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Giuseppe Zanotti's personal office in the San Mauro Pascoli factory is a kind of wonder room: heels of all heights soar on the shelves, including those designed by Kanye West for his first Paris show («He introduced me to his girlfriend at the time, Amber Rose, he wanted me to turn his body into this shoe», he remembers), on the walls, hundreds of photographs taken over the course of two decades and across three or four continents portray the designer along with the elite of international hip-hop and cinema-famous faces he met around the world or came to visit in his placid corner of Romagna. It was right here that the shoes that have walked the world's most important red carpets originated: in a factory that in the early 1990s had perhaps 15 employees. «Many of the people who were here then are still here now», tells Giuseppe Zanotti proud of the extended family that has become an industry and whose every palm he knows inside out. But his world is intertwined with music, which he met when very young and bored with the province, he was a DJ on free radio stations: «It was an incredible adventure. There was no cell phone, there was no Internet, and there was not even money to buy records. You would record music even from the radio, cut and paste the tape with tape and then put your own track on the air. All very creative experimentation, just like making a collection. Very different from what we do today far too many commercial demands drive us. At the beginning of my career, thinking and creating a collection was very liberating: I felt free of a burden, the burden of having to do something, regardless of whether it came out well or badly. I was starting from the same feeling of lack and emptiness: I was creating because I felt something was missing, first in music and then in the world of footwear. That emptiness had to be filled». Perhaps it is a matter of manifest destiny or perhaps it was «the longing for the thing that is not there, that empty, black hole» that was to be filled by a new vision that prompted Zanotti to strike out on his own in the very early 1990s.

A continuous search for novelty that was recognized from the very first moment. Indeed, the brand's beginnings did not unfold according to the same script that other luxury giants had followed. «I chose not to present in Milan», he remembers, «because I was not an academic designer and I was also the first one to make shoes outside the box». Instead, the designer from Romagna opted for New York, which at the time was beginning to emerge as the most exciting and original virgin land of fashion with the great blossoming of homegrown designers and luxury brands. «I presented in New York because I was ashamed to do it in Milan. I didn't have enough self-esteem. A person I didn't know came to New York: André Leon Talley (Vogue US). He saw this little sandal, my first sandal, and he loved it». His style was and still is the fruit of those distant but pivotal DJ days when he curated local radio playlists and fed off all the sap that music could offer him. Zanotti remembers the days of punk as if they had ended yesterday, moving confidently between rock sounds, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith, and then the hip-hop scene of the 1990s, The Notorious B.I.G. and the New York underground where new sounds no less anarchic than those of his early punk idols were being fabricated. And he loves as much the music itself as the rupture that that music represents-another symbol of that search for the new, that horror vacui that led him from the beginning to conquer niches in the market that the rest of the industry, out of rigidity or snobbery, insisted on ignoring. «Each collection is a playlist: it tells about the desires of the audience on the one hand and your experiences on the other. In my shoes, I always put a little bit of myself, my past, and my code. In the end, the important thing is not only the song you play but also the story you tell».  Over the course of his very long and varied career, Giuseppe Zanotti has become a fixture in fashion culture thanks to «a transversal energy» which led him to move into markets and target audiences that the rest of the industry's big players would only begin to frequent a decade later: hip-hop stars, NBA players, Far Eastern authorities. All clientele were the first to welcome with open arms the brand's irreverent style, both in women's footwear and sneakers, of which Zanotti was a pioneer. The love of disruption and the attitude of research led, around 2010, to the idea of sneakers. «Prepared by the continuous motion music of revolution/evolution, I was not surprised by the incredible fracture of the sneaker within the luxury world. It was the sneaker that was the great enemy of a certain kind of fashion, the great enemy of traditional manufacturing-but that's life, and every once in a while you have to throw everything away, burn it all down to start again». What embodied the symbol of this "deviation" came once again from music: the punk uniform laden with pins and chain, the studs of MJ's nail and buckle boots in Bad, and somehow, like a not-too-distant echo, the rhinestones and metallic fabrics of David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust's glam rock costumes. «All these insights created a genetics that for me could continue», he explains. The first and historic sneaker, however, remains the Double Zip. «The zipper, as well as the plaque or the toe caps, were all part of the memory I carried from the elegant world of women's shoes. And so I introduced the decorative element. To me, the sneaker is a misnomer, too generic. Generally, sneakers are associated with people who make technical sports shoes because that's how they originated. We start with the rubber-bottomed, daytime shoe that can be more or less sporty and put those elements that are part of our history: the stones, the plaques, the rhinestones, the embroidery... At first, it was a scandal. Kanye was the first one who publicly put on the Double Zip. I then presented them to Sarah Andelman from Colette. In the Parisian temple of trends, sneakers had never entered. I explained to Sarah that we were talking about a very special footwear that would soon rewrite the rules of fashion». Sales started first in Europe and then exploded in America as well.

