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Terry de Havilland,  ‘Rock’n’Roll Cobbler’ who supplied the rich and famous with exotic footwear and returned to great acclaim from two decades of obscurity – obituary

Terry de Havilland in his King's Road shop in 1974
Terry de Havilland in his King's Road shop in 1974 Credit: Reveille

Terry de Havilland, who has died aged 81, galvanised the hedonistic fashion world of the 1970s with his wildly stylish shoe designs, and subsequently rose from two decades of obscurity to make a 21st-century comeback.

The self-proclaimed “Rock’n’Roll Cobbler” first came to public attention in 1964, when the shoes he had designed for his model girlfriend Perin Lewis were spotted on the catwalk and snapped up by a boutique on King’s Road.

A feature in the influential fashion magazine Queen made them an instant success, and by 1969 he was attracting celebrity custom; de Havilland’s distinctive snakeskin three-tiered wedge graced the wardrobes of Bianca Jagger and Bette Midler.

Amy Winehouse wearing de Havilland shoes at the Coachella Festival in California Credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy 

At the 1972 opening of his shop, Cobblers to the World, a crowd of rock stars, groupies and fashion journalists treated themselves to the “three Cs” – champagne, caviar and cocaine. The interior was furnished with mirror glass walls and purple velvet banquette seating; an oversized crystal chandelier completed the look.

But it was the shoes that drew most attention. There were designs in acid green and peach, psychedelic patterns dreamt up under the influence of LSD, and glittering stiletto cowgirl boots. Marc Bolan and David Bowie stepped out in his elevated heels; Lee Radziwill had satin-lined thigh-high boots made to order for her sister, Jackie Onassis.

For de Havilland, the roll-call of famous faces soon became a blur as he succumbed to the temptations and vices of the 1970s party scene. “Half the time in the shop I didn’t know who people were,” he admitted. “I was usually doing drugs out the back.” His first wife, Sandy, left him for a woman and later died of an overdose.

De Havilland could only regard his own survival as “a miracle”; and after a minor heart attack in 2001 forced the closure of his goth emporium in Camden Town, he seized an opportunity to relaunch with shoes made under his own name.

The result of a collaboration between de Havilland, the design duo Steve Mosley and Dominic Wilcox and the photographer Mick Rock Credit: CB2/ZOB

The decision proved a resounding success. He sold more than 5,000 pairs of high-end shoes in 2005, and retailers from New York to Dubai stocked his less expensive models. Soon, the new denizens of the music and fashion world wanted their own custom-made designs. Noel Fielding and Christina Aguilera were among those who placed orders. Kate Moss requested a pair in bright red snakeskin, with a few choice words picked out in Swarovski crystals. One side ran“F--- me”; the other, “F--- you”.

A sense of outrageousness and fun ran through much of de Havilland’s work. Apparent, too, was his abiding obsession with the female form. Pain and beauty often went hand-in-hand, and he never denied that his shoes could be cripplingly uncomfortable to walk in. But the effect on the wearer’s confidence, to his mind, far outweighed any discomfort, and when questioned about his heels he insisted: “I think they empower women. They give you your own little stage to stand on.”

Elton John wearing shoes made by de Havilland in 1973 Credit: Alan Messer/REX

Born Terrence Higgins on March 21 1938, he grew up in Barking, East London, where his parents founded their own company, Waverley Shoes. From the age of five he would hammer in dowels for the three-tier wedges that his father sold on the black market, mostly to show performers such as the Windmill Girls.

He met his first wife, Sandy, in London while on National Service, and they married when she became pregnant. After his discharge in 1958 he spent a year in Rome, hoping to break into acting. At the Cinecittà studios he watched Anita Ekberg filming La Dolce Vita and resolved to change his name, since “Terry Higgins” lacked the requisite glamour for a young film star. Back in England, Sandy picked “de Havilland” for him out of the phone book.

By 1960, however, all Hollywood ambitions were at an end, as demand at his father’s shoe business picked up. The company was making winkle-pickers, and Terry designed them to order. He relaunched the three-tiered wedges that his father had created decades before, modelling them in vivid, “acid-looking” colours.

'Cobbler to the Stars' Credit: Gordon Rondelle/REX

He and Sandy separated, and he began dating Perin Lewis. Then, in May 1970, de Havilland’s father received a massive electric shock while testing factory machinery. He died in his son’s arms, and control of the business passed to Terry.

De Havilland’s American father-in-law offered to help, and took samples to the National Boutique Show in New York, where the Hotel McAlpin on Broadway had cleared its floors for the event. By the end of the day, there were half a million dollars’ worth of orders for the company’s “acid shoes”.

The brand thrived throughout the 1970s, with 14 trade shows a year and sales worldwide. De Havilland also dabbled in the film industry, designing shoes for Tim Curry’s cross-dressing Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show.

When Cobblers folded in 1979 de Havilland established a new label, Kamikaze, with designs marketed at punks and goths. Within a year he was turning out more than 800 pairs of studded and spiked shoes a day, but by 1988 the market had shifted once again and de Havilland turned his attentions to another venture, The Magic Shoe Company.

De Havilland with Kate Moss at the opening of his London shop in 2013 Credit:  David M Benett/Getty Images

Specialising in alternative street and fetish styles, it was among the first companies to market latex thigh boots. The women’s size eight soon began selling out at a startling rate; showing a shrewd grasp of the implications, de Havilland launched a parallel line for men.

Customers ranged from truck drivers to policemen, and Marilyn Manson stopped by to pick up a pair of “Transmuter” boots with removable spikes. De Havilland’s bondage boots were worn by extras in the 1995 film of Judge Dredd, and he designed the footwear for the Bafta-winning 1998 film Velvet Goldmine.

Though these ventures proved successful, the de Havilland name was no longer prominent in the fashion pages. An encounter with Cher in the mid-1990s brought the truth home; she exclaimed: “My God, me and Bette [Midler] used to buy your shoes in Paris – we assumed you were French, gay and dead.”

By the early 2000s, however, the 1970s look had come back into vogue, and a 2003 collection by Miu Miu made flagrant (and uncredited) use of his designs.

Although initially affronted, de Havilland took it as a chance to re-enter the public consciousness. As part of London Fashion Week 2003 he created the shoes for the FrostFrench catwalk show. A BBC documentary in 2004, Trouble at the Top: Terry and Liz, told his side of the Miu Miu dispute. Once relegated to museum pieces, his vintage designs were in demand again, while a new label, Archie Eyebrows, launched in 2008 under the slogan “Dandy Shoes For Tough Dudes”.

Throughout it all, de Havilland remained committed to his craft. The drug-fuelled turmoil of his early life gave way to a second creative flowering, and granted him a certain worldly confidence.

“Take the knocks and carry on,” he said. “It’ll be all right in the end; if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”

In 2006 de Havilland was nominated as Accessory Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. He received the Drapers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in June 2010.

Terry de Havilland married, in 1959, Sandy Conlin (marriage dissolved). They had a son, Perry. He married, secondly, in 2003, Liz Cotton. She survives him, as do Perry and two sons from relationships with Perin Lewis and Angie Burdon.

Terry de Havilland, born March 21 1938, died November 27 2019