In the UK it took a bunch of Cambridge university students, who were shot in high heels and underwear for a calendar, to reopen the debate about whether 'fashion betrays feminist ideals'. 'I love shoes, but that doesn't make shallow – girls can have fun, but also be taken seriously,' quipped one girl's school headmistress in a national daily. Dominika Nowak rolls her eyes but sees the parallel. 'In Poland a girl can be either clever or pretty too,' she says. 'But I always ask those people one question: so do you think that you are ugly or stupid? We should work not just on how we look but how we behave. I don't take making shoes so seriously like some people in the fashion world. I just want to try to stay unusual, even if I've had to become more commercial.'
Unusual Nowak is, though it's not her shoes which set her apart in the rain of the lively Strasbourg St Denis area this afternoon, but her long electric mane set against a tall, compact figure and make-up free face. She's not even sporting her cowhide creations. Tucked away in a Parisian showroom, her latest Oliver Twist-inspired collection is a far cry from the hairy shoe concept that the 27-year-old debuted with in an era when Manolo Blahnik also experimented with fur sandals on drop heels in his autumn collections. Nowak's first line of 'hairy leather' shoes was a glistening attempt to buck the trend in a male-dominated industry. 'I want my shoes to be exceptional,' she explains, 'to have an identity, but with a simple shape that fits with every type of outfit and can be worn everyday. Not shoes to be stared at, but shoes that have something.' How can you not stare at hairy leather though? She motions under the table, copping a slight feel of the shaved material of my boots in explanation. 'Baby calf,' she diagnoses. 'And when you see a calf, it's hairy!' Inspired by the 'truth' of the fabric – every raw piece of leather is unique, 'fingerprints' - Nowak incorporates them 'unshaved' in her work. The freedom of variety in the material defines her expression.
After studying history of art at the Jagellonian University and specialising in costume in Krakow, Nowak entered the second year at the Studio Berçot in Paris in 2006. ''Most fashion schools are private, so it costs a lot,' she says, having saved during her six years as a stylist and designer. 'If you want to work for a street brand, you can study in Poland. But for luxury brands, you have to come here for the handicraft and skills. The curricula are like a thousand miles away from each other. You can't learn French taste in Poland, where they have very basic sewing and pattern making techniques.' She moved to a 7 metre squared studio in Strasbourg St Denis, close to the school, which has around a 30% intake of French students. 'I've changed a lot, my ideas, the way I see fashion,' she explains. 'In Poland people are very closed and jealous, you worry what people might think of you. Here people are very open-minded, they welcome ideas and there are no limits. I've become calmer.'
'I always knew that I wanted to study fashion and Paris was the best destination. But when I came Paris and saw the fashion world, I decided I didn't want to be part of it or work for someone else.' After winning awards for her Polish work and being invited to exhibit as Dubai fashion week whilst still at school – 'It was one of the most amazing things that happened in my life' - she began to make shoes three seasons ago, exhibiting her work before looking for a showroom and an agent for the brand, called 'nunc' after the Latin expression 'hic et nunc' ('here and now' – 'nunc, like fashion, is about the now,' she says brightly.' She credits her German director father for her inspiration. 'He worked from home, and I spent a lot of time in bed sick as a child, so to calm me he would get me costume design and history books.' By 16, Dominika combined skills from her mother, a maths professor, to sell her 'horrible, horrible evening dresses for new years eve. 'She's the second half of me,' Nowak smiles. 'Managing your own business means calculating and counting all the time. You have to produce the shoes, send them to clients, make them in the fabrics, order leathers from all over the world, co-ordinate plans for orders, follow production, check for quality, pack everything, prepare export papers, invoices, order confirmations...sometimes it's difficult, and creation is only 10% of my work now.'
'Creation is only 10% of my work now'
Nowak puts her efforts in starting her own venture down to luck, timing and method. Today, she sells in France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Denmark, UK, Cyprus and Greece; a pair of winter shoes typically retail at 300 euros. The two lives she leads are polar opposite. Not only is it cheaper in Poland, but Nowak is able to maintain a deeper link with her native land. 'I'm still a bit Polish,' she laughs. 'But I don't have a lot more Polish friends, because when I am there I am in the suburbs and I work all day. They all married and have babies, we are so different. My friends are now here, and Paris is a part of my creation, cocktails and meeting people to sell my work; in Poland, I work in a factory with four other people in a small village outside Krakow. In one day I can be being interviewed in Paris, and the next be driving back to the mountains where my parents have a summer house, and work hard.' For now, I leave Nowak at the fruit and vegetable market – 'just look at the size of those mushrooms' – where a Parisian flays wildly, demanding back a stolen wallet from an immigrant family. It's a primitive scene in itself, full of its own colours and textures, just like her shoes.