Due to a condition called Marfan Syndrome, Caroline Stillman, 23, stands 6ft 4in and wears size 10-11 shoes. Spurred on by the fact she struggles to find fashionable footwear, and inspired by the similar experiences of other women, she is about to launch her luxury footwear brand, Carobella. She talks to Gemma Peplow
Let’s start in the present, the here and now of Caroline Stillman’s story. Not at the beginning, with her height and shoe-size – numbers and words which appeared capped up and in bold when she appeared in the national newspapers last month – and not with the bullying that blighted her early teenage years.
In fact, we won’t start with Caroline at all. The story has become more than just her now, she says. She has an inbox which is constantly full, with messages from young girls and mothers and women who have struggled for years to be accepted, and she is taking the time to read and reply to every one.
Caroline has Marfan Syndrome. It’s a condition that comes with various health problems, some potentially serious, but the obvious symptom, the thing you will notice first when you walk past her in the street, is she is very tall. People stare, she says. Caroline is used to people staring.
The 23-year-old has just launched Carobella, a range of stylish shoes for women with bigger feet and the response has given her something of a lightbulb moment.
She has, she says quietly, been overwhelmed.
“I have always been quite a positive person but if you’d have asked me a few weeks ago how I coped with everything that’s happened in my life, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. I’d probably have said I didn’t cope very well. Now, I realise I do cope.
“Since people have found out about what I’m doing, I’ve felt like a different person. I feel more confident and proud. I don’t care who knows I’ve got Marfan syndrome. I want to put it out there to raise awareness, to try to help other people.”
Telling her story, making it public, has held a mirror to her life. Feelings she never realised were there have come to the surface.
“People have been in touch to say they have Marfan syndrome, or are tall or with big feet, and told me all the things they have been through. Their e-mails have made me cry. They’ve made me realise there are other people who have been through the exact same things that I have. So the shoes have become a different thing now to when I first started. It’s not just fashion any more. It has become something meaningful, and I’m proud.”
Finding clothes and shoes that fit properly – fashionable clothes and shoes that fit properly – is, to most, a first-world problem.
Most women will moan about putting on a few pounds, or a bad haircut, or not being able to afford the new overpriced miracle wrinkle-busting cream. Caroline wishes her aesthetic worries could be so simple.
She is 6ft 4ins, with size 10-11 feet. She stands out.
“I know not being able to find clothes and shoes doesn’t sound like a big problem, but it is for me. ‘But you must be able to find something.’ That’s what people say. I bet if I found 2,000 pairs of size 10 or 11 women’s shoes online I wouldn’t be able to find a fashionable pair, a pair I really liked.
“It’s not about being materialistic or too into fashion – everyone needs shoes on their feet. It’s crazy to think they’re not out there.”
She laughs. “I got over it. Instead of shoes, I’d buy really nice bags.”
While clothes were hard to find when she was younger (school trousers were, unsurprisingly, “an absolute nightmare”), it has become better in recent years.
“My mum would try her hardest when I was younger, but it was difficult. Things have changed. There are tall sections everywhere now, Topshop has a tall section and Asos has a really good range. I don’t find clothes so hard now.”
In spite of her difficulties growing up, Caroline loved fashion and clothes. While it’s usually down to old embarrassing photos to remind women of their adolescent fashion failings, Caroline remembers every dress that fitted, every pair of jeans that reached her ankles, like most of us remember first kisses.
“Whenever I did find anything fashionable, it was just amazing. It was something I rarely had. There was rarely anything on the market for my size or height, so that’s when I started thinking how good it would be if I could design my own.”
Caroline studied for a BTec diploma in fashion at Leicester College, where she got to learn about footwear.
“When I made my first shoe, I thought ‘this is easy, I could make these for myself’.”
It was easy to make a small, sample size. The trickier bit was making a size 10.
She went on to study at the London College of Fashion before moving to De Montfort University for a degree in footwear design. “I’d always ask people when I was at uni if it would be possible to make my own shoes for bigger feet. Manufacturers go up to size eight.”
Shoe lasts, the moulds on which shoes are made, can be expensive, says Caroline. Female lasts in bigger sizes are rare.
“For my last project in London, my grandma bought me a last, size nine, which was about £380. She couldn’t get a size 11.”
Why are they so rare?
“I don’t know. I know Topshop could quite easily, if they wanted to, start making larger sizes. They have the money and the resources. They must think people don’t want it. I’m trying to prove them wrong.”
Carobella started at university, where Caroline designed different shoes for projects throughout her studies. After graduating, she started work, designing clothes for a fashion company.
“I’ve always wanted to design my own range, ever since I was younger. Nothing against the companies I worked for – I loved working with them – but I thought I could be doing it for a better cause, something I really believed in.”
Caroline knew about designing shoes. What she didn’t know much about was business.
She went back to De Montfort for a business graduate course.
“The lecturer was really helpful. She really liked my ideas and was the first person who really made me believe it was possible.”
She set up a Facebook page for Carobella. Within a week, it had about 4,000 likes. Since the first Instagram post just over three months ago, the account has gathered more than 11,700 followers.
“It’s all happened quite quickly,” says Caroline, “even though I have been designing and thinking about this for ages. It’s been amazing.”
