A regular on the red carpet around the world, his shoes are an alchemy of femininity, precise proportions and jewels.
[On cover ss 2019 collection]
25 years after the birth of his brand, Giuseppe Zanotti continues to coherently follow his own path, one that started with the concept of the shoe-as-jewel – which has become his signature as a designer, having graced the most prestigious red carpets. He is nonetheless always ready to take up new challenges and to get back into the game. Reflective and calm, even when he tells of having eaten pasta cooked by Beyoncé’s mother, the designer speaks in this interview of his alchemical formula to success in the footwear industry: intuition, technique and emotion. To young people who want to become designers he says: “there is still room, it is not true that everything has already been invented”.
Which models have made your brand recognizable?
Everything depended on what was not already available. I started as a consultant for clothing designers. At that stage, you are bound to follow the guidelines of the brands and your creative contribution is limited to 25%. For 10 years, I worked for other people who imposed their own boundaries on me. When I launched my own brand, I wanted to create something that did not exist: the shoe-as-jewel, both flats and heels, designed to adorn the foot, not to imprison it in a smothering shoe. Now it is normal, but in 1994 nobody was doing it. I created my own genetic code, recognisable for both buyers and consumers. It is a distinctive part of my work that continues to this day, branching out to sneakers, both for women and men, with graphic decorations, rhinestones and crystals.
Is it difficult to reinvent yourself every season?
Creativity is a risk, as it is in the kitchen. One needs to find new and even a little strange or unusual formulas. In our line of work, it is necessary to know how to mix up the ingredients (materials, heels, decorations, etc.) in a different way: but what matters in the end is the final balance. So, through risk, you can reinvent yourself. The certainty of having done the right thing, however, is only really achieved when the shoe reaches a woman’s feet.
In our work it is necessary to know how to risk to reinvent yourself.
How much in your work is the result of research, and how much of intuition?
There is a lot of insight and also a lot of memory, in the sense that in the past you might have collected suggestions and information that, still unused, can come in useful today. On top of this, there is a lot of know-how. As for research, I do not look at books. If anything, I get inspired by exhibitions, such as the one on David Bowie at the V&A – I was fascinated by the eclecticism of his character – or by films that I like.
What remains to be invented in footwear?
Curiosity is never-ending. Women always look for something stimulating. The shoe is designed to cover the foot, to protect it. Let’s not forget, style came about when the way people dressed started to be about renewal, that’s how fashion was born centuries ago. So, you always need a new formula that can stimulate and arouse curiosity, that is triggers an emotion… My work is a book made up of many small chapters, which one writes from time to time and you never know when it is finished. Every time is a challenge and an overcoming of oneself.
Is it difficult to be creative and entrepreneurial at the same time?
I was not born a businessman, I was born with a passion for drawing and then for making samples for others. Then I developed my own line and I was free to create collections dedicated to my ideal woman. Becoming an entrepreneur, you are forced to compromise – a sort of pact with the devil, that is business – to find a balance between the creative and the entrepreneurial. I am both, of course; I would like to be less creative and more entrepreneurial, because you cannot forget the 800 people in the firm who depend on you. When you are less bound by business, you have more freedom to play with fashion. Even if you suffer more because you are always afraid of not completely fulfilling your customers’ wishes.
What would you recommend to the ever-increasing number of young people who want to make shoes?
If there really is passion for and an attraction to footwear, then I would tell them to think about the identity of the product they want to create. It is not true that everything has already been invented! Besides this, one needs technical knowledge – which, if one lacks, needs to be found in someone else, or in a company that might do it for you. I think it’s important – after having completed a suitable school and before creating your own collection – to work maybe a year in a company to understand the production cycle and how to best use the materials. There you can acquire a precious trove of knowledge. Even the greats of the past, Leonardo, Raffaello, Tiziano, went to a ‘bottega’ to learn. Training, inspiration, as well as technique are the right mix for making shoes. I also advise young people not to ‘think Italian’, but to think global and to relate with international consumers.
Also, starting with a start-up and having a small-scale business is never a bad idea. You are in a more serene environment and have time to think more.
In the era of the ‘see now, buy now’ it becomes increasingly difficult to think and act in the long term, given one must respond on demand to the needs of consumers. What do you think about this phenomenon?
