10 Questions for Mike & Chris

Mike Gonzalez isn’t afraid of a challenge.

He and his wife, Christina Park-Gonzalez, launched their successful Mike & Chris clothing line in 2005 with a simple hoodie jacket that soon became a hit with stars including Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley. Now they have introduced footwear.

Part of the inspiration is Gonzalez’s love of fine leather. He made that hoodie, for example, in a luscious washed lambskin. And after tackling leather jackets and reshaping them to be feminine, soft and easy to wear, footwear seemed a natural new direction.

But it was “intimidating” at first, admitted Gonzalez, who had no formal shoemaking training. However, he quickly warmed to the chance to design more parts of women’s wardrobes. “It’s always interesting to see how people wear something you’ve created, especially when it’s completely unexpected,” he said.

His enthusiasm is paying off. The collection of heels and sandals, which retails from $189 to $589, will ship this spring to stores, including Diavolina in Los Angeles, New York’s Bergdorf Goodman and online destination Shopbop.com.

1. What was your motivation to move into footwear?

MG: I’ve always imagined Mike & Chris as a lifestyle brand, so it was a natural progression for us to expand into the footwear category. Working a lot with leather in our ready-to-wear line, the aesthetic was already there. All I had to do was act on it and make the trip to Italy to understand the process.

2. What’s the appeal of “Made in Italy” for your footwear?

MG: Our ready-to-wear line is made completely in the U.S., which means a lot to me, as we can oversee everything on a daily basis and at the same time promote the local sewing talent in Los Angeles, ultimately protecting jobs in American manufacturing. But for shoes, Italy is the world’s leader in quality and craftsmanship, so it was an easy decision to take the collection there. The Italian manufacturers have an aesthetic understanding when it comes to the product. It’s about the generations of people who have perfected the art of making shoes, as well as having the experience to translate modern ideas into a physical reality. The factory we work with is boutique and family run, and they really care about what they do. This is very much in line with how I run my company.

3. Do you have any formal shoe-design training?

MG: I haven’t had any formal training in design, shoes or clothing. I’m a hands-on person and learn quite well by getting my hands dirty.

4. How dirty?

MG: I had a crash course in shoe design and manufacturing by flying to Florence and visiting all the factories. I spoke to highly skilled technicians and learned so much from them and was walked through the entire assembly line, from heel design to lasts to finishing. It was the most awe-inspiring experience I’ve had in the fashion industry. Shoe design is a totally different animal than clothing design. To see this 3-D version of what was just an idea is so exciting. To me, it’s the truest form of functional design. There are definite rules that can’t be broken.

5. What is the inspiration behind the fall collection?

MG: The collection draws subtle inspiration from the clashing music scenes of the late 1970s punk and disco eras, while also staying true to the Mike & Chris aesthetic of classic and slightly vintage details reimagined with a modern edge. The line features rich leathers with a distressed feel, and details such as raw edges, block-like weaving patterns and hand stitching, while also bringing in a more 1970s element with the use of metallics layered and twisted under a masculine, rough-hewn matte black leather. The styles are casual but streamlined. We have an ankle boot on a wedge with an all-over woven upper, and a streamlined cowboy silhouette done in waxed suede.

6. What connections do you see between designing clothes and shoes?

MG: Both collections are created to complement each other without being overpowering. There is a definite correlation, from color to design details.

7. Is a handbag line in your plans?

MG: Yes, [we’ll launch a full offering] as part of our fall ’09 collection. I’ve designed successful bags in past collections, but never went full force with them. We’ve had such a great response to the shoes, and it makes sense to take our handbag collection to the next level.

8. Has it been difficult to launch a high-end footwear line in a tough economy?

MG: Although our prices are higher compared with other collections, the main difference is that we are made in Italy, yet still are able to achieve a price point lower than that of the designer market. It’s also a reflection of the quality of work that goes into the construction. The consumer has responded really well to our price point — you can purchase a 100 percent leather sandal made in Italy for less than $200.

9. Who is your footwear customer?

MG: Definitely the same customer as for our ready-to-wear. It’s someone who likes the idea of looking put together, but doesn’t want to spend all day achieving their look. Our pieces can take a basic outfit to the next level and add just enough statement without being over the top.

10. What shoes do you and Chris wear in your everyday life?

MG: With our two kids and this business, it’s all about comfort and ease. So for me, it’s Vans all day, every day. For my wife, the Puma Nuala line.

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