Aquazzura’s opulent New York boutique opened this week to much fanfare, and Edgardo Osorio wouldn’t have had it any other way.
After all, the designer has been making grand statements ever since he launched the brand five years ago — and the store is an apt visual representation of his ambitious, highly detailed vision. “This is a breakthrough moment for us,” Osorio said recently over lunch with his partner (in business and life) Ricardo D’Almeida Figueiredo at The Mark hotel, one of their favorite Upper East Side haunts.
At the table, Osorio quickly scrolled through photos from his stateside travels on his phone. The designer talked about how critical the U.S. market has been to the brand’s evolution and rapid rise.
In fact, he had just returned from his latest personal-appearance tour — and during this stint on the road, the self-described traveling salesman visited five U.S. cities on behalf of three different department store partners. “I love meeting clients; I’m a people person. That’s an advantage because many others aren’t,” Osorio said.
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The adept networker had landed in the Big Apple a few days earlier and made the rounds at the Save Venice masquerade ball, posed for his portrait (painted by a close friend) and even found time to hit the local flea markets. Then it was back home to Florence, Italy, to put the finishing touches on the resort and spring collections, oversee the opening of his new Milan showroom and prep for the launch of Aquazzura’s European and U.S. e-commerce sites.
Never one to sit still for long, Osorio returned to the U.S. again last week to inaugurate the New York store, which he likes to refer to as a “church of shoes.” The black-and-white pillars of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella cathedral inspired it, and interior designer Ryan Korban also incorporated furnishings that mirror the interiors of Osorio’s apartment in Palazzo Corsini. The location’s eye-catching aesthetic will certainly help Aquazzura stand out on one of Madison Avenue’s hottest blocks.
The boutique, positioned at the base of the former Whitney Townhouses, is a few doors down from the new Met Breuer museum and across the street from a bustling Apple store.
Osorio is clearly proud of his latest project, but he’s already shifting focus to the rest of the year. The designer, who together with D’Almeida Figueiredo spearheads every single brand initiative, will forge ahead with significant retail expansion that will take Aquazzura into uncharted territory.
The brand will open another location at Bal Harbour in Miami this summer after a recent pop-up there exceeded expectations. In total, Osorio plans to debut eight stores this year across the globe: Hong Kong, Macau, Toronto, Paris and Los Angeles are all on the agenda. (An Aquazzura space debuted in Harvey Nichols’ London flagship earlier this year, and the brand already counts stores in London and Florence.)
“We need to take advantage of the momentum we’re having,” said the unabashed self-promoter. “The market is ready for it. At every major department store in the U.S., our presence is bigger than most brands. We occupy so much of retailers’ spaces and budgets. Obviously there’s a pressure [moving forward], but thankfully I work well under pressure.”
Indeed, top players have been banking on Aquazzura during a challenging year.
“The brand has been one of the brightest stars in footwear and quickly leapfrogged more-established [labels] — moving from emerging brand status to a significant player in a very short period of time,” said Josh Schulman, president of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus International.
Alberto Oliveros, head of buying at Level Shoes in Dubai, said Aquazzura’s “phenomenal” growth is a rare occurrence in the shoe industry. “In less than four years, [Edgardo has gone] from being an emerging designer to becoming one of our top brands,” he said.
Osorio, 30, wouldn’t reveal financials on the size of the privately held business, except to say it tripled last year and is on track to do it again in 2016.
Still, many young design phenoms from years past have seen their businesses shrink or disappear altogether. In addition, the luxury shoe business has recently lost some of its luster, with athletic and lifestyle brands occupying a bigger place in the spotlight. The designer has observed changing patterns first hand: Many high-end consumers are spending their money on experiences instead of products.
So it won’t be easy for Osorio to climb to the top — and stay there — but five years in, he seems to have found many of the right ingredients for success by carving out a distinctive path.
From the start, the Colombian-born designer intentionally went in a different direction from many of his competitors. He didn’t put his own name on the brand, preferring instead for the moniker to evoke a carefree lifestyle and the spirit of the Italian seaside. (Aquazzura is derived from the Italian phrase “blue water.”)
Osorio also wanted to usher in a return to glamorous, elegant footwear, a sharp contrast from other new names that were offering up complicated statement styles. “When I was starting, every young designer at the time was creating such strange contraptions,” explained the designer, who worked for other companies, including Roberto Cavalli and Ferragamo, before breaking out on his own in 2011. “You need to have a point of view, but you don’t need to make crazy things. You can make beautiful things and still be noticed.”
Armed with lessons from those past experiences, Osorio focused on making his shoes both fashionable and comfortable. But most importantly, they had to be commercial. “If a shoe sells, it’s my favorite shoe. If it doesn’t, it’s my least favorite. That’s my reality,” he said during another conversation in March at Hotel Côstes in Paris. (A few minutes later, as if on cue, a stylish young local woman approached the designer’s table. “I love your shoes, and I’m not the only one. All the women wear them,” she said.)
