A Conversation with Francesco Russo in Dubai

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With Dubai’s growing fashion profile, international designers are becoming quite a regular sight in the city. And while they come and go on a monthly basis, only a few will stand out, only a few will leave you with a smile that lasts all the way to the car park – which, in The Dubai Mall, is really saying something. Footwear designer Francesco Russo is one such designer, and my first observation upon meeting him at an intimate breakfast held by Level Shoe District last week was just how likeable he was. As he buzzed around the tables, making pleasantries with his guests, sitting down here and there to give them a private moment of his time, and later taking the stage to thank us all for coming, I couldn’t wait to sit down with him one-on-one. Once breakfast was over and the crowd had gone, we sat down in a corner of Level’s café. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, he was already admiring and complimenting my heels, which he recognized as one of the lesser-known Dior models – this man really knows his shoes, I thought. I asked him how his trip was going, to which he replied, “Very good. It’s pretty short, but I’m really enjoying it very much. It’s nice to feel so welcome.”

It’s a very welcoming culture.
It is. But you know I didn’t really have the chance to experience the local culture. I am meeting people that come from all over the world. It’s a very international city with international people. It’s like a melting pot of cultures.

This is your first foray into the region, and you’re here for the launch of your collection at Level Shoe District. I don’t think you could have picked a better place to start.
You know, it is truly unbelievable and fantastic what they have done. It touches me very much that they were so open to believing in me. A store like this needs to make money. Each square meter is a potential business, so to invest in something and someone as new as me is like wow. It shows a high sensibility in fashion, in luxury, and it means that they really understand the product. I am super honored that they invested so much in Francesco Russo.

They are amazing at picking up new, unknown brands and really believing in them.
I am so honored that Rania [Masri El Khatib, General Manager of Level Shoe District] wears Francesco Russo. If I get a woman like Rania to wear my shoes, who is not just a woman, but also a beautiful woman and a business woman, it’s just amazing. She understands my brand and I think that’s a big reason why I am here today.

I read that you’re originally from the south of Italy, from Puglia. I actually spent a week there a few summers ago. 
It’s such a beautiful place. Were you by the sea?

I was, in a hotel called Borgo Egnazia. Is Puglia where your love for shoes was born?
In a way yes, because my passion for shoes started when I was a child, when I was six or seven. I was always with my mother, who was a seamstress, so I would attend all the fittings with her clients and the last fitting was always magical to me, because the women would try on their dresses with heels and seeing this transformation fascinated me. So I had a passion for shoes that turned into a passion for shoe making when I started working.

What was the pivotal moment when you realized or decided that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
I always knew it. And then I just became more and more convinced when I started working on the shoes, understanding how a shoe is made, and understanding the strong challenge and the strong work of people that goes into these little objects. To make good shoes you need good people, you need good technicians – and not just one, but many, because one does the heel, the other does the model, and so on. It’s a daily exchange when you are with these people, which is very enriching.

You have a very impressive CV, having worked for some of the biggest fashion houses in the past. What is the most important thing that you learned from these experiences and that helped you build your brand?
How to make shoes! I learned that by working. Each experience for me was like a stage in my professional life, so it all started when I was working at Prada. They were just developing Miu Miu, and I was spending 80 percent of my time in the factory. Every day for me was like a shoe lesson; I learned all the basics, step by step, one by one. Then I moved to Saint Laurent, where I was working with other people and from those other people I learned something else. And then I moved to Sergio Rossi. Each of these steps was important to get me where I am today and to be able to stand on my own and to put my name on shoes.

I found a quote of yours online that says, “I want to make beautiful shoes above any sense of time, above any sense of fashion.” Does that mean that you don’t follow trends or seasons when designing?
I am not interested in trends. A trend is, by definition, something that has a beginning and an end. It is very short. I am not interested in doing that. I think that with shoes, or with any luxury goods, you can and you have the space to make classic pieces. I don’t mean classic in the boring sense; I’m taking about the Latin origin of the word, which is a respect of the rules and proportions. I am interested in making contemporary classic shoes that respect the rules of shoe making.

So timelessness trumps trendiness.
Exactly. I trust my shoes. That’s the reason I worked for 20 years before starting my own brand – otherwise I would have done it 20 years ago. I waited 20 years to be sure of what I am doing. I wouldn’t say my shoes are 100 percent perfect, because everything can be improved, of course, but whenever a shoe goes into a collection it is because it is ready to be worn by women. Francesco Russo for me is a book; it is the book of my beliefs. It is the book of what I love about shoes and what I want to say about shoes. Each season is a chapter, and when you put them together you have a story.

Have you ever tried walking in any of your shoes?
Of course.

So would you say that they are comfortable?
For my size? Definitely not [Laughs]. You know the story I told you about watching my mother work? Well when I was alone I would take the shoes and put them on and practice what I saw the women do. I was so, so fascinated by them. This feeling of putting them on never left me. Even today, I am 40 years old and I still enjoy doing it.

I can sympathize with your big-feet problems! Moving on, you’re one of the few designers who take the time to travel around the world and meet their customers. How has the experience been so far? And why is that important to you?
When we first launched at Bergdorf Goodman, we did a private shopping event where I met one-on-one with the customers to introduce the collection. It was a way to introduce the brand and to talk with them. Every time I talk with a lady, I get feedback. It is interesting for me to learn and to listen to the opinion of women from other cultures, because women from different parts of the world have different feet, different bodies, different ways of life. For example, one thing I learned from being here is that in Dubai you don’t walk, you have a car, whereas in other cities you walk a lot, and that affects the shoes you buy. This information enriches me as a designer and as a shoemaker. And of course it’s great for the clients to have that experience; they didn’t just buy the shoes, but they were able to express their feelings.

It’s quite something to meet the man behind such flattering designs. Your shoes really do make women look great.
You know, it’s so ingrained inside of me that I do that without thinking. People ask me how and why are my shoes so sexy and so sensual. The only answer I could give is that I am so in love with women, because I really do love women; they’ve been my point of reference my entire life. You do something good for someone you adore, someone you love. You express that love.

Do you believe in muses?
My muses are the women who surround me – my mother, my friends, the women I see in the streets. Those are the women who inspire me. Of course I am more attracted by a certain kind of woman, women like my mother who stand out, women that make the world and are not merely objects of the world.

Francesco Russo’s designs are available at Level Shoe District, The Dubai Mall.

Photos: Courtesy of Level Shoe District

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