“This profession has changed a lot,” Giuseppe Zanotti declared in his signature staccato over the telephone from a factory in Pascoli, Italy.
He would know better than most. With a career spanning more than 30 years and his eponymous label celebrating its 20th in business, the designer is riding high following a minority acquisition by LVMH.
Sure, Zanotti is prone to grandeur — in life and work — but he’s earned it through an unwavering devotion to craft and a childlike fascination that belies his 57 years. Recently, he’s found a new guard of clicked-in fans through a steadfast connection to pop culture.
So while he may joke, “It’s time to retire,” in many ways he is just hitting his stride as he adapts to new business demands.
“I have so much more responsibility now,” the designer told Footwear News. “This company has 550 employees, and I have almost 100 stores to cater to, plus the politics that come with this industry. Sometimes I wish to return to the pure fantasy. When you want to create something, you have to be free.”
One look at Zanotti’s lyrical creations makes it clear how much he relishes the inner workings of the design process.
“His energy is engaging and it translates to the shoes,” said Sally Ross, footwear consultant and former VP and DMM of women’s footwear at Bergdorf Goodman. “Whether it’s a flat sandal or an over-the-top heel, it’s a total love affair.
“He’s probably the most prolific footwear designer of his generation,” she added. “He’s so versatile. Many people don’t realize that he designs a perfect flat boot and beautiful mid-heel pumps as well. And the numbers behind his sneaker business are daunting.”
Indeed, Zanotti’s knack for high-volume, sell-out high-tops has taken the industry by surprise and helped introduce his work to a bold set of influencers, including Cara Delevingne and Rihanna.
“It’s a new challenge. I started to do [sneakers] only three or four years ago,” he said. “I never thought I would because I’m a slave to stilettos.”
But adapting to the times was important to Zanotti, who prides himself on relevance.
“I compare sneakers to jeans, which are the most incredible form of unisex fashion. I like that they both don’t have rules,” he said, adding that it’s important they always hit the right note. “They need to be very close to the rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop cultures and have global appeal. My elegant heels, which I love, must always be very sophisticated, but sneakers are like dynamite — you can do what you want.”
Along the way, these hot kicks have made him a darling of the music biz. “It was an incredible surprise because I learned from this world,” said Zanotti. His most treasured relationship is the well-documented one with Kanye West, whom he describes as “a lovely, crazy guy, a fantastic creator with a big talent for different things. We’ve worked together on different projects and are good friends.” He has also designed for 2 Chainz and collaborated with Kid Cudi on a puffed-up high-top for spring ’15.
Now that the sneaker line has taken off, does Zanotti worry about losing his core glamour girl? Far from it. “I’ve learned [my brand] can mean different things to different people. And thanks to the sneaker, I discovered that it was important for me to create a men’s collection as well,” said the designer.
That burgeoning men’s business is another area where Zanotti likes to push aesthetic rules and gender limits via glittering loafers and Western boots. “Can you imagine Wall Street guys with a boring suit, but then a pair of my shoes?” he said, laughing.
Perhaps his ability to think out of the box is Zanotti’s greatest strength. It has also made his designs a hit with celebrity stylists aiming to help their clients make a statement. “A lot of the other brands tend to look the same,” said Illaria Urbinati, who often selects Zanotti heels for actresses Shailene Woodley, Lizzy Kaplan and Laura Dern. “But Giuseppe’s are really special and never boring. I like that I can’t tell it’s by him right away. It’s just a rad shoe.”
For his part, Zanotti believes that dressing people — whether from hip-hop orHollywood, Atlanta or Abu Dhabi — is all in a day’s work. “I’m not a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci,” he said. “My mission is to be at the service of the market. I have my vision … but they are the ones who ask for these shoes.”