Growing up, the Westchester, N.Y.-based designer, who launched her namesake luxury collection in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago, lived in the same building in the Tuscany region of Italy that housed her father’s footwear factory (where her shoes are made today). She spent much of her childhood on the factory floor, observing and studying the subtle art of shoemaking under her father’s tutelage.
“It was a perfect playground, but also a kind of school with a special kind of teacher,” said Ciuti, who runs her company together with her husband, Roberto Angiolucci. So it’s no surprise she ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps.
Today, her shoes, which retail from $350 to $550, are stocked by some of the world’s top retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Jildor Shoes in Long Island, N.Y., and Via Moda in Florida, as well as by her flagship store in Manhattan. And now Ciuti is turning her designing eye to a new venture: Earlier this year, she signed on to collaborate with Mark Badgley and James Mischka on the creation of the Badgley Mischka Couture collection, which is set to debut this fall.
Here, Ciuti chats about the lessons she learned from her father, the challenges facing the luxury market and why she’s sticking with Italy.
1. Having grown up in the shoe business, did you always intend to be a designer?
CC: I have always been obsessed with design — any form of art, architecture, modern furniture, jewelry and even luxury cars. I always knew I was going to be a designer, I just had to decide what kind of designer I wanted to be. Then again, my childhood home was the ground floor of my father’s shoe factory, so in hindsight, my choice was clear.
2. How did working in your father’s factory shape your understanding of design?
CC: It was a perfect playground, but also a kind of school with a special kind of teacher. My father was very knowledgeable and very strict. He was always on hand to point out mistakes, but also emphasized [how to make] corrections. Slowly, I began to understand the actual process behind the production of footwear.
3. Did you immediately gravitate toward the women’s luxury market?
CC: The luxury women’s market was a natural choice. Of course, only the most expensive and sophisticated materials catch my eye. I am always drawn to unusual rich finishes and real reptile skins. I like to think that I create beautiful things for people like me, and I am sure there are at least a few others out there like me. I am also sensitive to innovation and love to experiment within the boundaries of reality to create something exciting and unique. I am very hard to please — my husband can vouch for that — especially when it comes to materials and craftsmanship. I am always looking for ways to improve what we do.
4. How are you weathering this difficult time in the luxury market?
CC: Now more than ever, we see industries trying new ideas and reassessing operations to stay competitive. This is certainly a challenging time for the shoe business, but you have to find opportunities in every situation. This economy has pushed the Claudia Ciuti brand to find new ways to attract different types of customers and to modify the distribution process itself. Only by staying flexible can you survive. The market will settle down again, but in the meantime, we have to help each other through this very confusing period.
5. How have the robust euro and weak U.S. dollar affected your business?
CC: To maintain the kind of quality production and craftsmanship our line is known for, we’ve had to adjust prices. We sell primarily in the U.S., and that business supports production. As Roberto always reminds me, every customer is important not because the economy is in a period of transition but because the customer is always the most important component. It’s been push and pull making our shoes accessible while still maintaining the integrity of our product, but I think we’ve done a good job with that.
6. What do you think about companies moving their production from Italy to China?
CC: [The] production in other countries is simply not the same. This is a much-discussed topic between Roberto and me. Brazil and China have great resources, but lack the vitality and the imagination and the sensitivity that Italy possesses and that people will always appreciate. Italy will probably become the domain of the luxury brands — that is why we still choose to produce in Tuscany. Things will inevitably change, but Italy will never be replaced.
7. Do you see a time when the market will bounce back?
CC: The exchange rate will settle, the U.S. market will recover, and Italy will find its niche again. We can speculate when, but who knows? We focus on staying positive, but still realistic — it’s the best attitude in unsure times.
8. How has it been working on the Badgley Mischka Couture collection?
CC: Roberto and I decided to pick up Badgley Mischka Couture after initially declining the proposal. We had done [a collaboration] before and had no plans to work on another, but Mark and James did not give up. They came back and convinced us, and we decided to go forward with them. Couture can often be thought of as too highbrow, maybe even intimidating, but working with Mark and James has shown me how free and relaxed couture can actually be.
9. What is the inspiration behind the spring ’09 Claudia Ciuti line?
CC: The inspiration actually comes from a Gustav Klimt portrait of Maria Munk. I chose her because she struck me as a pure bohemian and a free spirit. Her subtle smile and even her very simple dress have a certain natural elegance and grace. Her image was a strong force behind this collection. We will be showing lots of color and a lot of freedom for summer — very “peace and love” this time around — but our hippie has extremely sophisticated tastes.
10. What’s next for your brand?
CC: The next step for the brand is to open another shop. Retail stores are such a concrete and continuous form of advertising, as well as a direct expression of the complete line. Instant customer recognition is the most important piece of the puzzle for us right now.