Ten years ago, an exciting chapter was unfolding in the luxury footwear industry as a new crop of young talents landed on the scene with bold launches and fresh thinking.
But a decade later, many designers from that era have faded from the scene, crushed by competition from mega brands and unable to keep up with a constantly changing retail landscape.
So how did Edgardo Osorio manage to defy the odds? Since debuting Aquazzura with co-founder Ricardo de Almeida Figueiredo in 2012, the designer has stayed true to what he does best: glamorous shoes that are just as commercial as they are fashionable.
The pair has been laser focused on the U.S. business (both DTC and wholesale) since the beginning, and while there have certainly been ups and downs in the market, that strategy is one of the big reasons Aquazzura is having its best year yet. Europe and the Middle East have also been key drivers, with a number of high-profile store openings in the works in all three major markets.
An ambitious expansion plan is taking shape as the brand’s overall sales are expected to hit 67 million euros in 2022, a 75% increase over 2021.
“It’s been a wild roller coaster, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything that’s happened has led us to where we are today,” said Osorio in his elegant Milan showroom during fashion week last month. “Ten years makes you think a lot. I’m excited for the future.”
The next chapter for Osorio — a master networker who has always understood the power of celebrity and social media — will be centered around expansion into new categories. He launched a home line during this summer’s Milan Design Week, and handbags are set for a March 2023 retail debut. Men’s shoes will also hit stores next year.
“I waited until I had a strong enough team to support me. I had experimented with handbags before, but hadn’t launched because I thought it wasn’t right,” the designer said of his foray into new categories. “It just means I need to put on many more hats than I did before.”
Top retailers are confident that the designer’s strong foundation in footwear and unwavering vision will help the label achieve success as it tackles new territory.
“Saks and Aquazzura have an important, long-standing relationship that extends back to the very early days of the brand. I have
felt a personal connection since the beginning,” said Tracy Margolies, chief merchandising officer at Saks. “The brand has consistently delivered footwear that exudes confidence, emotion and power as well as comfort. We are confident that their ventures into new categories will continue to bring them success.”
While he entrenches himself into the new ventures, Osorio is also partnering with Swarovski on a capsule collection, revealed late last month.
For the collaboration, the brand launched a new shoe design, the Aura sandal, in five color and material combinations. The style is defined by its sparkling ankle strap and sculptural heel, both encrusted with Swarovski crystals. (The statement heel features faceted maxi crystals with an octagonal cut.)
Here, the designer reflects on the brightest moments from the past decade, sounds off on the big changes in fashion and reveals when he might consider outside investment.
What are the biggest ways the industry has changed since you launched your brand a decade ago?
Edgardo Osorio: “When we started, mega brands weren’t as interested in shoes as they are now. It was all about shoe designers. [Footwear] became a big business. Also, the way we communicate, the way people see fashion has changed — you can see it through the metaverse, TikTok, all kinds of social media. I launched my brand when Instagram was just starting. We live in a whole different world now. Everything is so immediate.”
The pandemic altered the way that many of us think about life and work. How did it change you?
EO: “I waste less time doing things I don’t want to do and going to places I don’t need to go. You learn to prioritize what makes you happy. What’s important to my work, I do, but what’s not, I don’t. More than ever, I appreciate traveling. But I think about it twice before I take a long-haul flight. I do a lot more travel within Europe than to the other side of the world. I’ll still do a crazy three-week trip, but before I was doing it every month.
It is more important for me to focus on creating more categories than being everywhere and doing everything.”
As you expand into new areas, your core women’s shoe business is seeing big gains. What’s driving the demand?
EO: “The U.S. is having a wonderful moment. It was always our biggest market and it’s where we started. It was always a focus for me, as well as Europe. The Middle East has been growing exponentially. We’re growing a lot in party and wedding shoes, and crystal, which is very much what the region wants and loves. We’ve learned to focus on what we do best, depending on the region. After 10 years, you learn from your mistakes and what feels right. We have a presence in Asia, but it’s not a priority for us because we have so much room to grow where we already are.”
You will have 20 Aquazzura stores by the end of the year. Why has physical retail been so important to your evolution in an increasingly digital world?
EO: “I believe in it. During the pandemic, we got to study what we should do and how to come out of it in the best possible way. Paris, which opened this year, became our best store in the world right away. Our retail is working better than ever. The future is combining the physical and digital — buy online, pickup in store, delivery. The real omnichannel, if it works well, is a winning formula. When we synched everything together, our business grew to its best numbers ever.”
Turning to the broader luxury sector, many European brands have cited rising energy costs as a big challenge right now. How are inflationary pressures impacting you?
EO: “Everything is becoming more expensive, and we have to see what’s going to happen. Everything is late in every sector. We had to get new suppliers because everyone is having issues with raw materials, from raffia to crystals to the steel rod on a stiletto heel. There’s always a component that you don’t see or don’t know about that has an issue. It’s something that’s become the new normal. All of our prices are increasing in November because everything is [higher] for us. We’ve tried to limit it, obviously.”
Ten years in, the business is still self-funded. Would you consider investment?
EO: “Yes, in the future. If I’m thinking about a full retail rollout, like any mega brand has, [I would] need to consider a partner. Doing it on your own is increasingly challenging and financially complicated. We’re in a stage where we’re growing and testing categories. The customer needs to see and react to the product. In the next two or three years, once these categories are more fulfilled, I can make a full-on decision and say I need to open 35 or 40 stores in these cities and this is the retail footprint for city A, city B and city C in these sizes. The value of a company that makes just shoes and the value of a company that makes shoes, jewelry, bags, home — all the things we’re working on — is different. It’s a process.”
Looking back, how do you think your decision to call the brand Aquazzura instead of your own name impacted its trajectory?
EO: “That was a conscious decision because I wanted to create a lifestyle brand that symbolizes Italy. When you have a shoe brand [attached to] someone’s name, you don’t really picture anything else. It’s hard for people to imagine a world. I wanted it to be a brand that could have beauty, sunglasses, eyewear, bags, whatever. I always knew it was going to be much more than shoes. The brand is not about me, it’s about creativity. People recognize me, but I don’t want to be a celebrity. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between a person and a brand Even big designers now have dropped [their first name] and just kept the last name as the brand.”
How has the celebrity game changed since you started?
EO: The world has become so open now. You can pick and choose who inspires you. You still have actresses, but you also have TikTokers and influencers — it’s a larger pool and more diverse. We’re starting to be on TikTok with our Aquazzura account, but I’m not there yet personally. I’m not a video person. I use Instagram for work — I find suppliers for interiors, companies I source. I follow very specific people.”
After home and handbags, men’s shoes are next on your expansion list. What can we expect?
EO: “We’re going to launch the collection [to buyers] in early November, and the first drop will be seasonless. It’s very much about loafers and slippers and comfort. We will have one sneaker style. I’m dropping the iconic silhouettes –— it’s all about the essentials for the modern man.”
Where will you be 10 years from now?
EO: “Sitting in a company full of wonderful people who are still making beautiful things, just in more places and reaching more people. Maybe I’ll have eyewear, perfume, beauty — maybe 100 stores. Let’s see.”