Caroline’s feet feat
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