His family expected him to take over its gelateria, but Giuseppe Zanotti had other plans
When it comes to party shoes, one man knows how to make your feet dazzle. His name is Giuseppe Zanotti and everyone from J.Lo and Zayn to Kanye and Beyoncé have shown off in his shoes. For women, it’s all about high-impact heels sizzling with look-at-me embellishment. For men, he serves up the kind of bling-laden trainers that cost more than the rest of your outfit put together. And yet he almost became an ice-cream man. “It was my plan B,” says Zanotti of his shoe empire, which now spans 103 stores worldwide, the latest a three-storey glamporium on Conduit Street, in Mayfair.
“My family was running a restaurant,” says Zanotti, of his parents’ ice cream parlour in the small town of San Mauro Pascoli, near Rimini, and he was expected to join them. But the teenaged Giuseppe was obsessed with music and spent all his time playing soul and jazz funk for the local pirate radio station, a passion that paid nothing. “I felt like a loser, because I was asking for money from my family,” he said.
He describes himself as “a disaster” at school, but he loved drawing and designing. Fashion, particularly what musicians wore on their album covers, had always interested him, and this area of Italy was known for shoe manufacturing. So he became a shoe designer, learning his craft in the 1980s at small artisanal companies before taking up consultancy roles with big brands such as Gianfranco Ferre and Valentino.
Is it a coincidence that the man who makes the best party shoes never stopped DJing? “I am a major record collector,” he says. Not only is he a favourite with musicians — he has made stage shoes for Gaga, Rihanna and Michael Jackson — but music is at the heart of his creative process. He says he builds a collection in the same way a DJ builds his set, starting with something subtle and then getting more and more intense. Women’s shoes have to have elegance, he says, while men’s need a hint of arrogance.
By 1994 Zanotti had bought a shoe factory and launched his own brand. He never saw accessories as a side dish. “I was crazy for fashion. For me, music was fashion and a car was fashion, like the silhouette of a Ferrari. I started to learn that the word ‘fashion’ was not just for clothing. Fashion was like a new kind of evolution.”
The Italian fashion establishment wasn’t quite ready for Zanotti and his bejewelled shoes, which didn’t look like anything else on the market at the time. “I wanted to give a sense of empowerment to the wearer, but they thought it was a UFO,” he says of the reaction to his shoes with their glittering ankle straps. He took his wares to America where they caught the eye of Madonna — and his Swarovski-studded star quickly began to rise.
Zanotti, 59, is divorced, and has two sons, aged 22 and 23, who both work in the business — one in social media, the other designing men’s trainers. He has the look of a successful creative: his thick silver hair is swept off his face, he wears round, black, Hockney-style glasses and his wrists jangle with a man-sized Cartier Juste un Clou nail bracelet and boho CEO beads. He describes himself as an “old teenager”, which he defines as the perfect combination of youthful outlook and experience. “To be a teenager, it is very dangerous because you have a lot of energy. All teenagers need is more experience,” he says.
Like many teenagers he loves hip-hop. “In the beginning, it came from the street. It came from a protest. It came from the people who had no money,” he says. “All the biggest inventions in art come from nothing.” And in true teen style, he is always looking for new ways to have fun. “Life is there to accept more challenges and risk,” he says, which is why he was one of the first people to collaborate with Kanye West, creating sneakers with him long before Yeezy mania. He remembers how the rapper moved into his house with his crew, including his then girlfriend, Amber Rose, and Virgil Abloh of Off White fame. After a day at the factory, Zanotti would cook for them while Kanye raided his record collection and provided the soundtrack. “They were very creative and they had a pure energy,” he says.
He has also worked with Kid Cudi, 2 Chainz and Nicki Minaj, and in January will launch two new celebrity collaborations, one with Jennifer Lopez, who he describes as “a woman with a capital W”, and another with Zayn Malik: “He has a strong personality. I liked to learn about him, discovering his world.”
As for Zanotti, he stays one step ahead by taking his cues from street style. When he noticed men were wearing high-tops with suits and women were pairing trainers with party dresses, he built a new facility to manufacture £800 sneakers. He thinks the unisex trend is the next big thing and is obsessed with the androgynous South Korean megastar G Dragon. He reflects on where his inspiration comes from: “Sometimes you forget that the most important things are all around you because you only look for the stars and not to the floor.”
Look down in Zanotti’s world and his shoes twinkle right back up at you.