10 Questions for Jean-Michel Cazabat

Jean-Michel Cazabat is a little bit rock ’n’ roll.

For the last decade, the designer’s collections of Italian-made footwear — from sky-high stilettos to studded boots — has captured music’s edginess and such fans as Madonna, Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz. Now the former Charles Jourdan and Stephane Kélian designer has shaken things up with a bridge line of women’s footwear with licensee Highline United that hit last fall and by moving the manufacturing of his namesake brand to China from Italy for spring ’10.

“It has helped me [secure a spot] in the contemporary market,” Cazabat said, noting that moving to China has also enabled him to drop prices by 30 percent on the Jean-Michel Cazabat shoes, sold at Barneys New York, Lane Crawford and Harvey Nichols.

While his eponymous line ranges from $295 to $695, Cazabat has expanded into the bridge market with his Luxury Rebel collection, which features about 50 styles and retails for $150 to $450. The offering is on shelves now in stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Holt Renfrew, Harrods and independents shops across the globe.

“It’s a little bit younger, more bridge and less couture,” the designer said of Luxury Rebel. “It’s for [the girl] who can’t afford the high-end designers but wants good quality and fashion.”

While Cazabat is maintaining Italian production for his men’s collection, which makes up about 10 percent of his overall business, his main focus for the coming year will be developing his women’s product, expanding his presence in the Asian markets and bowing a namesake flagship boutique in New York. The French native recently sat down with Footwear News in his New York showroom to talk about his many projects.

1. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the footwear industry over the past 25 years?
JMC: Now everybody has a shoe collection. Clothing designers are shoe designers, and there is 100 times more competition, so you have to have great product. Before, you would see very cheap stuff, but now, there is a large selection and quality has really improved.

2. Why did you decide to launch the Luxury Rebel diffusion line?
JMC: It was always a desire of mine, but we also felt a little bit affected by the economy [in the higher price range]. There is a young customer who can’t afford it. She still wants something fashionable. Luxury Rebel has that and an attitude. It’s a very tasty balance. 

3. What were the challenges of launching during such a rough economy?
JMC: People told me I was crazy and that I should launch at a different time. It has been the worst year in the 25 years I’ve been in the industry, but that was perfect for me because I was adding something new. There is more awareness [of the product], and even though everyone was trying to clear inventory, Luxury Rebel did very well.

4. Why did you decide to base production for both women’s lines in China?
JMC: China is where we started with Luxury Rebel, and then we moved Jean-Michel Cazabat there the season after. … I love Italy, but more brands are moving to China because it’s cheaper and efficient. There’s a lot of precision, and Chinese workmanship is very modern. With the right partner — and [licensee Highline United] is very organized — there’s a lot of potential.

5. Why did you decide to keep men’s in Italy?
JMC: We are in a small artisan factory, and they are very flexible about orders and changes. … It’s not like I want to do a mass-market business in men’s. It’s really what I do for fun. One day, somebody asked me why I bothered doing men’s. I asked what he did after work, and he said he played golf. I said, “OK, I make men’s shoes.”

6. Do you worry your long-term retailers will view your namesake collection differently?
JMC: The quality of the Jean-Michel Cazabat line that is made in China is pretty equal to when it was made in Italy because I use a lot of Italian components. But, at the same time, [making the move] helped me lower my price point. Retailers see the craftsmanship and the hand-sewn details and compliment it. … There was a big void in the contemporary price point with stronger style, [and the move to China] allowed us to get into that corner.

7. Do you find that retailers are looking for simpler designs right now because of the economy?
JMC: Today, we want everything to be stronger and be a little bit on the edge. Everyone wants flash. Maybe it’s good for some of the other brands to be safe, but for me, even the basics have to be strong. People will buy more of the edgy items.  

8. What’s the benefit to having your own retail stores?
JMC: People want to find all the silhouettes, [and] if you have your own shops, you can do many different things, like having that funky shoe that expresses yourself but that your accounts might not want to pick up.

9. It’s no secret that music is a big part of your life. What do you listen to when you’re designing?
JMC: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes I think about a certain rock star wearing [the shoes], and sometimes it’s even music about shoes that helps me find that direction and make the jump.

10. What advice would you give to young designers who are just starting out?
JMC: I think of the shoe business as being in the boxing ring with Mike Tyson. You’ll get hit, and if you fall, you have to come back and adapt. It’s very technical and specific, and now, there’s even more competition. … It’s a difficult business, but if you stick to it, it can be a fabulous business.

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