Since he showed his first collection of jewelled footwear in New York in 1994, Giuseppe Zanotti has enchanted the worlds of fashion and entertainment with his ingenious, elaborate and tirelessly innovative designs.
Mixing innocence and rock & roll, refinement with sex appeal and a love of craft with a futuristic, boundary pushing aesthetic, every Giuseppe Zanotti shoe is a true original, created using time-honoured artisanal techniques that ensure the highest level of quality.
Born in San Mauro Pascoli, Italy, just a few kilometres from Fellini’s Rimini, which has a long tradition of shoemaking, dating back to the 1930s, Zanotti has always had shoe craft in his blood. ‘I was born in a town where everyone was used to the smell of leather,’ he says. ‘Since I was a creative boy, I decided to put my talents and ideas into making shoes.’
Fast forward to the 80s, and Zanotti began his fashion career working with renowned maisons like Dior, Missoni, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Thierry Mugler and Gianfranco Ferré, alongside evening’s spent DJ-ing, before launching his eponymous label at the Plaza Hotel in 1994. Quickly gaining international recognition for elaborate and innovative collections, the Italian designer developed his signature hallmarks, the polished metal bar buckle and inscribed signature plaque, both adding a glimmer of graphic to the highly-coveted sports silhouettes.
With a dazzling line-up of bejewelled footwear, sculptural pumps, plus the iconic twin zip sneakers, which denote the ultimate in high-end streetwear, Giuseppe Zanotti Design has gone from success to success in the past two decades. Expanding globally and incorporating bags, jewellery, men’s shoes and ready-to-wear, its founder’s spirit stays the same. His tireless creativity is born out of a love of art, music, design, and a dedication to providing women with the most superlative shoes in the world.
How did your love affair with shoes begin?
It’s an innate love. I was around 8 years old and I remember looking at my mum wearing a pair of grey calf-skin pumps with a kitten heel, I just thought they were beautiful. I guess that was the exact time I started to realise I had a real passion for women’s shoes.
At the start of my career I could not see myself running my own company as I was aware that my passion and strength was in creating shoes and not in business management. Instead I started as a freelance women’s shoe designer and style advisor for several luxury couture houses, but I soon realised that I could not express my potential to its full as my natural artistic flair had to be reconciled with the requests of my patrons, who curbed my creative artistry by refusing to make shoes that were too complicated or too costly. So, when the opportunity arose in 1994, I took over a small shoemaking factory and started my own line, the shoes of my dreams.
Do you think that growing up in San Mauro Pascoli, so close to Fellini’s Rimini, and surrounded by the traditional Italian shoe-makers, has inspired the way you create shoes?
Probably yes, the fact that I grew up in a region of Italy which is renowned for its manufacturing know-how in this sector made the step from passion to reality easier, but I honestly believe such a step would have been an inevitability nonetheless. I have been working in the shoe industry ever since I was a boy and have always been interested in the technical and design aspects involved in the evolution of the product.
What would you say defines the Giuseppe Zanotti aesthetic?
My aesthetic is a combination of creativity, proportions, and quality. If you want to create unique designs, you need to stay true to your own aesthetic. You fail if you follow trends. All of my creations are the results of a long process with constant challenges along the way. I am a perfectionist, and I obsess over every detail. Though struggling, this process is the key to my success.
Is there a certain audience you cater for?
I want to create shoes for young, modern, and cool customers. My collections are for self-confident people who don’t follow rules and like to play with their look. Today, the market is huge and there is room for everyone. A successful designer should have a look that caters to a specific audience.
Where do you usually get the inspiration for your collections?
My approach is to constantly keep my eyes wide open to get inspired by the world around me. The best exercise for a designer is to listen to people, to absorb the energy of the street, and to transform it into an appealing and beautiful creation. With that said, none of my designs would exist without music. Music has always been part of my life and work. I spent my youth as a DJ, and music is in everything I do, it embodies the energy of creation. My design inspiration comes from everywhere, Milan, Paris, New York, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, from ancient civilisations to modern technologies, from the sea and the woodlands to the deserts, from TV, internet, cinema, newspapers, from my family and my children, from old photographs and past memories. In short from the million different information inputs I receive daily. That’s why I’m able to create different styles, I receive different inputs and I imagine women in different settings. Each collection is like making a movie.
Music has always been a big inspiration, can you share with us what music has inspired you in the past, and what music inspires you in the present?
Well, I run from hip-hop, contemporary music to funky and Philadelphia music of the 70’s. I enjoy playing with the sound of the past and the rhythm of the present. Just like in my shoes you find the traditional craftsmanship of the 50’s but redesigned in a contemporary way with a touch of irony and innovation. I enjoy listening to Kanye’s music but I also like Clash, Nirvana, Talkin Heads, I live for music.
You’ve expanded the world of Giuseppe Zanotti to include both accessories and RTW. How have you taken your design philosophy and adapted it to ready-to-wear?
I felt the desire to pay attention to other parts of the body and decorate them too. That’s why I’ve decided to venture into this new challenge. I want to offer my customer a complete range of products to satisfy all their needs. The ready-to-wear capsule collection has been an exciting challenge for me, as it has been so much fun and a rewarding experience. The creative process is very similar to accessories, especially because I have been working with leather for so long that I could easily design stylish leather clothes. With my clothing collection, I wanted to create something soft that fits the body perfectly. Something you can fold, put in a bag, and easily wear. Zippers, metal hardware and glam details are of course the fil rouge between my shoes and clothing collections.
