Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Never underestimate the power of a shoe, says Giuseppe Zanotti

The best designs come from the soul, says Giuseppe Zanotti, maker of luxe shoes

Giuseppe Zanotti's "picard" range (left, top) features an eye-catching sculpted heel. His "charleston" design is adorned with jewels and billowy feathers.
Giuseppi Zanotti left school at the age of 17, became a radio deejay, and then went into shoe design. The Italian designer’s shoes are now sold in 28 countries and have become a red-carpet favourite with celebrities. His women’s shoes are known for their sculptural heels and bold use of jewels like crystals and accessories like feathers. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Giuseppe Zanotti's sketch of a stiletto heel on an empty plate (left) and his drawing of a bouquet of flowers on Sumiko Tan's notebook.
Giuseppe Zanotti's sketch of a stiletto heel on an empty plate (left) and his drawing of a bouquet of flowers on Sumiko Tan's notebook. ST PHOTOS: SUMIKO TAN

Giuseppe Zanotti, Italian maker of luxury shoes, has never had Teochew cuisine before, but he's game to try it.

We're at Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine at Ion Orchard with two of his marketing people - one from Italy and the other from Hong Kong.

He listens intently as his Hong Kong colleague and I explain what Teochew food is about - cold crab, lots of seafood, steamed stuff and duck, we tell him.

We leave the colleague to order, and he looks on with interest when the food arrives.

The chilled slipper lobster is "very good", he pronounces. "I like this restaurant," he declares.

The papaya soup with pork ribs gets his thumbs up, even if the orange hue looks somewhat alarming to me. "Very good," he murmurs, spooning it up.

The dim sum dishes meet with his approval, as do the crab meat dumplings, kai lan and pomfret.

One thing, though, will always stick in his mind when he looks back on this meal - the tiny cups of extremely strong tea served at the start and end.

"This crazy tea, oh my god, I will remember all the time," he says towards the end of our lunch. "From this restaurant I will remember the tea."

In fact, Zanotti's shoes are a little like the tea. They are bold, in your face, and guaranteed to provoke a reaction.

In the rarefied world of luxury shoes where four-figure price tags are the norm, Zanotti's stand out for being loud and luxe. They are unabashedly sexy, big on bling and also a showcase of engineering genius.

Some of his shoes could be described as - to use a favourite word of his - crazy.

There's his famous "cruel" sandal, which has a huge, baroque leaf design smack in front.

The "pyramid" shoe features gold cone-like embellishments, while the "venere" has a snake-like design made of gold coils.

Giuseppe Zanotti’s “picard” range (above) features an eye-catching sculpted heel. PHOTO: GUISEPPE ZANOTTI

The "picard" comes with a gravity-defying wedge heel that is cut so far in you wonder how anyone can balance on it.

He was in town two weeks ago to officially open his new boutique at Ion.

We arrange to meet at 11.45am and I'm told he doesn't want to eat in a private room because he wants to be among people.

Zanotti, 60, arrives soon after and greets me with a friendly handshake. He has a shock of white hair with a floppy fringe and a smooth, tan complexion. He's wearing statement black-framed glasses, and his grey blazer looks extremely well-cut - it is tailored, I later find out. He's wearing Giuseppe Zanotti shoes, of course.

His demeanour tends towards deadpan, but he is warm, funny and down-to-earth.

He sees my three voice recorders on the table and pretends to fish out his smartphone from his jacket: "You have three? I put mine. Four."

Zanotti's “charleston” design is adorned with jewels and billowy feathers. PHOTO: GUISEPPE ZANOTTI

He had arrived the night before from Ho Chi Minh City where he had opened a new store. After the Singapore opening, he is headed to Hong Kong for the re-opening of his flagship store in IFC Mall, before flying back to Milan.

I ask if the tastes of his customers vary with cities. He says it used to be more distinct but there are still differences. "Asians are more elegant and sophisticated, Europe is more rock, Boston is very conservative, but New York is like Milan, more fashion. LA is super-crazy, Miami is very South America, very super-super crazy."

Although more people are shopping online and a brand can get visibility without stores these days, he believes in the value of physical shops. "You cannot see the quality on the Internet. That's why I need more stores, more boutiques, more showrooms, more frames to show my life's work. And especially in Asia, because Asia is my first market now."

HE WAS born in the small seaside town of San Mauro Pascoli in northern Italy, near the city of Rimini which is famous for its shoe-making tradition. It was a town "where everyone was used to the smell of leather", he once said.

He was the only boy with three sisters, "that's why I'm very close to the woman universe".

His mother was a tailor. His father, a collector of antiques and old radios, had a bar that also sold ice cream.

He wasn't good at school and recounts with glee how he once got into trouble for removing seats from bicycles.

But he loved music and design. He left school at 17 to become a deejay at a local independent radio station, and was there until he was 23. He played music that wasn't popularly heard in Italy - jazz-funk, soul and groups like the Detroit Emeralds and Jackson 5. He didn't get paid but he says of his radio years, "this was my university".

From the designs of record covers, he was introduced to the world of fashion.

