I can clearly remember the first time I discovered shoe designer Francesco Russo. I was walking down a quiet street in Paris when I stumbled upon his jewel box of a store (you can only enter by pressing a bell). His designs were unlike anything I’d seen before – sleek, pared back yet perfectly balanced whether it was in his use of materials, heel height, construction or shape. There were no fussy adornments. They were timeless yet provocative; essential yet sensual. I was hooked.
After doing a bit of research I discovered that I already owned some of his designs – albeit under another label. Turns out that Francesco has created some of fashion’s most iconic shoes over the past two decades. Remember Saint Laurent’s Tribute? Or Dior’s futuristic pumps with the techno-trainer platform? Those were his designs, along with the countless of others. Luckily for women everywhere, he decided to branch out in 2014, finally giving him the just recognition he deserved.
This year has seen him make a big leap to Asia where he recently launched his Made to Order collection exclusively at Lane Crawford. Inspired by the service at his Paris boutique, 11 classic styles are available to customise in tejus or crocodile skin, in up to 20 different colours selected by Russo
During his visit to the city, I finally met Francesco and shared a lovely morning with him discussing creating shoes the old fashion way and why emotion is integral to design. I hope you enjoy discovering his work, just as I did that special day in Paris.
YOU started off in the industry as a ready-to-wear designer. Where did shoes come in?
Firstly, I always grew up with the idea of working in fashion. My father sold fabrics, my mother was seamstress. I started drawing clothes for my sister when I was seven, so I went in that direction. After fashion school I worked at Costume National, and a few months later I went into shoes. Miu Miu followed and then at 26 I was hired by Tom Ford to move to Paris and work for Yves Saint Laurent.
From then on you had the midas touch, creating best-seller after best-seller, such as the Tribute. What was the secret to your success?
That’s the magic thing about fashion, it’s something that goes through emotion. Emotion you cannot plan in advance, because very often it just happens. For the Tribute we did it for a fashion show, and people from the commercial side said it would never sell. It was totally unexpected. It goes to show that fashion still goes through the emotions and not the brain.
For the next 20 years you worked for various brands – why did it take so long to start your own label?
It got to a point that I was disappointed about how the luxury world was approaching shoes, in particular this idea of globalising an aesthetic to suit everyone. One thing I’ve learnt is that you cannot be friendly with everyone – people like you or they don’t. There was this complete lack of understanding to what luxury really is, which is product. I felt the only way for me to defend those values and beliefs was to create under my own name. I finally had enough courage and experience to say this is what I feel good shoes should be.
From the outset you adopted a more exclusive strategy – limited distribution and tight collections. How come?
You can design 24 collections a year but we do six collections. Shoes are not like any other garment, in that it really affects the woman physiologically. If a jacket is badly done you can see it, but it doesn’t affect how she moves. What I love about shoes is their ability to affect a woman by making her beautiful and magnifying her movements. If you do something wrong, she becomes ridiculous, I don’t do my job. It’s disconnected.
And what about the collections themselves, what’s your inspiration each season?
I work differently to other designers. It’s about building an idea of style, which for me today is more interesting than thinking about fashion. Thinking seasonally is a recent thing. When you thought of Versace and Armani, a style came to mind, not their best season. I am more interested in doing things that last instead of doing something new every six months and rejecting the ideas I put forth the season before. Collections are a chapter in the same book, the story that develops, it’s the heart.
It didn’t take long for you to build up a cult following. What is it about your shoes that resonate with women?
It’s the attention we give to women. They have to be comfortable, have the lines at the right side – women need to fill the shoes. That’s why it’s important to meet them because every time I learn something about the body and how shoes need to be considered. The woman feels important.
Are you a flat or heel man?
I have been wearing high heels since I was eight or nine and I still wear them. I’m not a flat man. The heel is the dream, the flat is the reality. You wake up in flat or middle heel, but I dream in high heels.
Looking ahead how do you want to build your brand?
In terms of how I want to approach my work, Manolo Blahnik is a major point of reference for me. Not his style, which I love, but his philosophy. He could become big like Louboutin but he was always not interested. When there were platforms, he did Manolo. People did sneakers, he did Manolo. He’s stayed true to himself and it’s an example I keep in mind as a business model or even the way I want to work.
An edited version of this interview first appeared in the South China Morning Post newspaper.