Giuseppe Zanotti is synonymous with ultra-saucy stilettos, and beloved by the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga. The Italian designer has even taken in Kanye, literally, to school him on the art of shoemaking. This season, Zanotti has joined forces with buzzy young designer Christian Cowan for his NYFW show.
How did the collaboration with Christian Cowan come about?
Christian and I met in New York, and we liked each other. He has a lot of talent, especially with accessories. I saw his [Fall 18] show, then he sent me some drawings and references. Then, we created a series of prototypes, and six months ago, we started working on a collection. Now, we are ready for the runway!
Why do you believe in Christian’s talent?
Christian is very young, but at the same time, he’s very mature, more so than most young guys. I’m not young at all, and I think we meet at an in-between area. There’s experience and know-how in my case, and good energy and DNA in his case. After years of working with creatives and celebrities, I recognize talented people. He has great ideas and big talent!
Where does your own passion (and talent!) for shoes come from?
I was born in an accessories-producing area of Northeast Italy, but I did not yet fully appreciate the creation of shoes or accessories. My challenge was to invent something different; I had young energy. I was very revolutionary, very crazy at the time! [Laughs] I wanted to change the formula of elegant, feminine stilettos into something super aggressive, super cool. I was like a UFO! I was doing something strong that people didn’t accept. The first two or three seasons, my business was not so easy.
How did you learn how to design shoes?
I also worked for other fashion designers, and I learned a lot from Gianfranco Ferré, Mr. Valentino in the 1980s… I worked with Dior for several years, when John Galliano was the designer; and Roberto Cavalli. I worked with Christophe Decarnin at Balmain for five or six years, too. My experiences directly with fashion designers were important — I had a lot of know-how and solutions. But when you start your own brand, it’s another kind of business.
What prompted you to go solo?
After 10 or 12 years of experience with others, I started to do something for myself. I had to find my own personality and DNA. I launched my brand as a small business in the U.S., and I showed my first collection in 1992 at The Plaza. There were 20 or 24 SKUs. Sales were not so tremendous the first season, but the sell-through [of what buyers did order] was 95 percent. The second season was big business, and Season 3 was excellent. Then celebrities, like Madonna, started buying my shoes in stores.
What is the design process like with celebrities?
We need to talk about the kind of performance; sometimes celebrities need 40, 50, 60 pairs for their dancers. Beyoncé was still with Destiny’s Child when I started working with her. Beyoncé is a fantastic performer and she dances very well, and the product needs to use different materials that are resistant for the stage. Even though the shoes are aesthetically the same, we need to use iron inside the heel. Beyoncé wore my sandals to the Grammys three times. It was a success, I was happy, but we worked for three or four months on one pair of shoes. This is not a joke!
Do you ever have to dial down a celeb client’s dream shoe?
Lady Gaga loves super, super, super high heels. Sometimes we discuss and I say, “No! Too high. It’s okay for shooting or video clips but not for dance.” Once, Gaga asked me to do some boots in latex. It was important to find the perfect materials; we found them from a medical supplier, from a hospital! [Laughs] If there’s something impossible to find in the market, [clients] call me, and we try to do it.
Any other really outlandish designs?
When I did shoes for Rihanna with LED lights, we asked an engineer in Japan to take care of the electronics and devices. Sometimes I trouble my company; the time and investment in terms of money is big. But for me, these relationships are important.
How do these custom VIP shoes boost your brand?
It’s not a business matter, it’s for public relations, and relations with artists. And now, with social media, it’s easy promotion, a good advertisement! Fifteen or 20 years ago, social media was not hot like now; it was more personal than advertising. The next step was to start with men. I did shoes with Jared Leto, 2 Chainz, John Legend, Kanye [West]…
How did Kanye encourage you to design for men — and to delve into the sneaker landscape?
We have a great relationship. Kanye was interested in learning the process of production and shoe design, so he moved here— he slept in my home! [Laughs] I used to design only women’s shoes all my life — sexy, feminine stilettos. Never, never, never for men, until Kanye suggested that I create something more unisex, more daytime, but cool, with a lot of rock ’n’ roll elements. Sneakers with accessories, like zippers or Swarovski crystals…
Were the new, more comfortable Zanotti kicks a hit right away?
Not during the first or second season. Then, Season 3 was a big success; it was an explosion! That was seven years ago, and now, sneakers are so popular.
Do you enjoy designing sneakers as much as scintillating stilettos?
In the beginning, no. I was a little concerned — the sneaker is completely another story, technically, so we bought a company that produces sneakers. I was a bit frustrated at the beginning, but it was also exciting, because I’m close to the music world, and I’m not blind; I saw everybody change their outfits. It was time to accept this challenge, and discover a new universe. After three or four seasons, I became confident that it was a good choice.
You sound really busy. Do you ever unwind?
Passion is a strange kind of drug. It’s a good drug! My brain is busy. For my body, I need to take time to boat. I like to visit some lovely islands in Croatia or in Italy. I go to Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines for work, and I’ll take two or three days to visit some museums. I’m curious. I fight all the time with myself, because my passion needs fresh blood every day, and fresh blood is curiosity. I’m a 61-year-old teenager!