In addition to the hip-hop world, pop and R'n'B divas were also his allies. Powerful allies considering Zanotti's early adoption of the collaborative format, as well as his openness and hospitality to stars who were excluded from fashion at the time and who instead found his door always open, literally coming to see him after leaving their California mansions for the Romagna countryside. Once an Arab sheik on a trip to Europe sent a private jet to Bologna to have the new colorway of a shoe he loved delivered as soon as possible. Of these and other stories so uncommon, but to which Zanotti gives such a warm and human touch by telling them, traces abound.  Among the shelves of his office are all kinds of memorabilia: gifts from sheiks, a poster with dedications and hearts from Britney Spears, tons of books, sketches, and prototypes signed by the world's leading stars and never produced-an impressive and illustrious array of names that Mr. Zanotti sympathetically rattles off, one anecdote after another, such as when «Virgil took a picture of a detail of our fireplace in Montenapoleone, and this sort of white jellyfish then became the cover of Cruel Summer» or how, while at Jennifer Lopez's house, she accidentally spilled a cup of coffee on the carpet in her immaculate bedroom («I was a little agitated and I messed up», he says) or even the beautiful scene of him taking Kanye West, Jerry Lorenzo, and Virgil Abloh out to lunch at a trattoria discussing, in the not-so-distant times, how few designers of color existed in the fashion industry but also when Kim Kardashian showed up at his country house with an entire wardrobe. Dialoguing with the denizens of Olympus did not faze him; on the contrary, talking to him these great and unapproachable stars come to terms with the everyday world in which the rest of humanity lives. And for the future? Zanotti's legacy is being compacted, as Giuseppe's son Riccardo is increasingly asserting his role within the company, bringing to the brand's creative table the tastes and knowledge developed after witnessing his father's work since childhood. After all, looking at the huge gallery of photos decorating the walls of Zanotti Senior's personal studio, one can see that his son has always been at his side, along with all the stars who have linked their fame to his. Today Riccardo is mainly in charge of the brand's city shoes, under his father's creative direction. Looking outside the family walls, however, the pandemic has certainly shaken up the market, which now finds itself immersed in generalist chaos: «I think that at some point, after this great disorder, a perfect order will come. The messages will become clearer and sharper». In short, distinctions are needed, we need to be able to see clearly. Of course, the industry scenario has also changed, perhaps because of an increasingly strategic capitalism, an algorithm that has taken the humanity out of what used to be a somewhat carefree job. «Those who have always tried to see fashion as a creative experiment today are too constrained: budgets, turnovers, and so on. All this was there before but it was a consequence. We used to have fun and the turnover grew - it was easy. Right now we see that the inputs coming from the markets make everything less free and less fun. The creative person makes pacts with the devil all the time. But if the bargain is too one-sided it ends up blunting your nature». For the future there’s the need for «a new formula» taking, to continue with the musical metaphor, «the songs you've been listening to for years and remix them to create a more interesting language». But you still need a measure, a precise and responsible calculation so that you do not go out of your depth driven by hunger or greed. «We have offered too much in the market. Too many are doing everything. There are haute couture brands that enjoy doing fashion shows even though the turnovers are from sneakers. Tailors are no longer selling clothing: they are selling shoes, they are selling bags. This market is congested with products, the supply is too much compared to the demand. So some order is needed: this playlist needs to be redone».



Photographer: Valeriya Polivanova

Photographer Assistant: Luca Chiapatti

Interview: Lorenzo Salamone