Student studies footwear design at London College of Fashion

It's amazing how far a good pair of shoes can take you.

LSU Family Weekend Rachel Detloff’s love of shoes and shoe design took the junior fashion design major to London last summer to study at the London College of Fashion.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations

For Rachel Detloff, a New Orleans native and junior fashion design major in the LSU College of Agriculture's School of Human Ecology, her love of fashion design – particularly shoes – took her all the way across the Atlantic Ocean last summer, as she took part in a workshop focusing on shoe design held at the London College of Fashion, or LCF, part of the University of Arts London.

"There have been a couple of students before me from LSU who took this course," she said. "I spoke with one of the girls who took it, who found out about it online. She wanted to go into shoe design as well, and said it was a real fun course."

The opportunity was perfect for Detloff, who has had an interest in fashion design since the age of 11 and chose LSU for her undergraduate education.

"LSU has a great fashion program," she said. "The fact that I received scholarships to come here definitely helped, especially since I'm an in-state student."

As she grew up, Detloff said, she developed a passion for shoe design.

"I just love the way that different types of shoes make you feel and look," she said. "When I walk into a clothing store, I go straight for the shoes."

Detloff said that after discussing the LCF program with Elva Bourgeois, an instructor in the School of Human Ecology's Division of Textiles, Apparel Design and Merchandising, Bourgeois suggested that she attend.

"She told me that she thought I could do it," Detloff said of Bourgeois. "She's the one that got me on board with the program."

Since it was not for college credit, Detloff said, she was required to fund her own way to London.

"This is just something that I really wanted to do," she said.

The world at your feet

According to the University of Arts London website, the college's five-week intensive "Footwear Summer School" short course offers an introduction to footwear pattern cutting and construction. Aimed at beginners in the world of shoe design, the course offers an overview to more than 152 processes required to make a shoe.

Taught through a series of practical demonstrations and hands-on workshops, the LCF course included aspects such as choosing the appropriate materials and leathers; explanation of specialized equipment and treatments; basic understanding of terminology and foot anatomy; and the overall process of creating shoes, from initial drawing and taping all the way to attaching the heel and sole. More information on the course is available online at

"It's an intensive course," Detloff said of the program, which took place in late June into early July. "You learn everything you'd learn in your first year in only five weeks. We were in class from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., if not later, five days a week."

LSU Family WeekendDetloff constructed these leather boots while in London. The boots were one of three sets of shoes she was required to make during the intensive five-week program.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations

When Detloff began the program, she said she was surprised at what she saw in its composition.

"I was expecting a bunch of college kids, but there were about 15 of us total," she said. "Only one person in the class was from England, which was kind of surprising. The rest were from around the world – Iran, India, France, Russia, Japan, China and others. There was even another American in the class who, believe it or not, is from Monroe, La. Everyone in the class spoke English, which was most of the students' second or third language, so it made it easier to communicate. The age range was pretty big – the youngest one there was about 20 and the oldest was about 32."

The students were required to make three pairs of shoes for the course, Detloff said – a basic court shoe, also known as a pump; a flat or sandal; and a third style of the student's choosing.

"We had people creating men's shoes," she said. "I did a boot, and some others did boots as well. Some did more high-end fashion types of women's shoes."

To design her shoes, Detloff said, she began with a last, which is a simple human model foot form.

"From there, you draw your original pattern out on the last," she said. "Then, you had to cut the leather that you had for the design and sew it all together. We had to hand last it, which is basically pulling the shoe together to make it a shoe. Then, it's a lot of gluing, heating and rubbing. I joke that I mastered the art of sanding on a wheel because we had to work so much of the leather to get it to fit right. Then, we attached the heel and take the last out, which gives you your shoe."

While Detloff said she used basic leather for her designs, she and her fellow students had access to other materials as well.

"There was an exotic leather shop where people were able to get different types of leathers, like snake skin and fish," she said. "Someone wanted to use stingray leather, and the design was so cool looking, but the leather was so expensive that they just couldn't do it."

The course teacher, who Detloff described as "loud, but very supportive and really fun," focused on the students learning proper application of techniques, she said.

"He went around and told you if you were doing something right or wrong and, at the end, gave you critiques and comments on your designs," she said. "He was very adamant about making sure you learned how to do the process for yourself. A lot of people in the class were trying to transfer out of their current jobs and wanted to go into shoes, so it was important to really learn how to do it themselves while they had that opportunity. Someone described it as an apprenticeship, which I think is a great way to look at it."

Detloff said she felt her overall experience in London helped broaden her international view, both inside and outside of the classroom setting, by learning about other cultures.

"Speaking with other students from the class, we found we had some cultural similarities, but differences as well," she said. "We all wanted to learn more about each other's cultures. For example, the girl from India's sister was getting married, so we asked her about that part of her Hindu culture. We taught each other about our cultures, while learning about theirs at the same time. We'd also go out to eat in London, which has outstanding food with a lot of international variety."

During her time in London, Detloff also had the opportunity to join in celebrating two historic events – the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and the buildup for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.

"I lived real close to the Olympic Park, so I got to watch the opening ceremony with thousands of people right outside of the main park," she said. "It was a very festive environment with food, games and more. Everyone was so passionate. It was so much fun. I didn't get to go to any of the special events that I wanted to go to because they were sold out so quickly. Plus, I flew out a couple of days after the opening ceremonies, but walking around in London during the build-up was awesome. There were so many people from all over the world. Seeing everyone in their country's uniforms carrying their country's flag was pretty fun."

Designs for the future

While she plans to graduate with a degree in fashion design from LSU, Detloff said that, she ultimately looks to transition into a career in shoe design.

"I'm a huge fan of Jeffrey Campbell and Dolce Vita," Detloff said in describing her influences. "I'm also a huge admirer of Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen and Brian Atwood, who graduated with a degree in fashion design and switched over to shoes afterward."

Detloff added that having a strong background from a respected fashion design program such as LSU will also serve as a valuable tool in her dreams of designing shoes.

"It's not that big of a switch," she said. "You're still learning a lot of the same principles, such as patternmaking. It helps because you get a better understanding of what fabrics work with what styles. You get a more diverse idea of what materials other than leather can work for shoes. Plus, you can learn different sewing techniques as well."

Detloff said she would recommend the LCF program to those interested in shoe design, or for students to take any extra courses to gain experience in their chosen field.

"This class was definitely a great experience for anyone looking to go into shoe design," she said. "They have other short courses there as well. I've already had a lot of people ask if I feel the course is worth it, and I definitely believe it is. I now know that this is definitely what I want to do, and that I can do it."

The experience also serves Detloff well, as she is currently beginning her search for possible internship opportunities.

"We're starting to look at internships this summer, and I want to focus on shoe design," she said. "If I want to intern for a good designer, I know I need some type of background. This program helped me to get that knowledge and experience of making shoes, and shows that I'm interested and passionate enough about it to go out and get that experience."

As for her plans after graduation, Detloff said she is still contemplating attending graduate school for shoe design, or possibly moving straight into the industry through internships or apprenticeships.

"I want to start out in a fashion house, working under someone," she said. "Everyone's goal is to ultimately branch off and do their own thing. Unless you become creative director of a fashion house, it will take time. A lot of people have just gone and started small lines, but I think it helps to work under someone first. You get to make contacts with people and gain that valuable experience. Ultimately, I'd love to start my own shoe line. That would be amazing."