“It still hasn’t hit me,” Baghsarian said about retiring earlier this year after a colorful career designing for such names as Christian Dior and Stuart Weitzman.
A 1962 graduate of New York’s Pratt Institute, Baghsarian had intended to work as a clothing designer until a serendipitous call from a former Pratt professor in 1963 changed everything: Genesco’s licensed Christian Dior footwear division was searching for a new designer to bring a fresh vision to its collection.
Taking what she called a leap of faith, the then-22-year-old Baghsarian accepted the job. It was followed by positions at some of the industry’s leading labels, including I. Miller and Andrew Geller. Then in 1971, she teamed up with the late Jerry Miller, working on his Margaret Jerrold and Shoe Biz lines. In 1986, she landed at Stuart Weitzman, where she remained until her retirement in January.
Weitzman called Baghsarian an incredible talent. “Arsho has worked with some of the most influential designers, and she was never overshadowed by any of them,” he said. “Many hundreds of thousands of shoes have been sold with my name on them that [were actually] Arsho’s designs. She was with me for more than 20 years, and there will always be some of her in my collections.”
Though Baghsarian never struck out on her own, Weitzman and Miller — two men she credits as having the biggest influence on her career — both created Arsho collections under their brands. The publicity-shy Baghsarian said staying behind the scenes suited her just fine.
Today, the designer — who splits her time between the Manhattan apartment and Southampton, N.Y., home she shares with her husband of 40 years, artist Avedis Baghsarian — is enjoying some downtime. But she isn’t leaving the shoe world behind entirely. She said she hopes to take her vast collection of sketches and samples and organize them into archives for future generations.
Here, she reflects on her wild ride in the industry, the people who shaped her along the way and how it feels to step away from the sketchpad after all these years.
FN: How did you get your start in fashion?
AB: I went to Pratt and studied fashion design. Shoe design was just an elective I took. In 1962, I won the annual New York Fashion Design Celanese Award for the best student design among the top 10 fashion students in the country. The award was for a sportswear collection I created, [so] when I graduated, I found a job designing sportswear.
FN: How did you wind up in the footwear industry?
AB: Soon after I started my sportswear job, a professor from Pratt called and said, “I have a shoe design job for you, but I can’t tell you who it’s with. You just have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” And I was young and had no idea what was what, so I said, “Yes.” It turned out the job was with Christian Dior New York. Roger Vivier was designing for Dior in Paris, and Kenneth Lane was the [designer] here in New York and interpreting Vivier’s designs. Kenneth Lane’s contract was up, and [Dior] wanted young blood. I started as head designer.
FN: What were the highlights of that era?
AB: It was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was young, and there we were with all this freedom. We used to use Abraham silk, which was $30 a yard, for the lining of shoes — and no one asked why. That’s when I experimented the most, and I made molded crystal shoes, which are still my favorite shoes I ever designed.
FN: Who was your greatest mentor?
AB: Jerry Miller, when I was at Shoe Biz. He was a giant in our industry, and he had no fear of experimentation. He wanted to make shoes all over the world, not just in Italy and Spain. We went to a lot of countries in the Far East, and we started the first design group in the Philippines, where we made these snake and lizard sandals at reasonable prices. There was no industry there at the time, so it was like [making shoes] in garages. The workers used to paint the skins outside on tables in the sun, and we went to the jungles and carved the bottoms from wood.
FN: What was it like being one of the first designers to make shoes in China?
AB: At the time we were there, there were no components in China. We brought everything ourselves: We brought the designs, the patterns and the buckles, and we physically carried in cartons of leather and fabric from Italy. When Jerry Miller opened [production] in the Far East, there were people making shoes, but not fashion shoes. It was all utilitarian. We made the first fashion shoes in the Far East, and that was very exciting.
FN: Any unforgettable moments from your career?
AB: When I was working for Jerry Miller, he wanted me to take this trip and see if I would like working in the Philippines. He said to bring my husband because I had been traveling and had been away from him so much. I remember I was carving heels in the middle of the jungle in the Philippines, and there were thousands and thousands of mosquitoes. So there’s Jerry and my husband, fanning me to keep the bugs away as I’m carving heels and trying to communicate to the workers there through an interpreter. It was hysterical because people would never appreciate all of that when they see the shoes on a shelf in a store. There have been a lot of moments like that, but that one stands out as one of the most absurd.
FN: Do you have any regrets about not going out on your own?
AB: No regrets at all. The industry has been very good to me. I’m basically a shy person, so I don’t like too much publicity. I never even asked for my name on the Shoe Biz line — though it was offered to me. To have Arsho for Shoe Biz was such an honor. The Arsho collection [garnered] quite a bit of publicity, and that was very satisfying. I still see people wearing shoes from my Shoe Biz days, and that’s a real treat.
FN: In your opinion, who was a true original in the business?
AB: [French shoe designer] André Perugia was an innovator. He had a lifelong contract with I. Miller. When we traveled to the company’s Carlisle, Pa., factory, he told [the workers] what he wanted to make, and they said, “Get him out of here,” because his ideas were so far out there. He tried cage heels, no heels, under-slung heels, but they never came out in the mainstream then. Perugia was an original. He made all these designs that designers are still influenced by today.
FN: What is your favorite decade for footwear?
AB: I think the 1970s, with all those platform bottoms when they first came out. Platforms and wedges were in fashion in the 1940s, but in the 1970s, they were reinvented and they were way out there. For that time, they were really crazy. There were no bars holding you back. You could get away with everything then — from materials to ornaments.
FN: What do you think about the industry today?
AB: Prices are outrageous. And shoe design today is dominated by big fashion houses that try to do everything. The Pradas and Guccis have become the last word in shoe design. I don’t want to say anything bad about Prada, but it’s not necessarily about the design with their shoes. Balenciaga and Lanvin are brands that are clearly more design-oriented. Also Pierre Hardy. It’s an interesting time for shoes because in all their history, they have never been on the front line as they are today.
FN: How has it been, stepping away from an industry you’ve been a part of for so long?
AB: I haven’t shopped for shoes in 45 years, so that will be a change. But I believe in stepping down when you’re at the top — and 45 years is a long time. It still hasn’t hit me. My priority now is to work on my archives. It’s a major thing. I want to find a deserving home for it all so that young designers can benefit from everything I have [amassed] throughout my career. After I put my archives in order, I might do some consulting work. Shoes will never be out of my life completely.