Sole Bearing

Italian shoe label Sergio Rossi new CEO wants to bring sexy back

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Riccardo Sciutto understands the profound relationship between a woman and her shoes. That’s why, to know a woman, he will glance at her feet. Her choice of footwear reveals more than where she is going or where she has been to.

“You can understand a lady a lot with her shoes,” Sciutto said. To illustrate his point, he pointed at a working woman wearing white moccasins. “For a lady to wear flats, she is projecting self confidence. She dares to break the mold.”

The almost psychic ability to decipher a woman’s mind is a necessary occupational hazard. Sciutto is chief executive of the Milan-based footwear company Sergio Rossi.

The label is known for its high-octane creations that add oomph and unabashed glamor to the female wardrobe. Its iconic monotone stilettos and thigh-high boots are must-haves for the well-heeled.

Sex appeal is the name of the game, and Sergio Rossi excels in it. However, Sciutto is attempting to redefine sexy.

“Wearing short skirts and high heels was the definition of sexy. We need to destroy that preconception,” he said. “Today the ladies are much more confident and ready to live life. They can wear pants and shorter heels and still look sexy.”

The past year saw great changes at Sergio Rossi, with ownership changing hands from the Kering Group to Investindustrial in December 2015. The private equity firm also retains the car manufacturer Aston Martin and furniture company B&B Italia in its investment portfolio.

Sciutto was appointed in April 2016. A fashion veteran, Sciutto brought with him a wealth of senior managerial experience he gained at the jeweler Pomellato.

His credentials in clothes are equally impressive. Born in Bra, Piedmont — an Italian city famous for its wine and truffles — Sciutto came from a family whose company had produced merchandise for Max Mara.

Sciutto has also worked for leather goods and footwear label Hogan, where he pushed forward a project to continue the label’s tradition of making luxury sneakers.

Sciutto had been working with the new owner a year to relaunch the footwear label. He started with a bold proposition: rather than betting on a celebrity designer, he and a team of young designers would lead the creative vision.

“My idea was for customers to fall back in love again with Sergio Rossi. We looked at our DNA, but at the same time, we are thinking about the future in order to establish a new line that would represent a new family of shoes and the rebirth of the label.”

The new collection, called sr1, was conceived with innovative concepts. Exotic sky-high pumps were replaced with wearer-friendly daywear. An example is a new creation that merges the design of moccasin and slipper, and features an elongated tongue.

The collection is evergreen. It will keep expanding every season. But all the pieces added are meant to be season-less.

“Squared-toe is the direction but pointed-toe will be added. There will be different proportions and lower heels. Our shoes are meant for walking,” Sciutto said.

“Modern women are revolving every day. They no longer carry many pairs of shoes for different occasions. They love to have one style that they can wear to work for the entire day. Our heels were 10 or 11 centimeters high. Now, we make more six-centimeter heels.”

While balancing femininity and functionality is the goal, it is a challenge for a company that takes a couture-like approach to footwear. The “beauty is pain” mentality still lingers in high-street fashion. And Sciutto will need to rewrite the book.

“The risk about being a visionary is that at the beginning you may be seen as a little bit crazy. I see what is going to happen in the next one or two years but I need to explain it to the team and get their trust before I can tell it to the customers,” he said.

“For me, shoes are where the magic happens. I can put three ladies in front of you, and by dressing them with different shoes, they will each show a different mentality and attitude. It’s a kind of magic that a dress and a bag cannot give you.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on May 19, 2017.

Feets of Joy

Jimmy Choo: designer to the well-heeled

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There are those who measure their achievements in life by the number of designer shoes they have in the wardrobe.

Then there is Jimmy Choo. Not that the celebrity footwear designer is not crazy about shoes. He has three cabinets filled with stylish shoes at home.

But Choo, a Buddhist, sees life through the lens of benevolence. The goodwill of others has made the Malaysian Chinese the world’s famous footwear icon that he is today. Choo feels obliged to reciprocate by promoting the virtue of education and bringing up young designers from Asia.

“A Chinese saying goes: a master should always have a few tricks up his sleeves, lest his apprentice outstrips him one day,” Choo said after attending a British Council award ceremony held in Hong Kong. “I don’t believe that. A true master shouldn’t be afraid that his proteges would become better than him. I teach mine everything I know. It was how I learnt the craft. My father was my master.”

Choo’s father Choo Kee Yin, an immigrant from Mei County in Guangdong, was a shoemaker. Born in Penang to a Hakka family, the junior Choo learnt about design and pattern-making at the family’s shoe factory.

At 11, Choo made his first pair of shoes: dog-patterned leather flats for his mother’s birthday. “I made that because my mother liked wearing slippers. And my childhood nickname was Doggie,” he said. “Many parents in Malaysia gave their children an animal nickname, hoping they would grow up strong like an animal even in difficult circumstances.”

Although Choo moved to London in his teens and lives there ever since, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. He speaks fluent Cantonese and Hakka. And after selling his shares in his eponymous label in 2001, he started another company named after his Chinese name, Zhou Yangjie.

“I used to speak Cantonese a lot in London because there were a lot of Hongkongers there,” said the 68-year-old. “Most restaurant staff spoke Cantonese. Some spoke Hakka.”

London made Jimmy Choo famous. In 1983, he graduated with a degree in footwear design at the Cordwainers Technical College, today’s London College of Fashion. Three years later, he opened Lucky Shoes in Hackney.

Choo’s father-in-law suggested the name. Choo is married to a designer from Hong Kong.

“My father-in-law said the name would bring me good fortune so his daughter wouldn’t starve,” he recalled. “I was quite handsome when I was young. So I didn’t need much effort to court my wife. When we were dating, she often invited me to her place for dinner. She said Hongkongers are good at making soup. In return, I made her shoes.”

Good fortune didn’t come immediately – even though Choo was selling his handmade shoes at £50 (HK$472) a pair. “No one wanted my shoes because I was a nobody. My parents gave me their retirement savings to keep the business afloat,” he recalled.

To make ends meet, Choo went into making cheap sandals and uncredited pieces commissioned by theater producers and famous fashion designers. Although his creations would appear in fashion magazines, he was only paid £6 per pair sold.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for his reputation to grow. Within two years of opening Lucky Shoes, his works were featured in an eight-page spread in the UK Vogue. Then Choo went into business with society girl Tamara Mellon – and the rest was history.

Throughout the years, many celebrities and royalty have stopped by Choo’s shop – Princess Diana, the queens of Jordan and Brunei, Michael Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Kristin Davis, to name a few.

“When Katie Holmes was in London for the premiere of Batman Begins, she visited my shop on 18 Connaught Street,” he said. “Turned out, that location really brought me good fortune.”

Choo’s niece Lucy Choi has taken over his London shop but he is still accepting bespoke orders from close friends. “I’ll never stop making shoes – not even when I am 100.”

When he is not busy entertaining clients and scouting for young footwear talents, he would fly to Kuala Lumpur to get his suits and shirts made at Lord’s Tailor. The man is, in his own right, a purveyor of fashion.

“Being a designer is not only about making fashionable shoes. It’s also about making shoes that bring joy, comfort and a sense of wholesomeness.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on March 10, 2017.