The rough-and-tumble economic climate of the last year has shaken fashion to the core, with retailers, consumers and designers taking a closer look at luxury and its place in the market. And while cost has been at the center of the debate, some of the most prominent footwear designers, from veterans to rising stars, have shied away from dropping prices. Instead, many have focused on creating more unique product and staying true to their personal design aesthetics.
Footwear News reached out to some of the biggest names in shoe design to uncover how the prolonged downturn has affected their approaches to design, the way they view luxury and what’s to come.
FN: How do you see luxury today, and has that viewpoint changed?
Giuseppe Zanotti: Luxury used to be connected to the evening, to the theater, to red carpets and formal gatherings. Now it’s the other way around. … The concept of luxury has integrated these two identities, and fashion has brought luxury closer to everyday life.
Manolo Blahnik: Luxury is a very subjective term. For me, luxury is to have time for myself, [like] taking a bath for two hours. As far as fashion goes, most things were overly decorated [a few years ago]. Now, simplicity is more important, and the emphasis is on quality.
Tabitha Simmons: It is more understated now than in the past. People are looking for more exclusive items that can’t be found everywhere [and are] also making sure things are well made.
Nicholas Kirkwood: True luxury has always been based on artisanal craftsmanship, integrity, transparency and focus of product and brand vision. [Today], the line has been blurred. A few years ago, [some companies thought] luxury could be based on gimmicks and marketing. But the consumer is smarter now. Putting a big brand name on an inferior product is less likely to fool consumers and will ultimately deteriorate the perception of a brand.
Georgina Goodman: Luxury is about quality, time and obsessive passion. It is about uncompromising adherence to a vision without the dumbing down or shortcuts that come from commercial pressure. … A few years ago, there were many pretenders to the luxury mantle and it seems market conditions have begun to weed the garden.
Rupert Sanderson: I’ve always had a slightly fearful relationship with real luxury. Luxury has never been for everyone. These more stringent times have shone a light on those that have luxury at their core and those that have simply appropriated some of its values.
Max Kibardin: The word “luxury” has been misused. Everything that was expensive was considered “luxury” without paying attention to quality. Going back to the old clientele, which has remained faithful to the historic luxury brands, makes the game harder.
FN: How has the downturn affected your approach to designing shoes?
MB: I never compromise the quality of my shoes. [The economy] has definitely not affected my aesthetic. The only thing I try to do now is to feature less embroidery and jewels.
GG: My approach has always been and will always be the same. Be consistent, be clear, be who we are and, most important, be in love. My aesthetic is part of an ongoing conscious evolution in silhouette and style — one story, evolving over the seasons.
RS: I suppose [the economy] has added a bit of focus to what I do. I approach design with a little more consideration to the merchandising of the final collection, but I still set out to design the finest and most beautiful shoes and don’t cut corners on the materials or suppliers.
Cesare Casadei: During a big downturn, people need to be excited when they buy shoes, even more so than in the past. I focus on making interesting shoes, resourcing the best materials and offering a wide range of styles, from elegant red-carpet [platform heels] to everyday shoes.
MK: The culture of buying in general has changed. [In the U.K.], low-priced stores are offering trendy goods for much less than [the luxury] brands women aspired to before, and [customers] are buying it. I create a luxury product, so when I compose my collections, I concentrate more on special styles focusing on femininity and sensuality.
FN: Where do you find inspiration in such a gloomy retail climate?
MB: I love to go to museums. When I’m there, I forget everything and get lost in the beauty. Recently, I saw the most amazing exhibition at the National Gallery in London called “The Sacred Made Real,” featuring amazing Spanish paintings and sculpture from 1600 to 1700.
TS: [As a designer], having [little] money pushes you to be more creative and work with the things you have. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
GZ: When the sky is gray and there’s no light, you must look into your soul. Memories, love, passion, studying, reading or a movie can help. You need to be able to discern in order to get the right incentives to start over. … That’s what we do in fashion all the time: build, destroy and start over again.
RS: Inspiration is not directly pegged to the whims of the market, and [the things] inspiring me at the moment are the design explosion of the 1950s in Britain, Italy, Christian Dior and Fellini movies. I have to say “Mad Men” is very exciting and looks fantastic. Women dressing like women — bring it on.
CC: I never look at [the past]. I look forward and try to find inspiration from art, music and love. These elements are everlasting and universally appealing.
MK: I find inspiration in the special things, and even in harsh times, there are still beautiful things. For the spring ’10 collection, [I looked to] the Russian film of the ballet “Swan Lake,” which was really inspiring in terms of costumes, colors and beauty.
FN: How has your design criteria changed, and what impact has that had on your shoes’ success at retail?
MB: To be honest, nothing has changed because I have never been able to predict what will sell.
GZ: I can’t expect people to like everything I like. … I have my own DNA, style and rules, [and] I confront myself with the specific demands of the market. I can’t change who I am and what I do. Too many compromises are dangerous for a designer and for his creations.
NK: When I design, I am thinking of our retailers and consumers. It doesn’t affect the ideas behind each collection, and often, the more elaborate and expensive shoes have the best sell-throughs.
CC: Before, I never thought twice about whether to go ahead with a design if I liked it, and I didn’t consider how it might sell on a retail level. Now I [consider] the potential of a shoe commercially. It allows my clients to be more confident when they buy because I’ve already thought about what women want right now.
FN: Speaking of buying, how have your own spending habits changed?
MB: I was never a big spender, so my habits have not changed. My extravagance is buying large quantities of books and DVDs.
TS: I question my purchases before I buy and [consider whether items are] really worth [the money].
GZ: I still alternate between moments of great spending and periods of parsimony and zero spending. You must enjoy life and the special moments it gives you. When I feel like I need a reward, or I sense the fever of shopping, I do it and that’s it.
GG: My income hasn’t changed and neither has the amount I spend on anything. I like to buy things that you can wear happily for 10 years.
RS: I’ve never been a shopper, and the things I buy are either things I’ve been buying for years or things I’ve thought about buying for some time.
FN: How has the economy changed the way you communicate with your customers?
MB: The way I view my customers has never been affected by anything. I always appreciate their loyalty and communicate with them.
TS: In a bad economy or not, it’s absolutely necessary to listen to your customer and know who she is. I love going to stores, meeting the people selling my shoes and listening to what they have to say.
GZ: The relationship is more straightforward, with no diplomacies or acting — just me and my shoes. I want to offer smart and accessible luxury shoes, and [my customer] appreciates this.
NK: We’ve been strengthening our relationships with our retailers by being accessible. Our strategy is to communicate our brand in a clear and consistent way, and that, [coupled with] building the infrastructure of our company and improving deliveries and service, has helped us grow throughout the downturn.
GG: We have made a conscious effort to listen more and get closer to our clients, recognizing that their business is our business. The same is true of our retail customers. … We are placing more emphasis on seeking long-term partnerships based on the principle of a marriage rather than a one-night stand.
RS: We let our customers know about things that might interest them beyond the usual round of new season arrivals. We have gallery events, I write a blog for British Vogue and [I do] collaborations, like with the Royal Opera House and Karl Lagerfeld’s collection. We let our customers know about [all this] and hope it adds valuable texture to the name.
CC: I try to listen to what a customer wants in her closet, how much she wants to spend and how she wants to feel. My motto is “dream big and stay grounded” when it comes to my designs, and [part of that is] staying connected to the Casadei woman.
MK: I have become much more focused on what stores are buying and more demanding with new buyers. [Mine is] a growing brand, so I focus on having the right positioning in the marketplace. Even if it means losing an order, you really have to say no when a retailer clearly doesn’t understand what you stand for or your product.