Neous: the must-have luxury footwear brand built on a budget
Australian-born designer Vanissa Antonious talks through the highs and lows of starting a small business
If you love footwear, chances are you’ll know Neous. The young brand is stocked at luxury stalwarts Net-a-Porter, Browns Fashion, Selfridges, Harrods and Mytheresa, and has become the go-to label for sleek sculptural shoes with a subtle design twist.
Founded by Australian-born designer Vanissa Antonious in 2017, Neous has recently branched into handbags, continuing Antonious’s passion for well thought-out minimalism informed by the work of visionaries such as Mies van der Rohe, Eileen Grey and Tadao Ando.
Now, you may be wondering what shoes and handbags have to do with architecture, but scroll through the Neous Instagram feed - as dedicated to accessories as it is to art and design - and you’ll understand the synergy. A “collector” of unusual buildings, Antonious’s social media pictures are wide and varied, ranging from smooth stone monoliths to space-age dwellings, and she uses this passion for sleek architectural structures to expertly apply a touch of drama to discreet forms.
Indeed, her new Saturn bag is the perfect example: crafted from soft leather and large enough to carry a laptop, it is slightly conical, its shape finessed with a long adjustable tassel handle made of multiple strands of leather. Classic with an understated cool edge, this is no simple tote bag: it has that extra bit of ineffable hauteur that suggests you’re “in-the-know”, unconcerned with fashion trends but impeccably stylish.
Then there are her popular Lea ankle booties which have a wide rounded toe and curved heel. These touches are unexpected and interesting; unconventionally elegant rather than whimsical.
By contract, the story behind her brand is quintessentially quirky. Prior to Neous, Antonious had carved out a successful career as a fashion stylist; she worked for many years as the market editor for Harper’s Bazaar here in the UK, specialising in accessories. The further she delved into this world, the more she realised that the footwear she wanted to buy simply wasn’t available.
“In Sydney, women wear heels a lot, especially in the evening,” she says over the phone from her London-based atelier. “When I arrived in London, everyone was in trainers or flats. I felt like the odd one out. My idea was to create great quality shoes with good elevations following a simple but studied aesthetic.”
Busy with shoots and styling opportunities, Antonious put her idea on the back burner until 2016 when it percolated to the surface after she read a self-help book. She says: “I think it was called The Power of Motivation, I can’t quite remember but I know I bought it at the airport before boarding a plane to Sydney. The main advice I drew from it, was that if you have an idea, just go ahead and start. Don’t sit on it. The structure will come but if get weighed down by the ifs and buts, you’ll never get it off the ground.”
And so, Antonious swiftly got to work on her first collection. “I knew I wanted everything to be 100% made in Italy - for me, this is synonymous with quality and craftsmanship,” she said. “I had a very good friend who worked for the [shoe designer] Nicholas Kirkwood and with his help, we began to look for leather suppliers and workshops.”
The pair had a stroke of luck: they found a small leather factory that had previously been contractually tied to producing leatherware exclusively for Salvatore Ferragamo, now open to working with other businesses. “They took us on and really looked after us,” says the designer. “If I’m honest, I was pretty lost at the beginning but the more you talk to people who share a similar passion, the more opportunities present themselves.”
Antonious launched Neous with her savings, a modest £10,000. “It’s a decent amount of money but not when you are establishing a fashion business,” she says. “I began with versatile 50mm and 60mm heels. I showed my first collection in Paris - the money was enough to cover production, travel, accommodation and a stand in a multi-brand showroom. Fortunately, I was immediately picked up by five stores, one of them being Browns Fashion in London which played a key part in helping the label to gain visibility.
“The next season, Net-a-Porter came calling and from there the label just continued to grow. I don’t like to big myself up, but I do tend to take things in my stride. I mean that’s not to say there haven’t been some stressful moments along the way!”
So what were these stumbling blocks and does she now see them as part of an important learning curve?
“Well some of them I could have done without!” she laughs. “The [issues] were more to do with scary cash flow situations. You have to get your head around a lot of responsibility when you are a business owner. Factories need you as much as you need them. They have to pay their staff as quickly as you need to pay yours. The other classic mistake is spending money on things you really shouldn’t. We used to have pretty large collections, so we slimmed down production. We don’t tend to have excess stock which is more economical and, of course, much better for the environment.”
Indeed, Neous has recently made significant steps in sustainability. “We’ve reduced our leather consumption and introduced many new fabrics into the collections such as organic cotton, hand-knitted woven yarns and recycled nylon. I’m obsessed with texture so it wasn’t such a challenge for me,” says Antonious, who is also decidedly against vegan leather. “It’s synthetic. It’s just no good for the world. At Neous we use leathers that are a by-product of the meat industry. Our tannery uses 100% renewable energy too. At the end of the day, we want to create durable items that will be cherished and last the test of time.”
Thanks to her inquisitive eye and unique flair for creating sleek lines and striking shapes, Antonious has built a forward-thinking fashion label with impeccably strong foundations. An architect in spirit, she most definitely is.