Now, at the age of 23, Caroline feels proud to be herself.
It hasn’t always been the case.
“Sometimes I hated being tall,” she says. “I had a nice supportive family and nice friends, but it’s not been easy. I feel different now.”
She has always been very tall, since she was a child. By the time she was 10, she was just shy of 6ft. Growing up in a small village in Rutland, primary school, she says, was fine. Everyone knew everyone else, the other children accepted her height, and she enjoyed a happy childhood. She never felt different. Her mum and brother were tall, too, and that was normal.
Things changed when she moved to secondary school, Uppingham Community College. The bullying built up over two years. It didn’t end in the classroom, with the school bell at 3pm. Caroline couldn’t go home and turn it off. The taunts and threats followed her, through online messages she couldn’t escape from.
“I don’t blame them now because kids are like that at that age, aren’t they? But it was a horrible experience because it was constant, every single day. In school, it wasn’t actually that bad. Snide remarks, name-calling, but nothing that bad. When I was at home, though, people could say what they wanted. Anything they wanted.”
It ended when Caroline finally showed her dad, Bill, a copy of some of a message she had received on MSN, from a girl telling her she should commit suicide. “Everything came out then,” she says. “I told them it had been going on for a while. I could never understand why people were like that, why they couldn’t accept me. I was there for two years and the bullying started straight away and just got worse and worse. Online bullying is just awful because you can’t escape.”
Caroline left the school and, following a period of home-schooling, moved to Stamford Endowed Schools, just over the border in Lincolnshire.
“People there were completely different. I had really nice friends and everyone was completely accepting of me.”
It was during her time out from school that the Marfan diagnosis came. Before then, Caroline and her mum and brother had simply been tall, nothing more. Her mum, Sarah, who is just under 6ft, was diagnosed first. Marfan Syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, with a 50 per cent chance of sufferers passing on to their children. It was clear Caroline and her brother, Sam, both very tall, had probably inherited it, and they too were tested.
The extreme growth is the visible symptom of Marfan, but the serious complication comes in how it can affect the aorta and the heart.
Sarah and Sam were caught just in time.
“They were at the point where they could have had an aneurysm,” says Caroline. “If they hadn’t found it then… God knows.”
They both had surgery. Caroline, though, was told her aorta was normal for her height and age. She’s under careful monitoring and knows that one day, she will probably have to have surgery herself.
“It might stay as it is for the rest of my life. There’s nothing to worry about right now. I’m not going to have to have surgery right now but in the future, I think maybe. My mum and brother’s operations were a success, so that’s good to know. I try not to worry about it but there is a lot of anxiety that comes with it.
“There’s not only the fact I might have to have a major operation some day, but also that something might happen to me now. Obviously, I have my scans, but between those I don’t know what’s going on. Even holding a bag that’s too heavy, that worries me. Going to the gym. I don’t want to put pressure on my heart. All three of us having it together has helped because we’ve supported each other.”
Now, following a business course through the Prince’s Trust, Caroline is about to start selling her first pairs of Carobella shoes.
“The Prince’s Trust have been so helpful,” she says. “Having business-minded people saying you’ve got a good idea does push you forward. They give you so much good advice.”
At the minute, samples are being made. Caroline is working with three different manufacturers. She wants everything to be perfect. She is taking on feedback from other Marfan sufferers, she says. “I’ve had lots of feedback from people with Marfan Syndrome, mothers with teenage girls who have struggled, and they’ve all said similar things.”
It means the concept of Carobella has changed. “At the start I was thinking more from the fashion side, not so much from the Marfan Syndrome side of things. Since people have become aware of it and got in touch with me – and I’m trying not to sound cringey here, but I don’t really know how else to say it – it’s touched my heart.
“I’ve had mothers with daughters with size 12 feet. Women who have never been able to buy nice shoes. It’s been so nice talking to all of them. Now I want to design shoes to help people with Marfan syndrome. Obviously it’s to help tall girls as well and people who need larger shoes, but it’s more than just fashion.”
As soon as Caroline has okayed the samples, the shoes will be available to buy online.
“They should be ready in a few weeks,” she says. “As soon as they’re all okay, I’ll put them on the website. People are giving suggestions – obviously, most want the shoes to be as flat as possible. It’s getting there, with the help of lots of people. I really want people to not only be happy with the quality but also with how they look.
“I’m working just on flat shoes at the moment – mainly because I don’t know many tall girls who want to wear big heels. I know I don’t feel a need to.”
The main aim of Carobella is to give women like Caroline the chance to wear beautiful shoes.
“I believe every girl deserves to have the experience of wearing a beautiful pair of shoes, no matter how big or small their feet are,” she says on her website.
It sounds such a simple thing, she says, but it’s something women with average-sized feet take for granted.
“You just want to fit in, to feel normal, but at the same time you want to look nice. People might say why are my shoes different to others, and what I’m trying to say is that I know what women with similar problems to me need. I’ve been through it. I want to make shoes for people with different needs.
“Carobella is not only helping me to accept myself but also lots of other people. I know through all this, something has definitely changed in me recently. I think it’s through talking to other people.
“I want to be proud for them.”
Read more: http://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/Carobella/story-29277779-detail/story.html
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