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Designer to Watch: Najeeba Hayat of Liudmila

Liudmila, a brand that has been lauded for its fantastical designs, was, appropriately, begun on little more than a dream. Najeeba Hayat was a recent college graduate with a government degree and an intensive shoe-making course at Ars Sutoria under her belt when she started Liudmila in 2013. She experienced a rare breed of instant success with major media outlets delighting over her “princess shoes” and adding her styles to fashion roundups.

With her latest collection, Hayat was determined to create something that excited her and brought her joy; she had seen too much of the same. “I thought there was a lack in the market of shoes that made me happy,” she said. “No one cares about your stuff anymore, it’s about your brand.”

She said that most lines these days represent too much regurgitation of information and not enough concept behind them. Part of this, she noted, comes from the rising influence of Instagram and fashion bloggers who are driven more by the approval of their followers than design. Hayat noticed a rising trend of graphic styles and corporate branding among designers trying to stand out in a way she felt was very unimpressive.

The initial inspiration behind the Liudmila Spring ’16 line was photographs of the Nizams of Hyderabad, Indian rulers under the Mughal Empire. She was inspired by the abandoned palaces and the colors of the re-touched photographs that conveyed the past with pearlescent sheen on top of dull, light colors. She used these colors in the palette of her collection to create a relaxed look that didn’t compete for attention with her overall design.

Another, contrasting, influence was Auntie Mame, a character in the eponymous novel documenting the life of a flamboyant, 1950s New York socialite. Hayat expressed the influence the character had on her line, “That’s a huge part of my brand, people who love to live every day instead of saving life for special occasions.”

These influences resulted in a collection with a special type of refined opulence. The line includes pearlescent leather (“no one uses it because everyone thinks its gross and eighties”), schoolgirl fabrics with interesting colors and lots of shine, and embroideries by the craftsman who did the work on the Givenchy gown Beyonce wore to the Met Gala earlier this year. The suggested retail prices for the line range from $395-424 euros (420-903 USD).

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VIEW GALLERY: Liudmila Spring ’16

The themes in Hayat’s lines show a distinctive femininity, with her perennial influences including the Powerpuff Girls, Sailor Moon and Victorian design. Some people have interpreted her shoes as feminine in a 1950s, housewife way, which is not her intention. “I don’t want girls to go back to being really soft and elegant and having their dinners paid for.”

Girls have an inner magic, Hayat explained, adding, “I don’t think this is something that we should hide.” Hayat said the shoe industry often has a contrived idea of femininity. “There’s always this extremely boring play on sexuality,” she said. “In the fashion industry, in the shoe industry in general, it is always a male designer saying, ‘I’m making shoes for a strong, sexy woman.’”

Not every woman envisions herself as a sexualized power player; Hayat explained how she enjoys Turkish delight and other girlish indulgences, “all beautiful, wonderful, happy things,” she said. “We can just look happy. It’s a disadvantage that males can’t do that.”

Connected to this idea of happy girlishness is the concept that women don’t need to be tottering around in extremely high shoes. Hayat said that women who wear luxury products today are increasingly younger and more mobile. In response to this trend, designers like Jeffrey Campbell and Acme have been designing chunky shoes, but Hayat wanted to design beautiful, inventive shoes. “I don’t want to think, this looks comfortable. I want to think, oh, this looks magical.”

Yet, beyond the magic and beauty of a luxury shoe line, there are more difficult realities. As the footwear industry stands, new designers need to have a lot of money, and a reasonable budget only leaves a designer three to four seasons to take off. Often new brands end up paying out of pocket for the manufacturing of thousands of pairs of shoes in the hopes that they will be successful. Liudmila is one of the few luxury shoe brands that succeeded almost immediately with amazing sell-through rates. “I’ve had a lot of people along the way who have really, really believed in my brand,” said Hayat.

And how do you create a line people can believe in? Don’t look at trends, don’t look at anyone else’s collections, don’t listen to PR companies, Hayat said. She relies on her instinct.

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