Today everything is more complicated. You have a company behind you with planning and production times to respect. The ‘see now, buy now’ phenomenon, which is essentially simply ready-to-wear fashion, clashes with the traditional company setting like ours. Today, you have to deal with the seasons – which upset the dynamics of sales and clearances, with four and no longer two collections per year, with the continuous capsule collections, and with this new phenomenon of ‘I see and I buy’. It is not so easy. It is more accessible for those who are starting up now, as they can work purely digitally, without traditional distribution, and can embrace today’s philosophy. However, for those of us who have a sartorial DNA and a strategy that has already been planned out, it is not so easy to adapt to new dynamics.
What does the future hold for Giuseppe Zanotti?
It is difficult for someone as emotional, sensitive and messy as me to make short- or long-term plans. I think something will have to change in how I run my business. Perhaps such a broad creative offering is no longer necessary. Twenty years ago, large luxury groups did not make shoes, now they are featured in every collection. The clash with these lobbies is on an uneven footing and one cannot think that doing more means doing better. Therefore, it’s important to safeguard a niche corner of the market, even having fun, as in my case with sneakers.
So, you mentioned the sneakers that are now part of your collections. How much space is there for couture models like yours?
‘Sneaker’ is an inaccurate term that refers to the sport shoe par excellence. I have super accessorised it. It’s something fun that I’m doing at the moment. Will it still be around in the future? I’m not sure. There will, however, certainly be something different that is exciting both for the creator and the client who buys the finished product.
Who do you think about when designing shoes? The shop that will sell them or the consumer him/herself?
The person who will wear them. In fact, I would like to have a more direct connection in the future with my audience and with CRM you can do it. There are analytical tools today that let you have this connection, whereas before you had to put in the “personal appearance”, going to department stores, talking to people and understanding their feelings. Today, the inputs are direct and less filtered by agents, sales staff, etc. A sense of complicity must be created between the product and the public.
So, in the future will it still make sense to open shops (today there are 100, worldwide) or will online sales become dominant?
It will be increasingly difficult to open shops because they will cost more and more in prime-position streets, but there are also new areas and potential development in big cities. So, the brick and mortar shop should be reconsidered and online formats re-evaluated, so that they are not seen, as often happens, as a shortcut to reach the consumer. The “omni-channel” must be well structured in deliveries, in the warehouse, in the interaction between on- and off-line services.
There is much talk about new technologies, such as 3D printing. What are your impressions about them?
It is a game that has a strong emotional impact. But it is not yet the future or it could become so the moment something conceptually new is invented, that is not the elegant shoe. The Italian shoe, a bit like the tailored suit, cannot be made industrially and in a completely automated fashion. A curated and contemporary shoe that represents those who made it is the result of careful thought and a savoir faire that still today is what composes the value of ‘Made in Italy’.
Today you are considered the celeb stylist par excellence. How did you get to Hollywood?
With the spontaneous and genuine story that I have always created through my work. I gave them shoes before they started asking for thousands of euros or $500,000 for a post. Some do it for free because they know and appreciate my work. I met Kim Kardashian when she turned 18 years old. There were also Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan there and they were not that famous yet. So, I got to know them in a simple way and I happened to go to their homes. Beyoncé’s mother cooked pasta for me and since then we have stayed in touch. However, I regularly make custom-made shoes for Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and other stars.
You even created a capsule collection with Jennifer Lopez.
Yes, but these are things that you cannot do with everyone. You don’t get a feeling of connection with everyone. I’m working on similar projects now, but it’s too early to talk about them yet. Instead, I worked with Michael Jackson’s family on a project – he would have turned 60 on August 29 – his foundation, together with the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation, created a charity event in Las Vegas for which I made a diamond shoe.
Your collaboration with the young English designer Christian Cowan is also recent.
Yes, for the 2019 New York fashion show I created the footwear designed by this brilliant young man. A pure designer and not a fake, as is often the case, who has, in his own right, conquered the hearts of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Kendall Jenner and, finally, the singer Cardi B. Christian turned up at the show with his arm covered with fake watches he’d bought in downtown New York. A way to make luxury with what comes from the street, a fake luxury that contaminates his fashion. For him I made my iconic sandals with the heel-less heels and the gold wristwatches for straps. They have been a success.