Giuseppe Zanotti has earned a cult following with his painstakingly designed and meticulously crafted shoes that look to both the past and the future. He tells Zaneta Cheng why curiosity is the key to innovation and how balance is the key to creating the perfect shoe
Designing shoes is Giuseppe Zanotti’s calling. Growing up in San Mauro Pascoli, a small village on the Adriatic Riviera where footwear is the primary industry, the former DJ realised at 18 that despite his fondness for music, shoes were to be his life’s work, likening his compulsion to craft and design shoes to that of “a sculptor that would like to change what he does not like with his own bare hands”. It jars him, he says, to meet beautiful women whose shoes do not “do justice to them, they do not exalt their beauty and are not suited for the changing times we’re living in.”
In order to become said sculptor, the young Zanotti began working in a shoe factory and learning the basics. Despite the innovations that Zanotti has since developed and established a name for with their forward-looking designs, his shoes are still made using traditional techniques relying on the experience of skilled artisans. Patrimony and traditional craftsmanship remain at the core of each design.
“We need to preserve and pass on to new generations of artisans, which is why as a company we support a local design school called Cercal, which specialises in all the areas of footwear: from the artistic and creative part to prototype development, 3D techniques and production. We need to breed a new generation of artisans because creativity without technique and manual skills is just a sketch,” says Zanotti.
The cause is dear to Zanotti’s heart. Himself a dreamer, the Italian designer draws his inspirations from “everything that surrounds me: art, different cultures, music – it depends on the moment. I often imagine stories set in different periods of time and places like ancient Greece, the 1940s, the future – and then I design what I see,” he says.
Every dream and premonition then becomes a sketch before the brand’s teams of artisans and craftsmen hammer and stitch it to life. The process is arduous and “takes a lot of trials and fittings to create the perfect shapes,” Zanotti says.
“As a designer, I have a love-hate relationship with each step of the process,” he explains. “Croce e delizia, we say in Italian. The creation process of a collection is at the same time what keeps me going – and dreaming – and what troubles my entire living. As a designer, when you have your latest creation in your hands, the perfect one, just like you wanted, you immediately feel a sense of joy and confidence. But soon after, you realise you’re not there yet and you need to keep searching and then it starts all over again. It’s frustrating and motivating at the same time.”
While on the one hand Zanotti refers to his creations as conveyors of emotion, he is exacting in the way each element of a shoe comes together. From the embellishments to the silhouette, Zanotti’s “formula is to always pay attention to the balance of the elements that form a shoe.” This and his insistence that his shoes be light no matter the intricacy of the detail – “I use light and natural materials. They’re rich but with a light touch. I use silk and well-tanned hides. The other components like the soles and the heels are light as well and this extends of course ultimately to the proportions and styles.”
Likening his collections to the process of creating a playlist – “you need to find balance, harmony and the right sequence” – Zanotti designs to music. Music is in everything he does, he says, alongside his greatest inspiration – women of all walks of life and backgrounds. In light of this, it comes as no surprise that Zanotti has worked with artists and singers since the first days of the brand.
“I’ve worked on special projects with several singers since the very beginning,” he says. “I still remember the first request I got, it was from Madonna for her The Power of Goodbye music video in 1998. I made a special wedge mule in mirrored silver with a matching mesh. She wore it in the video, by the sea.”
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Since then Zanotti has worked with Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears, as well as actresses like Demi Moore and Uma Thurman. His custom designs have been seen on album covers, in music videos and at concerts. “I had the pleasure of visiting Jennifer Lopez’s house a few years ago when we did a shoe capsule together. She is so beautiful and so professional, even when I spilled a cup of coffee on her white rug,” he recalls. Asked why he continues to work with musicians and celebrities as well as artists and other creators, Zanotti says, “On a personal level, I like working with people I know and respect. At the beginning of my career I worked with great fashion designers whom I admired. With celebrities, it’s the same. It’s such an enriching experience. It’s a dialogue, a continuous exchange of energy and vision. I think in our hearts we all are wannabe musicians or wannabe designers.”
Zanotti also credits his unceasing sense of curiosity as something that keeps him wanting to create new shapes and silhouettes. “Curiosity is fundamental in life and in this job – the curiosity to try something new, to listen to someone else’s opinion, especially the new generations. I think my curiosity helps me innovate season after season with new structures, silhouettes and materials,” he says. “The key is being open and always in a receptive mood. I think it’s true what they say, that to be a designer you need to have a special sensibility to see what others don’t see.”
That certainly was the case when, very early on, as the streetwear scene was only at the cusp of becoming mass market, Zanotti was already intrigued. “Sneakers are another result of my experimental approach and curiosity. It started about 10 years ago as an experiment, a game when Kanye West visited my factory. We merged his streetwear and hip-hop culture with my design codes and aesthetic. It’s been a natural and immediate success.”
While Zanotti is keen to participate in certain movements in the industry, one aspect he opposes is the faster speeds at which fashion is now pushed to move at. “I believe the fashion industry needs to become more sustainable. It’s pointless to create a collection almost every month. We need to slow down and halt this system, which is way too fast and squanders too much,” he observes. “Less will be the new keyword. We need to keep creating beautiful objects because beauty is emotion and we will need it more and more but in a more essential way, with less waste.”
The future interests Zanotti greatly. Challenge, he says, excites him and the events of the past two years have certainly changed the landscape of fashion and consumer habits alongside it. “We have finally had time to stop and reflect. We were running too fast. We wasted too much. This consumerist approach is ruining our ecosystem. Personally, for instance, I’ve just bought an electric car; I used to drive sports cars and now I have an electric Audi because the Covid experience changed my life,” he says. In terms of innovation, Zanotti is ready to step into the post-Covid landscape with renewed eyes. “From a creative perspective, this is a moment of great energy and creativity because there are so many things that I have not explored yet and want to do.”
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