Take me higher: Meet master shoe designer Giuseppe Zanotti
Shoemaker to the rich and famous Giuseppe Zanotti has won women's hearts the world over. Now he's going after the men, writes Gemma Soames
Never underestimate the power of a shoe, declares Italian designer Giuseppe Zanotti. "Women feel a vibration from them, they feel a power. They feel sexy, cool, angry, wow. They can change your body," he says. "When you walk, they make you strong and aggressive, like a panther. All girls have an animal inside them, and with heels, I'm like a psychologist, I can discover the panther inside a woman and then, boosh! I can give her power."
Boosh, indeed, and clearly plenty of it, judging by the number of women who pounce on new collections of Zanottis, year after year, in search of that extra bit of added oomph.
Zanotti, who was in town last week for the opening of his revamped store in IFC Mall, burst onto the scene nearly 20 years ago. His bejewelled sandals and sky-high boots marked him as a man who delivered the wow factor.
"In that time, in the 1990s, there was a very Japanese influence on fashion," he says. "Everyone wanted to cover their bodies and their sensuality. I don't know why. My idea was to relaunch women's beauty, to put jewels on their feet."
Zanotti's shoes may look like sparkly confections, but he's a shrewd businessman who put the hours in learning his craft before striking out on his own.
"The technical part of designing shoes is 85 per cent," he says. "If you do not understand the technical side of shoes, you can't do it. Shoes are a universe, with all the different leathers, the materials - silk, velvet, napa, suede, kid. It's a huge universe and you have to understand your vocabulary first, then you need to work with a factory to understand all the secrets, and then, if you're lucky and you have passion, you can start your own story."
Zanotti took his time getting to that point. He grew up near Rimini, an area that's home to many Italian shoe factories. "I had a mother and three sisters - oh my God - and they were always talking fashion, fashion, fashion," he says, laughing.
Not that a career in design was what his family had in mind for him.
"My family was in restaurants. I was the first generation to go into shoes, and my father was very disappointed. He said, 'Why fashion? All the designers are gay.' He was very traditional."
But Zanotti persevered, entering the business at just 18. While his hometown was full of shoe companies, he discovered there was no good footwear to be found. "I'd look around in the discos, and I'd see these beautiful girls with the worst shoes."
He set about changing things, freelancing as a designer for fashion houses such as Valentino, Thierry Mugler, Dior and Roberto Cavalli for 12 years before finally striking out with his first eponymous brand's collection in New York in 1994.
"It was a huge success," he says with a shrug. "They fitted really well and the shoes were really cool, really modern for the time."
He opened his first boutique in Milan in 2000 and now has 67 stores across the world. Since then he has placed himself at the top, forming part of the "big three" of footwear, alongside Louboutin and Blahnik, and has collaborated with forward-looking labels such as Proenza Schouler, Thakoon, Christopher Kane and Delfina Delettrez.
Zanotti is the man celebrities call on when they're looking for a statement piece. Lady Gaga, for example, has turned to him with the strangest requests - most notably for her now signature heel-less shoes. "She asked me to make them for her," he says. "We made an original pair, a wedge without the wedge, it was a sandal, covered with diamonds. Then she asked for something even higher, even more crazy. I said, but it cannot work. It's too crazy.'"
But they did work - and now she always uses them, he says, adding that he's now working on another "very special" version for her. He admits, however, that sometimes he has to draw the line. "Once she asked me for a pair of 'eggs', with booties inside them. And finally, I had to say, 'OK, I can't do it.'"
It's not a situation the designer often finds himself in. Sitting at the helm of his own shoe factory in Vicini, Zanotti and his team of hundreds manufacture each and every one of his designs in house, allowing him to push the envelope. "The worst thing when you're a designer is when you go to someone to make your shoes, and they say: 'This is impossible'."
With his own mode of supply, Zanotti manages to avoid that conundrum, as well as offer a couture service for special customers. One who relies regularly on the special Zanotti attention is Beyoncé.
"She's is fun and, believe me, she can be a very difficult client. A lot of times she asks me, 'What do you think, I have a wild dress, can you give me leopard boots?' I say, 'No - you are wild enough. I'll give you plain white boots'."
Zanotti's huge range of products cover everything from those famous bejewelled sandals to biker boots, thigh high styles or flat, men's-style slippers. "Well, we produce 700 or 800 different styles a season, he says. "I don't like to see one whole community of girls wearing the same shoes. I like to give them a candy store."
So, what else is there left for a designer to do?
Zanotti says he is keen to expand slowly but surely. "I want to learn and grow. That's why I travel a lot; I want to feel the vibrations."
He also launched his first line for men last year, something he never thought would happen. "I never tried to design men's shoes because it's another story. Then three years ago I met Kanye [West], who pushed me to do a pair of shoes for him. I wasn't sure, but he was saying, 'Hey man, come on, you can learn'."
And learn he did, producing a line of bejewelled slippers and pimped up trainers launching this season that could hold their own against any bejewelled stiletto. "I learned that men's shoes can create vibrations, too. You can create street couture. Now I look at sneakers and it's a white wall - you can write what you want."
As for what us girls can expect, Zanotti says he is never satisfied.
"When I finish a collection I always feel very sad. I want to destroy everything and try new things. You design a pair of shoes and you love them for three seconds and then they're history," he says. "I am always trying to find my new story."