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Shoeing the Stars

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NEVER MIND THAT MADONNA, Sharon Stone and Michael Jackson love his loafers or that designers including John Galliano and Anna Sui are loyal fans. Shoe designer Patrick Cox revels in raw numbers. Standing in his stylish London flat, he holds up one of his wildly popular Wannabe loafers—of which 110,000 pairs were sold last year—and calls out a gleeful “Ch-ching!” Ask about his five factories in Italy, and he grows giddy. “I love talking in lira because suddenly everything is in billions,” he says. “I’m a billionaire! It sounds so good!”

Cox can afford to kid himself. In his 12 years in England, the 32-year-old Canadian expatriate has built a mini-empire around the Wannabe—a chunky, square-toed, unisex loafer (priced from $125 to $175) that comes in 60 variations, from basic black leather to pink mock-croc. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman recently had 10 pairs of Wannabes—known as much for their comfort as style—delivered to their hotel room in Paris. And Princess Di, upon meeting Cox during London’s spring fashion shows last year, glanced at the white patent Wannabes on his feet and giggled, “They are nice, aren’t they?”

In London, Paris and New York City, customers crowd Cox’s boutiques to snatch up Wannabes along with boots, mules and stilettos. “Patrick’s shoes are larger than life,” raves Nicola Jeal, editor of British Elle. “People would rather save up to have a pair of his shoes than splurge on a whole outfit.”

It wasn’t until late in his peripatetic childhood that Cox considered a career in fashion. Born in Edmonton, Alta., he moved to Nigeria at the age of 2 when his father, Terry, a linguist, took a job with an international development agency. But when Cox was 9, his parents separated, and Patrick and his brother Edward, now 34 and a dentist in Ottawa, moved back to a suburb of Edmonton with their mother, Maureen, a former ballet instructor. Bored with suburban life, Cox immersed himself in his favorite subjects at school: physics, chemistry, biology and math. “I had no interest in anything artistic,” he says.

Not until his junior year in high school, when he began working as a salesman at a trendy clothing store to make extra money, did Cox discover that he had some style sense. Chucking his goal of becoming a doctor, he headed for Toronto’s fashion scene after graduation. Following two months of menial work in a chic hair salon, he started working with Loucas Kleanthous, a high-fashion Canadian designer. Soon, Kleanthous found himself in need of shoes for a runway show and asked Cox to help. “We bought little lace-up canvas shoes in Chinatown and customized them,” Cox says. “I made boots to the knee, or whatever I thought worked.” Recognizing Cox’s talent, Kleanthous persuaded him to enroll in 1983 at Cordwainers Technical College in London, known for its classes in saddlery, leather goods and footwear. Once there, Cox’s ambitions were ignited. “I was the only Thatcherite in the whole school,” he says. “Everybody was like, ‘Okay, this kid is into making some money.’ ”

And he started doing that almost immediately. In February 1984, while sharing a flat with the assistant to avant-garde designer Vivienne Westwood, Cox was soon recommended to Westwood as a last-minute shoemaker for her upcoming show. His gold platforms were a hit, and other designers, including Galliano and Alistair Blair, began clamoring to work with the newcomer. “By the time I came out of college,” Cox says with a laugh, “I was fabulous.”

Intent on autonomy, he launched his own collection the next year, only to see business sour by 1988. But instead of buckling under, Cox defied conventional wisdom and expanded, opening a store in London in 1991. It was an instant hit. “Everyone said I was insane,” says Cox, whose sales took off again when he launched the Wannabe two years later. “But, I thought, if I didn’t believe in my career, no one else would.”

Now living alone in London’s Notting Hill section in a spacious apartment lavishly appointed with 19th-century French antiques, Cox spends his free time with his journalist boyfriend of four years. Cox recently expanded again with a small clothing line for men and women. Still, it’s the ongoing popularity of the Wannabe, which makes up 80 percent of his sales, of which he’s proudest. When a slew of the inevitable Wannabe wannabes began hitting the market two years ago, he wasn’t distressed. “At first, you want to break people’s legs,” he says. “But as you get older, you realize it’s more of a problem if they’re not copying you.”