Italy and France have long competed over art, wine, sport and fashion. The neighbouring countries may not share a long and distinguished record of co-operation, but there are exceptions to the rule (and not just because an Italian songstress married a French president).
Fashion shoe brand Ash has found the right mix of French design and Italian shoemaking, say its co-founders, Frenchman Patrick Ithier and Italian Leonello Calvani. The pair were recently in town to present their spring-summer 2013 collection at the Blitz pop-up shop in Lane Crawford on Canton Road. The collection is notable for the sheer variety of cutting-edge designs, materials and prints on offer: metallic studs, buckles, chains, snakeskin prints, and women's, men's and children's lines.
Calvani looks after the retail aspects of the brand, while Ithier is responsible for design. A mixture of classic glamour and modern design, Ash shoes owe much to Ithier's storied background in French shoemaking. "I started at Charles Jourdan and I had a chance to work with Roland Jourdan, the creative head and the last son of the founder," he says.
Ithier then went to work for another shoemaking legend, Stephane Kélian, where he helped create shoes for some of the most innovative couturiers of the 1980s and '90s. "I worked very closely with people like Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Martine Sitbon and, of course, it inspired me."
While at Stephane Kélian, Ithier was enjoying growing success with his own label, Mosquito. It was while sourcing leather that Ithier met Calvani in Tuscany, at a tannery in Santa Croce, which they both describe as "the best tannery in the world". The two talked at length, systematically deconstructing the women's shoe market and noticing a glaring gap that Ash could fill.
"We launched in 2000 and, back then, there was only very expensive shoes and basic shoes. There was nothing that was fashionable and affordable," says Ithier. "We wanted to create a product that was original, interesting and creative, but at the right price."
Ash came at a time when millennial consumers began to make their presence felt: women who wanted cutting-edge designs but at more accessible prices. The prices for the collection at Blitz hover between HK$1,000 and HK$2,000.
"If you are a mature woman, you will buy more feminine shoes, but younger people want something more," says Ithier, alluding to the ethnic, rocker and other unconventional influences that make up Ash designs.
Inspiration for the spring-summer collection is from all over the globe. "Our inspiration is everywhere," says Ithier. "In Los Angles, we found inspiration for our vintage look. In Mexico, we found things for our biker, rocker look."
Tokyo is a constant source of inspiration for Ash, adds Ithier, who also uses his visits to Hong Kong to absorb the city's trends.
The French have "chic" and the Italians have "stile" and the age-old arguments over which country is the more fashionable will never cease. But Ash shows that working together can be much more dynamic than working independently.