Dolcini's heeling hands

Adele Rosi

ONE LUNCHTIME, two alternatives. Go for a bite to eat with a girlfriend or head for the nearest pedicurist before a meeting with Diego Dolcini, Italian shoe designer to the stars. It is a difficult decision, but I go for the sandwich option - even polished to the hilt, my feet are not particularly impressive.

Thankfully, my fears are unfounded. Dolcini doesn't give my feet a cursory glance. More everyday guy in jacket and jeans than flamboyant maestro prone to histrionics, he is friendly, laid-back and charming. He is considered the 'child' prodigy of accessories - he is now 32 - and is feted as one of the most likely candidates to knock the reigning king of designer shoes, Manolo Blahnik, off his throne, but so far success doesn't seem to have gone to his head. He has not surrounded himself with a force field of glamour, nor does he give any inkling that he is a step away from becoming fashion royalty.

Dolcini's shoes are on the wish-list of 'It' girls from Athens to Zurich, and retail here through the on pedder boutiques, of which the latest opened recently in Pacific Place. Ranging from suede flats to rhinestone-studded strappy sandals and spike-heeled boots, his creations are sleek, elegant and sexy. They also ooze craftsmanship, the result of traditional artisanal techniques, sumptuous fabrics and the fact that Dolcini himself oversees every step of the design and production process at his atelier in Bologna, Italy.

They might well be the price of a return flight to the Philippines, but many women, when faced with a pair, find themselves dizzily caressing them, making inner promises never to go shopping again - ever - in exchange for just one Dolcini purchase. 'I think women today want something more sophisticated, more feminine and harmonious,' Dolcini says. 'And that's what I try to give them. My secret love for women comes out in my shoes.'

And that's just his signature label. For autumn/winter this year Dolcini is set to launch his Black Label collection, which is apparently even more luxurious and includes such shoe-fetishist delights as transparent PVC and silver kid-leather boots with knock-'em-dead 12cm heels.

Shoes weren't always on his agenda. The Neapolitan-born designer initially chose architecture as a career. 'Ending up in women's shoes was an accident - a real accident!' he says, all Italian gesticulation and exclamation. 'A friend asked me to help him with a design project and, well, here I am!'

What he fails to mention is that his talent subsequently won him a scholarship for the masters course in fashion design at Milan's prestigious Domus Fashion Academy in 1989 when influential Italian fashion designer Gianfranco Ferre was on the board. And he makes light of the scores of job offers he subsequently received after graduating. His CV reads like the directory of tenants at an exclusive shopping mall, citing experience with fashion giants such as Bruno Magli, Gattinoni Couture, Pucci and the Italian producers and licensees of the Giorgio Armani line, DKNY, Ralph Lauren and Joan & David to name a few.

'I was, and still am, so lucky,' he says. 'In the early 90s accessories weren't particularly big news so I managed to do my training at the right time. But now the market has exploded. I got my timing just right.'

When Dolcini set up his own label in 1994, accessories were starting to make headlines, and his debut collection was an overnight success.

'The shoe market is so different now to how it was in the past,' he says. 'If you want to be a truly international label, which I do, you have to have a complete collection all year round. While some people are buying winter shoes, others want summer styles. I try to respect the needs of the people I sell to, but I don't consider my shoes trendy.'

That said, when the rest of the world was still into grunge, Dolcini was already turning out delicate little numbers adorned with Swarovski crystals, now the ubiquitous addition to any fashion collection worth its salt. His foot seduction kit, for instance, cleverly includes a pair of strappy sandals for daywear and a Swarovski glass ankle strap that can be attached for instant evening glamour.

'I was interested by the concept that shoes can give you the possibility to change. You take a relatively basic shoe and transform both it and you,' he explains. 'One minute you work, the next you play. Easy! And they are great for sexy women who want to stand out from the crowd.'

Some of the world's sexiest have been flocking to him, including Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek (who stepped out in a pair at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding) and Julia Roberts, with whom Dolcini seems to be on first-name terms. 'Julia - she's so nice, so casual. She's a size 39 and she likes lower heels and open toes. Madonna wears a 38. Of course, she likes strange shoes. But Mariah Carey is pure glamour. She loves very sexy, very high, strappy shoes.'

The list goes on. Carey apparently has at least 20 pairs, while Italian actress and personal friend Maria Grazia Cucinotta insisted on wearing Dolcini's thigh-high boots in the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. 'Maria Grazia loves closed shoes, but she has such a beautiful foot. So slim.'

You'd think his mother would be the most envied woman in the world but, unfortunately for Signora Dolcini, she has to wait in line with the rest of us.

'We have a saying in Italian - 'At the shoemaker's house, there are broken shoes' - and it's true. I've got no time these days to do things for me or concentrate on personal projects. My mother despairs of me. She's always asking me to make her some shoes and I always forget. So she gets sick of waiting and goes and buys them herself instead.'

Lesser mortals hitting such giddy heights of success might be content to rest on their laurels, but Dolcini seems to have bigger fish to fry. As well as continuing with his label - and hoping to set up his own boutique next year, financial backing permitting - he has just accepted the post of director of a luxury mega group, whose identity he isn't at liberty to reveal. The gossip mills, on the other hand, say Gucci.

'My 'surprise' will probably be announced in September,' he says, somewhat bashfully. 'But it's very exciting and very important for my future. I've been given this great chance and I want to do the best I can . . . to give everything I'm capable of.'

And if a window of opportunity appears in his busy schedule, he is also hoping to return to Hong Kong.

'I love it here - it's one big shop!' he enthuses. 'And the people - so sweet, so kind! This time was a bit of a rush; next time I want to meet everyone who supports me and have a big party. I have been so inspired. Who knows? Maybe I'll make a Hong Kong shoe.'

Whatever Dolcini does it seems he cannot put a foot wrong, and if he is not a household name here yet, he soon will be. Blahnik had better watch out.