Fashion shopping in Hong Kong

Cobbler Francesco Russo on why it’s wrong to think shoes still have seasons

In Hong Kong to promote his launch of a made-to-order shoe service at Lane Crawford, the 42-year-old Italian says he dislikes the trend-chasing nature of the luxury footwear industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 12:02am

Most designers are obsessed with looking ahead, but not Francesco Russo. The Italian cobbler, who has been working in the industry for more than 20 years, insists on doing things the old-fashioned way.

“Thinking seasonally is a recent thing – it wasn’t like that before. When you thought of Versace and Armani, a style came to mind, not their best season. Today you have to do something different each season, but I am very nostalgic. I want to impose a style because I am emotionally attached to the product I do,” Russo said on a trip to Hong Kong last month.

Over the past few decades Russo has become known for creating some of the most iconic women’s shoes. Remember Saint Laurent’s Tribute shoe? Or Dior’s futuristic pumps with the techno-trainer platform? Those were his designs, along with countless other best-sellers he has created for various fashion houses.

I have been wearing high heels since I was eight or nine and I still wear them. I’m not a flat man
Francesco Russo

His love affair with shoes began when he was a young boy growing up in the Italian region of Puglia. He would watch his mother, a seamstress, fit clients on a daily basis. He even began drawing clothes for his sister by the age of seven. When his parents would go to church on Sunday he would play-dress up in his mother and sister’s shoes.

“I have been wearing high heels since I was eight or nine and I still wear them. I’m not a flat man. The heel is the dream, the flat is the reality. You wake up in flat or middle heels, but I dream in high heels,” he jokes.

Russo first pursued a career as a ready-to-wear designer before deciding later that shoes were a better fit. After working at brands like Costume National and Miu Miu in Milan, he was summoned to Paris by Tom Ford to work at Yves Saint Laurent. He was 26 years old at the time.

From then on it was evident that he had the Midas touch. In addition to designing for high-profile brands, he was also thrust into the spotlight in 2008 when he was made creative director at Sergio Rossi. In 2013, however, he quietly launched his own shoe collection.

He explains that the decision was due to his disappointment with how the luxury industry was approaching shoes, particularly “the idea of globalising an aesthetic to suit everyone”.

“One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot be friendly with everyone – people like you or they don’t,” he adds. “There was this complete lack of understanding of what luxury really is, which is product. I felt the only way for me to defend those values and beliefs was to create under my own name.”

When there were platforms, he did Manolo. People did sneakers, he did Manolo. He’s stayed true to himself and it’s an example I keep in mind
Russo on Manolo Blahnik

While most new names distribute their collections through various retailers, Russo took a different approach. He made them exclusively available at his boutique on a quiet street in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, where customers can only enter after ringing a bell. Inside is a small selection of styles, all of which can be made to order in different materials.

“I felt that so many designers have lost their relationship with women, and their proximity to the client. I started fashion with dreams of my mother dealing with her clients, of Mr Ferragamo or Monsieur Dior doing fittings. That’s the time of fashion that made me dream. Fashion goes through the emotions and not the brain. I wanted to go there,” he says.

Intimacy aside, it was obvious that the major draw were the shoes themselves. Russo’s creations are a lesson in shoemaking in its purest form. Silhouettes are stripped down to clean, minimalist lines while the utmost attention and detail are given to the construction. His heels, which appear much longer and thinner than they actually are, are so precise that they cannot be copied.

And instead of over decorating, the fabrics highlight the sleek shape, with rich colours and textures, including exotics like lizard and stingray skins. The result is a shoe that’s timeless yet provocative; essential yet sensual underneath the surface.

“What women find in our shoes is attention. They have to be comfortable, the lines need to sit on the correct side, they need to fill the shoes. Shoes are different to any other garments because they really affects the woman physiologically. If a jacket is badly done you can see it, but it doesn’t affect how she moves. What I love about shoes is their ability to affect a woman by making her beautiful and magnifying her movements. If you do something wrong, she becomes ridiculous,” he says.

Russo says he is more interested in creating shoes that last instead of coming up with something new every six months.

“Collections are a chapter in the same book, the story that develops, it’s the heart,” he says.

Because his designs resonated so quickly with women, it wasn’t long before Russo went global. Today, his collection is available at 35 select retailers (he says he plans to keep the line exclusive by selecting one retailer per major city).

More recently he launched his Made to Order service in Asia, which is available at Lane Crawford. Reflecting the made-to-order service at his Paris boutique, it allows customers to customise 11 classic Russo styles from the pump bootie to sandals. Each pair can be made in tegu [a lizard] or crocodile skin, in one of 20 different colours selected by Russo. He hopes the programme will continue to reinforce the idea that his designs are more about longlasting style than anything else.

“In terms of how I want to approach my work, Manolo Blahnik is a major point of reference for me. Not his style, which I love, but his philosophy. He could become big like Louboutin, but he was not interested. When there were platforms, he did Manolo. People did sneakers, he did Manolo. He’s stayed true to himself and it’s an example I keep in mind as a business model and the way I want to work,” he says.