in the neighbourhood, daily picnics with my Grandma, learning how to cook local recipes, and learning the Italian language from watching, in secret with the family, Italian TV channels which the régime didn’t allow [us] to watch.
‘My favourite memory though was sketching fashion outfits and shoes in secret when my Grandma thought I was having a nap. I would love to go back in time. when as a teenager, I used to spend hours watching fashion channels and imagined myself being the creator of the outfits in those catwalks.’
Papa still returns to Tirana regularly, usually in the summer, as her parents are still based there.
The joy of sketching clothes in notebooks remained with her, although she chose architecture as a career to fulfil her desire to create, in part because of her parents pushing her toward the field. However, as she went through her schooling, she began to realize that architecture had more to do with numbers than creativity.
She says, ‘Being trained as an architect has been invaluable in experiencing the process of designing and implementing the construction of new shapes. My background has helped me to become who I am today … I hoped that by following this path I would have found the pleasure of creating interesting designs and seeing other people enjoy them. Working as an architect though was not as fulfilling as I expected. I always had that voice inside which made me question if architecture was the thing I wanted to do my whole life.’
The fashion dream remained as she worked as an architect. And Papa saw shoes as the dominant accessory in fashion, where she could manipulate the shapes, colours, details and materials. Their creative process gave her more pleasure. ‘After office hours I remember spending long hours researching, typing questions on Google, getting inspiration based on how others started their journey as shoe designers. Indeed, all of this process was a self-discovery. Then one day, when I was speaking with a friend about my browsing I realized how I felt in different moments during my research. It felt like connecting pieces of a puzzle. I realized I had a strong desire to become a shoe designer. This is where the magic happened.’
It was this chance conversation with her friend that set Papa toward shoe design as a profession. ‘During this conversation my friend said, “If you really want to become a shoe designer, then no one can ever stop you.” I remember that phrase hitting me deeply, like a fairy’s magic wand above my head. Since that day I started printing all my inspirational images, did a mood board, spent hours looking at it, and started sketching my first collection.’
There was never any fear as Papa progressed with her collection: it was as though she had found her true calling. ‘To me it was exhilarating that I was taking action to make my dream come true. I didn’t look back or felt scared of what lay ahead. Every step I have taken has taught me a lot and that’s why I have enjoyed it. I remember the days I was working on my first collection. Those sketches appeared in my mind throughout the day and in my dreams.’ This creative process has stayed with her, where she often finds herself dreaming designs, then putting them to paper as soon as she can. ‘I think when my creativity is high I start producing different designs. At night, before falling asleep I sometimes visualize new shapes. If don’t wake to sketch immediately I try to remember it and draw it first thing in the morning.’ She also gets new ideas in the evening: ‘I think this might be because at night our body slows down and our brain starts to relax. With non-important thoughts of the day fading out creativity senses are more active and productivity is higher.’
Architecture, she says, was a big help in creating the silhouettes, but Papa says she is also ‘addicted to fashion and the new trends.’
Her designs’ inventive forms are intentional: ‘I wanted to come up with a silhouette that had never been created before, and was unique, comfortable and feminine.’ She adds, ‘When I design my shoes, I think of a confident, feminine woman who has her own unique style and vision.’
Having the idea is one thing, but realizing it another, as Papa worked with a manufacturer in Portugal, and did not want her concepts diluted. She says, ‘I wanted to create a shoe with a unique silhouette, that is eye-catching and that emphasizes a feminine sensuality in the foot. This was quite a challenge for the manufacturer. It took us a long time and a good few iterations and different prototypes to achieve a shape that has the above attributes and is comfortable to wear. The manufacturer has done a great job.’ Between the two parties, the manufacturer provided advice and support, and proved flexible.
As you might expect from an architect who has to understand living conditions, Papa had also studied the female foot, especially on high and medium heels. ‘This has helped me understand the best ways on how to make the foot look more elegant, attractive and sexy,’ she says.
Her first capsule collection took inspiration from ‘colourful, unique flowers and exotic birds of paradise,’ according to her notes. Her mission was also set from this point: ‘to celebrate femininity without slowing down’, aiming at ‘modern women who live their lives to the fullest and love unique design’. This collection, in 2016, showed Papa’s first 12 styles, based on eight prototypes, and was very well received.
The following year saw her work on the foldable heel, partnering with a group of investors and sponsored by Worth European Union Partnership Project. Her designs had already been noticed, and the aim was to marry her æsthetic with Heelena’s foldable heel mechanism, so that the shoe could function both as a high heel as well as a flat.
Since then, Papa has gone on to present other collections, with positive feedback from her customers. ‘These new silhouettes have been very well accepted and women are challenging them self to style their outfits. We hope and wish that women will fill uplifted and unique wearing our shoes,’ she says.
And if Papa has her way, you’ll see the Jori Papa brand on other items. ‘My vision is bigger than creating shoes. In the future we want to expand on bags and clothing. I think it’s right to share with the world the gift I was born with and make women feel happy by wearing my creations. That’s my life purpose.’ •
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