Consumers and retailers alike gravitate to Aquazzura’s flirty, feminine styles, at least in part because they don’t break the bank. “Edgardo presents novelty at a great price,” said Barneys senior fashion director Tomoko Ogura, who noted that shoppers can spend about $700 on a highly detailed Aquazzura style, the same amount they might have to dish out for a basic look from other brands.
Erin Cerrato, divisional VP of accessories at Holt Renfrew, said the Canadian retailer’s customers respond to value, giving Aquazzura a major edge on Holt’s shoe floor. The retailer also is partnering with the designer on a shop-in-shop in its new Toronto store, set to debut in August. “Edgardo provides a fabulous quality shoe that is beautifully crafted at a price point that is approachable to many,” Cerrato said.
Osorio said that while he doesn’t limit himself on price — fall ’16’s Russian collection incorporates expensive materials such as fur, velvet and intricate embroidery — it has been important to include price points that young consumers can afford. As he has been steadily building his business, Osorio has also managed to avoid another pitfall that often plagues emerging designers: an over-reliance on one hit style.
“While he knows how to milk a good item like the Wild Thing sandal or Christy lace-up flat, he has avoided, so far, getting pigeonholed as a sandal designer or a flat designer,” Schulman noted. That’s impressive, the retailer said, because even some of the industry’s most established players are linked to a particular style — a pointy-toe pump or platform, for example. “Aquazzura is more of a spirit — a fun, sexy, upbeat language which can translate into many classifications,” he said.
A well-defined product strategy is only one part of the equation for Osorio, who is obsessed with every aspect of his business and made it a priority to install a seasoned executive team as early as he could. Last year, he tapped former Pucci execs Jean-Michel Vigneau and Cyrille Callari as CEO and COO, respectively.
Alongside the team, Osorio reviews sales reports on a weekly basis, sometimes more often. “I still look at every margin on every shoe, and I still do all my prices,” he said. “I walk the shoe floors. I want to know everything. It’s impossible for a designer today to stay in their little cloud.”
Instead, as the visible face of Aquazzura, Osorio tirelessly travels the world, building brand recognition wherever he goes. He’s also been strategic about building a personal inner circle and surround himself with people who can help keep him in the spotlight, from young social stars such as Poppy Delevingne to stylish 70-somethings such as Naty Abascal, a former model and muse for Valentino and the late Oscar de la Renta. Aquazzura recently teamed with both women for special projects and also partnered with Ferragamo last fall for a buzzy capsule. From the start, Osorio understood the power of great collaborations. In fact, a tie-up with fashion influencer Olivia Palermo helped jump-start his business early on.
Another way Osorio is building buzz is through a large social-media presence, a must for any designer today. The designer runs his own Instagram account and constantly studies the lifestyles of his consumers in an effort to better cater to their needs. “We live in a digital world,” he said. “I grew up in an Instagram generation, and very few brands have experienced that. It helped to have all the visual information and immediacy to grow the brand. It became so global so quickly.”
Osorio also has used social media to shine the spotlight on an issue he and D’Almeida Figueiredo are fiercely passionate about: the proliferation of Aquazzura imitators. During Paris Fashion Week, the designer called out Ivanka Trump on Instagram for “blatantly stealing” his best-selling Wild Thing sandal by picturing the styles side by side. (The brand, which now employs a full-time team to monitor these types of situations, has initiated legal action in the Trump matter.)
“I have nothing against Ivanka Trump. It’s not only her, and I’m glad to do other posts,” Osorio said. “I plan to do the same with Steve Madden and other people who have ripped us off. Even some of my direct competitors are copying me. . . . Sometimes I look at the buys in department stores, and I see copies of my shoes. We need to be harder with our retailers. They need to protect us. You can’t cannibalize one business with another.”
While he continues to battle it out with copycats, Osorio is busy plotting category expansion. First up is the addition of children’s shoes, which will hit retail next year. Bags and beauty are also on the wish list. One category that’s not on the agenda — at least for now — is men’s. “It would need to make sense for the image,” the designer explained. “If you start making things because this is selling or that is selling, you get a completely different client and it ruins the image of the brand.”
The biggest focus for Osorio and the team is the roster of stores. With the growing retail operation, the team members will undoubtedly face some fresh challenges in a tricky marketplace. Most importantly, they must make sure they can meet the increased demand, while not sacrificing quality as production levels inevitably rise.
Peter Harris, president of Hong Kong-based Pedder Group, noted that the designer might eventually need to reduce his wholesale exposure in favor of using his own stores to tell the
Aquazzura story and drive future growth.Osorio doesn’t hold back when asked how many locations he might want to have in five years. “Maybe 100,” he said without hesitation.
As he looks to take the business to new heights, would the designer ever consider accepting outside investment or selling the company? He’s already had a number of suitors knock on his door, but he’s not ready to entertain offers. “Never say never, but it’s too early to talk about it,” Osorio said. “We have a toe in the water. Now we need to go swimming.”
To explore the new Aquazzura store, click through the gallery below.