A woman with Marfan syndrome who has struggled since childhood to find shoes that fit her feet perfectly has launched her own fashion label, and is helping others currently facing the same dilemma.
Caroline Stillman - who has had support from celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker and TOWIE’s Gemma Collins - created Carobella boutique for every woman who finds it hard to source beautiful shoes for larger feet.
Stillman has Marfan syndrome, a rare inherited chromosomal disorder that can cause abnormally long and slender limbs (Stillman is 6ft 4in tall), as well as heart and eye problems.
Rather than let it deter her from her love of fashion, Stillman, who is from Uppingham, Rutland, enrolled in fashion design and launched her own footwear brand last year.
The 25-year-old - who is a graduate from London College of Fashion - discussed her passion for beautiful shoes, fighting her daily battle with newly diagnosed Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer and why she hopes to inspire and help others who have Marfan syndrome, with HuffPost UK.
What types of problems did you previously face when you were trying to purchase footwear?
I have faced a lot of problems purchasing footwear - or trying to. I used to order my shoes online from America but the shipping and customs chargers were over 100 pounds each time and the website I ordered from eventually shut down.
I had to wear adult women’s sizes when I was a child and when I was a teenager I ran out of options and had to wear men’s shoes and men’s trainers. Having no shoes to fit me meant I had to squeeze into smaller shoes sometimes, which has caused me great complications now I’m older.
How does Marfan syndrome affect you?
Marfan syndrome affects me in lots of different ways. The most obvious being I am 6ft 4inches, and I have size 11 feet. The not so obvious being that I have a heart condition, and my aorta is a lot larger than it should be. Measuring at 2.8 now but gradually getting larger, I will soon have to have open heart surgery to have a stent to cover it to stop me from having an aneurism.
It can also affect your eyes, lungs, back, bones and more. It’s a lack of a gene called fibralin 1, which is a protein found in our genes. It causes weakened connective tissues.
I have also just been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer and Marfan syndrome is causing me a lot more problems than I thought. I can’t have IVF treatment before I start chemo as it is bad for my heart. The injections they give to make the eggs and chemo is also going to be very hard as it weakens your heart muscles and mine are already very weak.
Having cancer is one thing, but having Marfan syndrome and cancer is very difficult to handle as they don’t go well together.
Why did you decide to start your own footwear company?
I started my own footwear brand as I struggle so badly with finding shoes to fit. The only shoes I own that aren’t my own design are Vans trainers, and it’s even hard to get those as they are men’s size 11 that I wear and they are so wide on my feet.
I was bullied, not only for being tall but for having such awful shoes in school. I had to wear boy’s trainers and boy’s school shoes - it was horrible.
If I hadn’t made my own shoes I don’t know what I would be wearing on my feet.
The struggle is real when it comes to finding shoes to fit me especially fashionable, girly pairs. There are some available, but most size 11 will be out of stock, and they are usually too wide for me and the heels are too big.
With Marfan syndrome I struggle with really narrow feet so it’s hard to find shoes for that reason as manufacturers assume that large feet mean wide feet too.
When did you launch Carobella?
I launched my website in April 2016, which has a subscription button so people could subscribe. I had 500 subscribers after just a few months and I officially launched the footwear on the website in December 2016.
Did you study fashion design?
I was taken out of school as I was bullied for being tall and this happened before I could get any qualifications.
I went to college to study art and design, and then went onto a further college to study fashion and footwear design was included in the course.
I loved making my own shoes so much that I applied for footwear design at the London College of Fashion and luckily I got in.
I graduated in 2014 from London College of Fashion and finished my degree at De Montfort University in Leicester and graduated from there in 2016.
How many lines have you created so far?
So far I have two lines - a winter collection and a summer collection. I have been unwell recently, but I have the samples all ready for my third collection, which I’ll have made as soon as I am better again.
Have you approached any high street shops to see if they would consider selling your footwear line?
I haven’t approached any high street shops yet - but my dream is to have my shoes sold in shops. So that anyone can try shoes on in shops and have them fit them. That was always a dream I couldn’t have for myself so I would love to give other people that luxury.
What kind of feedback have you had from customers so far?
The feedback I have had has made this whole journey worth it. I have a girl in Sweden who buys shoes from me - she is only 12 and has Marfan syndrome and she adores her shoes I send her.
Women in England have said I have added sparkle to their lives and made them feel like Cinderella. Everyone has said how comfortable the shoes are and how they mould to their feet.
Sarah Jessica Parker liked my post on Instagram showing my Carrie shoes, which I named after her.
And I have even sold shoes to Chandi from the show ‘I Am Caitlyn’ in America. Her words were: ‘I live for shoes like yours’.
I also talk to Gemma Collins from TOWIE and she loves the shoes also. The support has been amazing.
Do you face similar problems when you’re shopping for clothing?
I faced similar problems with clothing when I was younger, but I find it a lot easier now. There are great websites available and even shops such as Topshop, Misguided, Boohoo.com and ASOS all have amazing tall sections.
Would you consider branching out to clothing too?
I would love to design and sell tall clothing also. It’s on my list of things I want to do and it’s a goal of mine, which I am hoping I will complete some day when I have the money to.
I would love to make a fashionable gym wear range for tall girls as I find it really hard to find gym clothes to fit and fashionable trainers in my size.
What do you hope to have achieved over the next 12 months with your brand?
At the moment I am really working on getting myself better and getting the all clear from cancer but it hasn’t stopped me from running my business.
My Marfan syndrome has given me the strength I needed to deal with fighting cancer and my business has given me something amazing to get up for everyday. It’s my reason to keep believing and keep fighting.
I have so many things I want to do and I want to live to be able to do them all. I want to have a new range made in wide and narrow options - and also up to size 14.
I want to have heels made for my transgender customers.
I would love to make a range with Sophia Webster as she is my absolute shoe designer idol - but also Sarah Jessica Parker I love her style and her shoe designs too.
I want my shoes to be sold in Selfridges and Harrods. I want to make a clothing range and a gym wear range.
I also want to help raise awareness of Marfan syndrome as it is hardly known at all. I still have doctors ask me what Marfan syndrome is which is quite shocking.
I was at the Women In Business Awards 2016 last year in London and I was a runner-up for most inspirational woman so I would love to win that one day.
I would love to see celebrities in my shoes also like Kendal and Khloe that would be amazing.
You can shop the entire range on CarobellaBoutique.co.uk.
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