Will we be seeing more lines added to the brand in the future?
Of course, I love shoes and will keep working hard to find the perfect shoe, yet I would also like to make other ‘objects’ to decorate the body like costume jewels, or even possibly precious jewels in the future. Now everything starts from the accessory; in the past it was secondary but now it may be better to see a woman with nice accessories and a pair of jeans, rather than a woman with a couture dress with ugly shoes.
What has changed the most in the two decades since you’ve been designing?
In twenty years the fashion industry has totally changed. When I started, the market was very formal and a little boring from my perspective. I have always had my own vision in mind and I wanted to put some energy and rock’n’roll inside my designs. In the end it’s all about finding your formula and following your own rules.
Can you share your thoughts on the Instagram and social media revolution?
Nowadays social media is deeply connected with our lives. I think we can’t help getting involved in this contemporary kind of social relationships. We can now be everywhere with everyone without the need to travel.
You’ve designed for many entertainers on stage, is there a secret to designing a shoe meant for the stage versus one for daily life?
Yes, listening to their specific needs. Artists usually need the shoes to be comfortable and resistant during their performances, so my goal here is to incorporate these aspects into the design process.
Is there one partnership that is particularly memorable?
I love celebrities from the world of music like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, and Kanye West. They are truly icons, they have great talent and of course they work hard. To me, they don’t just represent music itself, they express art, entertainment, and research. This is why I find them to be a great source of inspiration for a designer.
Recently you have been collaborating with some super high-profile stars, what was the catalyst for creating these collections?
I truly believe that when great talents meet, they can create something magical. Creative people belong to the same world, they keep connecting and recognise each other. You can’t really explain how it works or begins, it’s just an invisible and empathic process. There is no specific criteria to start a collaboration, to me, it’s only a matter of good vibes.
How have you found working with musicians and superstars designing the perfect pair of shoes?
My own intent is to offer a product specifically created on the basis of the requested characteristics, it needs to be cool, comfortable and resistant. In any case, I always look for new challenges, just a few instants of happiness and then at work again!
Your designs now cross genders, do you prefer designing for women or men?
I don’t have any preference, when I have an inspiration and I create a shoe it does not have a sex, it’s just a beautiful idea. Androgyny has been the fil rouge of my latest collections. A biker boot, for instance, is both masculine and modern, but still sexy. Women are so seductive in men’s accessories and I find it so cool when a man wears a pair of embellished sneakers or loafers. I love to use zippers, hardware, buckles and crystals both in men’s and women’s collections to give an overall urban mood.
Do you approach the design and inspiration process differently?
Not really, I always have my own steps to follow. First thing is to write down what you want to create, and take some notes on what you like, gathering some pictures, references, stories or films, find the right colours, and then make a collection project, but the first step really needs to be a written analysis. Over the years a designer generates his or her own direction to follow, also following what he or she emotionally and instinctively feels.
What made you decide to design men’s shoes, and did you find anything challenging about the transition?
I’ve sort of been pushed by a couple of friends. Kanye West on one side helped me sweep away the prejudices I had towards the whole world of sneakers. I believed that world was all about a professional and technical product, and was hard to connect to the world of luxury. But that was just my blindness and somehow he helped me to open my eyes, widen my mind and understand the importance of creating a sneaker which somehow carried my DNA.
Technically speaking, what’s the biggest difference between designing for a man and for a woman, apart from the obvious heel height?
Men’s feet are bigger! I thought that men were pickier, and more difficult to satisfy. However, I actually realised that this is a great challenge, and by reinventing classic content you can achieve surprising results.
Sneakers or stilettos, which do you prefer designing?
It’s like choosing between blondes and brunettes, you just can’t decide!
How do you feel about the current boom in the market for luxury sneakers and streetwear?
Through twenty years of Giuseppe Zanotti, I have learned that the market is so unpredictable, you never know where it takes you. I started as a women’s shoe designer and I would have never imagined designing sneakers would have been such a successful endeavour. I honestly think that nobody expected this boom, but sneakers are now a huge part of the business and I have learned that my customers are very specific. They want a WOW factor and distinctive features from me. I don’t need to be in line with the other designers, I just need to be true to myself.
Are you a fan of sneakers yourself?
I personally love to wear sneakers. They are comfortable and easy, but also very irreverent and cool. The sneaker boom literally shook up fashion laws and etiquette. Now, you can easily match them with different outfits from a jumpsuit, to a pair of jeans, to a formal tuxedo.
Tell us about your new collection?
My FW17 collection takes a step back in time, journeying through 1920 to present day, and building bridges from the past to the contemporary. It’s about the great voyages, the discovery of an unexplored taste for the exotic, with influences from the Asian continent and a new artistic freedom of expression.
Why did you choose Bella Hadid and Miles McMillan to front the campaign?
I found them to perfectly embody what I wanted to express through my FW17 collection.
To you, what makes an iconic shoe?
Icons are about recognition, something you are able to identify and relate to a concept, period or style.
In your opinion, who is the most iconic designer?
One of my favourite designers is Thierry Mugler. He inspired me a lot at the very beginning of my career. For example, I have this beautiful thought in my mind of a Thierry Mugler corset mini dress from the 80’s to be worn with a sexy stiletto ankle bootie. I have always loved his ability to transform women’s bodies through his attires, giving them an almost alien beauty. I was really impressed with this and I will never forget it.
By Eliza Scarborough