Growing up where he did, and with his natural flair for drawing, he decided to go into shoe design. He did freelance work for small artisanal shoe companies, which led to bigger jobs with fashion houses like Gianfranco Ferre and Valentino.


    Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine (Ion Orchard) 2 Orchard Turn, #03-05

    1 bo lo bao: $6.80

    1 ha kau: $6.20

    1 beef rice roll: $7

    1 shrimp mango roll: $7.60

    1 soup of the day: $28

    4 crabmeat balls: $72

    1 chilled slipper lobster: $84

    1 stewed sliced pomfret: $38

    1 kai lan: $22

    1 pickles: $3

    1 Coca Cola: $4

    2 Perrier: $10

    3 tea: $7.50

    TOTAL (WITH TAX): $348.51

He later bought a shoe factory in San Mauro Pascoli, and started making shoes. In 1994, he presented his first collection of shoes under his own name in New York City. The jewelled creations were well received and celebrities like Madonna became customers, sealing his own fame.

He opened his first Giuseppe Zanotti Design boutique in Milan in 2000, and others in major cities followed.

He now has 105 boutiques around the world, some directly operated and others with partners. The Singapore store at Ion is a mono-brand boutique under a franchise agreement with Valiram Group.

In the last decade, he has added jewellery, sneakers, men's shoes and a children's range. All the shoes are made in Italy, and his company had a turnover of €171 million (S$271 million) last year.

MUSIC has always been integral to his design process. He has found inspiration from Janis Joplin to Led Zeppelin, and in more recent times from the world of hip hop. He has partnered singers Kanye West, Zayn Malik and Jennifer Lopez on capsule collaborations.

He is also moved by movies, art and the world around him. Once an idea comes to him, he creates a story around it, right down to the details of what people are wearing and how the environment looks. "And then we decide the shoes. It's the last thing, the shoes."

It is a process he has to restart each time a new season comes around. "On the one hand it's complicated because I'm never happy, but on the other hand I'm very happy because I'm sensitive and can find inspiration from everywhere."

He directs his design team like an orchestral conductor, and believes design must come from the soul.

He laments how young design graduates that go to him lack passion, even if they know the technical aspects of shoe-making.

"Change yourself, forget the school teacher," he tells them. "I want to see your soul, I want to see yourself, not technical (things). I want wrong design, not perfect. I want your hands to be connected with your brain. I don't like perfection; I like imperfection because that is the real passion."

He adds: "Never underestimate the power of a shoe."

He describes his women's shoes as "full of emotions, powerful". They are also "more comfortable than others (from) my competitors". Some shoemakers "spend a lot of time to put fireworks on top, but then inside there is no value, shape, heel stability".

He doesn't elaborate on who these competitors are, and also does not want to be drawn into commenting on other luxe brands like France's Christian Louboutin.

He likens getting a shoe's fundamentals right to constructing a building. "If you have a beautiful building, you also think about the fundamentals because what if a hurricane is coming? Same with the shoes."

He is proud of the engineering behind his shoes and pushes his technical people hard to find solutions to his over-the-top ideas. "Sometimes the engineering or the manager are too straight. But you can have fantasy."

I wonder if comfort matters to him because super-high heels - no matter how comfortable - can wreak havoc on a woman's back.

He points to our food and says: "You know, in the lobster, there is cholesterol. This is pork, cholesterol too, but this pork is so good. High heel is very painful and, no, it's not so comfortable, but you are so beautiful."

He continues: "High heel is not a drug, it's not heroin or cocaine. It's from yourself, your personality. I think for a couple of hours you can have."

You could always keep a pair of low-heeled shoes in your bag to alternate with, he says, adding: "For that, we have sneakers. Then we have a salad and pork."

He reveals that although his brand makes headlines for its stilettos, 65 to70 per cent of sales come from low and medium heels.

He resisted doing men's shoes for a long time because they "have the funeral dress sense, they're very serious, very boring". When he finally did them, he made them "more aggressive" than his women's shoes.


As for how many pairs he owns, he thinks hard before finally coming up with "only 300". The other two women and I laugh. "Only," we say, shaking our heads.

He has a separate collection of 15,000 pairs of shoes he has collected over the decades from different countries and eras, which he keeps for research.

He has homes in Milan, New York, London and the Seychelles and spends most of his time in Milan. He is divorced and his two adult sons work in his company. His Italian girlfriend also works with him.

"My life is crazy. It's difficult for me to have a weekend free. That's why I suppose to be retired at 60 years old and then to have a better life, now I'm 60, I postpone to 70."

His colleagues signal that our time is running out. He says something in Italian and they dig out a pack of coloured pens from a bag.

He asks for the empty plate beside me and proceeds to sketch a stiletto heel on it. He then takes my notebook and draws me a bouquet of flowers.

He wants to pay for the meal but I say there's no need.

"It's my culture," he insists.

No, no, I say, the format of the lunch is my newspaper pays, and add: "It's my culture."

He laughs, thanks me, pecks my cheeks in goodbye and leaves, striding off in his Zanotti.

Twitter @STsumikotan