Walk­ing Tall

Caro­line’s feet feat

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DE­SIGN JENNIFER LIP­MAN

WHEN SHOE de­signer Caro­line Still­man was in her first year of sec­ondary school, one of her class­mates told her she should com­mit sui­cide. At the time, such a re­mark was com­mon­place; the now 24-year-old re­calls be­ing chased down cor­ri­dors, hav­ing gum stuck in her hair, and com­ing home from school only to have the bul­ly­ing con­tinue on­line all evening.

The fo­cus for the bul­lies was her height; she was six foot three, with size 11 feet (she is now six foot four). As she would soon dis­cover, Still­man suf­fers from Mar­fan Syn­drome, a rare and lit­tle-known dis­or­der of the con­nec­tive tis­sue. Char­ac­ter­is­tics in­clude ab­nor­mally long limbs, heart de­fects, sight prob­lems — and be­ing very tall.

A ge­netic con­di­tion, Still­man’s mother and older brother (who is six foot seven) also have Mar­fan, as did her grand­fa­ther, who was six foot eight and died young of an aneurism, prob­a­bly re­lated to the con­di­tion. The fam­ily only found out about Mar­fan by chance, when Still­man’s mother’s GP hap­pened to be study­ing the con­di­tion. Fol- low­ing the di­ag­no­sis, Still­man’s mother and brother went in for heart surgery; all this at the same time that Still­man was be­ing ha­rassed by her peers.

“It was not a very nice year,” she re­calls wryly. “I was bul­lied for be­ing tall and then to dis­cover that you’re not just tall but you have a dis­or­der to go with it, and that it’s a long-term ill­ness as well.”

The school, near her home in Rut­land, han­dled things poorly.

“They didn’t think there was any point in try­ing to talk to the bul­lies; leave qui­etly is ba­si­cally what we were told,” she says. “It made me feel it was my fault. Now I re­alise how com­pletely wrong that was.” Still­man’s par­ents in­ter­vened; she was re­moved and later home-schooled.

Fash­ion be­came an out­let for the teenage Still­man; her Hen­don­based grand­mother bought her a sub­scrip­tion to Elle magazine and she would devour it, spend­ing her free time mak­ing her own clothes on a sew­ing ma­chine. It was a hobby un­til she stud­ied fash­ion at Le­ices­ter Col­lege, then went on to com­plete a footwear de­sign de­gree at the Lon­don Col­lege of Fash­ion and de Mont­fort Univer­sity.

At the Lon­don Col­lege of Fash­ion, it was the first time she didn’t stick out. “Ev­ery­one was dif­fer­ent, ev­ery­one was in­di­vid­ual,” she says. “They didn’t so much judge you on what you looked like, more on what shoes you could make.”

High-street re­tail­ers rarely go be­yond a size nine, and shoes for women with larger feet tend to be ex­pen­sive and bru­tally func­tional. Frus­trated by this — “I never had a fash­ion­able pair, it was al­ways train­ers or some­thing dis­gust­ing from a cat­a­logue” — and, suf­fer­ing back prob­lems from ill-fit­ting footwear, Still­man’s mis­sion was to cre­ate shoes she’d be proud to wear.

The first she made for her­self were dia­man­tes­tud­ded, pink ballerina pumps. Her mother, a tex­tile de­signer, hand-painted the silk. Now, more than a decade on from her di­ag­no­sis, and armed with a Prince’s Trust grant, Still­man has launched her first col­lec­tion un­der her Caro­bella la­bel.

With pretty, fem­i­nine de­signs

— jew­els, tas­sels and el­e­gant pointed toes — what sets them apart is that they are all flat, de­signed for women with larger feet. Still­man’s aim is to pro­vide com­fort­able, fash­ion­able, lux­ury shoes, “that I never would have had when I was younger — a nice thing for tall peo­ple”.

It’s early days yet — the shoes went on sale at the end of last year, fol­low­ing months talk­ing to blog­gers and in­flu­encers — but she is al­ready on her sec­ond fac­tory or­der and the shoes are be­ing stocked by a Swedish re­tailer. So far, she of­fers sizes eight to eleven, but her aim is to go big­ger; the other day she had a re­quest in from a 12-year-old with Mar­fan who has size 14 feet. Meet­ing other women with Mar­fan syn­drome has been an un­ex­pected, added joy from launch­ing the busi­ness, since un­til re­cently Still­man had never en­coun­tered any­one with it out­side of her fam­ily. Now she re­ceives mes­sages daily from other women who are — some­times lit­er­ally — in her shoes (although not all her cus­tomers have Mar­fan). An eight-year-old Swedish girl with Mar­fan wrote to her after re­ceiv­ing a pair of Caro­bella shoes. “She said how over the moon she was, how much she loved them,” says Still­man. “That was re­ally nice.”

Ul­ti­mately, she says, the busi­ness isn’t solely about the money. “What ful­fils me is hear­ing from women with Mar­fan syn­drome or moth­ers telling me about their daugh­ters.

“It’s got me into a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who I can talk to with sim­i­lar prob­lems.”

Although her health con­tin­ues to be a chal­lenge — when we speak, she has just learned she will need to fit­ted with a stent be­cause one of her ar­ter­ies is en­larged, and her con­di­tion leaves her feel­ing “a bit like an old per­son at 24” — build­ing her busi­ness has also made her feel proud to be a Mar­fan suf­ferer.

“I’ve felt com­pletely dif­fer­ent about ev­ery­thing,” she ex­plains. “I wish I’d had that when I was 12. Be­cause of the bul­ly­ing, I didn’t re­ally see it as a good thing, but now I’ve found a way to use it to help other peo­ple and it’s helped me. It’s given me a pos­i­tive out­look to Mar­fan, to be­ing tall, to not be­ing able to find shoes.”

Her hope is that one day she will be able to open a phys­i­cal Caro­bella bou­tique, and that her shoes — or oth­ers in larger sizes — might be stocked by high-street re­tail­ers.

“I’d like for it not be such a hard thing to ac­cess,” she says. “But I don’t think it will ever hap­pen.” She is also con­sid­er­ing de­sign­ing shoes with heels, for cus­tomers with­out Mar­fan.

And, be­yond the busi­ness, Still­man is keen to raise aware­ness of the syn­drome. As it is a ge­netic dis­or­der, she’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested to see if oth­ers in the Jewish com­mu­nity might have it. Both of her par­ents are Jewish and grew up within the com­mu­nity, although she her­self is non-prac­tis­ing.

For the time be­ing, her fo­cus is on a sum­mer col­lec­tion and ful­fill­ing the or­ders that are stream­ing in. She’s come a long way since her days of com­ing home from school in tears. “If I could con­front the bul­lies now I’d prob­a­bly say thank you,” she re­flects. “Ob­vi­ously not for what they did then, but for how it ar­ranged my life from then. I feel I owe that to them. It made me stronger.”

I wanted to make shoes that I’d be proud to wear’

Happy grad­u­ate and proud fa­ther

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