“This role makes me feel like those days in the ’80s, when I was trying to find myself as a shoe designer. There is something that feels very new in figuring it out again, like I did almost 30 years ago,” said Aquatalia creative director Edmundo Castillo. “And that is what keeps it fresh for me.”
After a career that included posts at Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Santoni and Sergio Rossi — along with a stint designing his own line — Castillo is working to fuel Aquatalia’s growth.
Since joining the brand in October 2015, the designer has been capitalizing on the casual moment and creating a more expansive product offering. But his ideas about what’s trendy have changed.
“I love drama and all that you can add to a shoe, but at the same time, I love seeing what I’m doing being worn,” Castillo said, adding that he is throwing away the old connotations about comfort. “Throughout the years, comfort was a taboo word in fashion. Now that’s all gone, and what drives me is the new acceptance that comfort is chic. I never want to do a shoe that looks like something from the past. I always like to take things forward.”
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Aquatalia was acquired by Global Brands Group Holding Ltd. in 2014; brand founder Marvin Krasnow debuted the Italian luxury label featuring unique weatherproof and stain-resistant technology in 1994.
Now the teams are focusing on the first flagship store, which opened on Madison Avenue in New York City in October. Looking ahead, building a larger footprint and expanding category offerings are also focal points.
“We are a global brand, and there is a huge opportunity to increase our presence and expand worldwide,” said Jim Gabriel, president of footwear at Global Brands Group. “We are aggressively looking to increase our distribution outside of the U.S. and expose the brand to new customers. We currently have a base of loyal, devoted customers, and the opportunity to engage a new generation is an exciting prospect
Priced from $295 to $1,500, the label’s shoes are available at a number of key retailers, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Zappos.com. New York-based independent retailer Jildor Shoes has been working with the brand for more than 10 years.
“The shoes perform well, and the [relationship] is all positive,” said buyer Jan Friedman. “Their styling and fit are advantages, and the fact that the shoes have a weather-resistant element to them is appealing. Sales have been consistently good.”
Castillo spoke to FN about brand evolution, adapting to a challenging retail environment and what the future holds.
What first drew you to Aquatalia?
EC: Before I joined, I decided to take a sabbatical year. I felt that I was at a point where I needed to figure out how to evolve my career. I was looking for something more challenging. I had been doing different types of heels throughout my career, but I was focusing mostly on sexy stilettos. There were categories and things I hadn’t explored before, like waterproof leathers, and I realized that was a challenge pulling me to [take the role].
I like the idea of uncertainty when you are about to start something. I feel the challenge has always brought out the best in me. Since I’ve been here for a year, it’s been very much about exploring how I could evolve the brand and what all the possibilities were to move it forward.
How is that evident in the spring ’17 collection?
EC: The positive thing about this spring is it’s about casual shoes that you can wear every day. It’s not just sneakers. For spring, women want to wear shoes that are wearable and chic. I find [inspiration] that creates a story. There is a movie from the ’80s called “White Mischief,” and expats from the U.K. go to Kenya, where they are hunting by day and going to the clubs at night. Everything becomes more casual.
The color story revolved around the African Savanna. I also like observing what is happening on the streets and outside — seeing what the women are wearing in different ways, not what the trend is. [We are creating] an entire collection of shoes with everything women are dying to find.
How has the flagship store on Madison Avenue helped you connect with the consumer?
EC: It helps me better understand the Aquatalia customer who is loyal to the brand. Then there is the customer who comes in and passes by and discovers the brand. [Speaking to the consumer] is the best way we can learn how to approach the future.
What excites you most now about the footwear industry?
EC: There are a lot of designers coming out with great, unique styles, which I’ve always been an admirer of. I definitely like the casualization of shoes. Sometimes I see someone walking by in sneakers with a skirt and dress, and I think about the ’80s and Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” — how horrible it was in the 1980s, and how right it is now. You don’t have to change your shoes in the office. It looks great, it looks right and it looks normal. I love the evolution and not going to the past.
How did your previous roles prepare you for this moment?
EC: When I started working with Donna Karan, she was about different types of [silhouettes], and that made me experiment with different kinds of shoes. We did sneakers, we did flats, heels, wedges and more. We came up with the stretch suede, because [she] hated zippers. A zipper was too much of a distraction, so we had to figure out how to make things be completely functional.
Throughout the ’90s, it was all about being creative, practical and functional. The other brands I worked for allowed me to experiment with different types of shoes. I don’t like to be a one type of shoe designer. Personally, I love one shoe this week, and next week I want to wear something else. That’s how I understand what other people want to wear.
What’s at the top of your agenda for 2017?
EC: It’s about creating a DNA and creating things that fit the brand. We have handbags and small leather goods — and going forward, we are going to create [more categories]. We will also learn how to walk away from categories that aren’t working any longer.
Business today is a challenge. It’s about doing things in a smart way. To grow a brand and adapt, sometimes you want to go in a direction that is not necessarily the direction that everyone is taking you.