An interview with the man behind the iconic YSL cage shoe, who is setting out on his own
"The high heel, emotionally is the one that touched me most." – Francesco Russo
In the midst of a whirlwind tour of Dubai, to usher in his new collection at Level Shoe District, Francesco Russo sat down with Buro 24/7 Middle East to share with us his inspiration for his current collection of elegant high-heels, which are exclusively available in the region at Level. He opens up about what made him decide to take the leap from designing for established fashion houses and start his own label from scratch and what turned him onto shoes in the first place.
When it comes to shoes, there is very little Francesco Russo doesn't know, he studied at fashion college in Milan, but he says his real education began when he started his twenty years (and counting) professional career, which saw him take up his first post at Costume National before moving on to make his mark at the likes of Miu Miu, Sergio Rosso and YSL where he designed such iconic creations as the cage boot.
Russo tells us how his mother is at the heart of his design inspiration, and how such a glittering career and its subsequent achievements, his exquisite Spring/Summer 15 personal collection among them, were born from life in a traditional southern Italian household, watching his mother's dress-making clients transform in every way when putting on that crucial final element – high heels.
"We are a young brand but I am not a young designer, I have been working for 20 years in the industry. For me this is the beginning but it is also the end of twenty years."
You live in a renowned global fashion capital, Paris, what is your impression of Dubai as a fashion hub?
I have a limited vision of what the situation is here in Dubai because I have not been here long enough. But what I think, knowing that Dubai is made up of 80% international people, I think and I believe that this city is a little bit like New York, it's a melting pot of culture. People are looking for something different, so it is a very interesting place to be represented. To be in the belly of the world. And I look forward to understanding it better with time. It's the beginning of a journey together.
Your collection is currently only available at Bergdorf Goodman in New York and at your Paris boutique, with an upcoming launch on Mytheresa.com soon. What made you decide to expand to Dubai as your next step?
It was a joint decision, between Level and our team, as you know when I started the collection we started in Paris, and Bergdorf Goodman in NY only. I realised I was working on something extremely ambitious. Because I was sharing my vision, not just my vision of design but also my vision about shoe making. We are a young brand but I am not a young designer, I have been working for 20 years in the industry. For me this is the beginning but it is also the end of twenty years.
So when I launched it, I understood it would be too soon to ask people like Level to carry our brand, in this temple of luxury, because we needed time to exist in the world. We got to the point where we both believed it was about time to share our product in this region, and Level is the only place that carries our collection. I also love that the manager of Level is a woman, she is in love with shoes, she is in love with luxury, she is a luxurious woman herself. So I think she fell in love with the brand because she wears it.
"watching that transformation from flat to high heel, she would change the way she was standing, and she would change the way she was moving and I was fascinated by that. I would think: wow!"
Why shoes in particular?
I grew up in the south of Italy. With a typical southern Italian culture. It was like a Rossellini film. The mother is the centre of the family, I had two sisters, I was surrounded by women. My mother was a seamstress and as a child I was always with my mother, she would work from home and see her clients from home.
Ever since I was very little I can just recall the moment, that I started to reproduce the movement of the client. Since I was very little I started to be fascinated with the last fitting, when you have to define the length, and the client would have to wear high heels to measure the length of the dress, or the clothes, and watching that transformation from flat to high heel, she would change the way she was standing, and she would change the way she was moving and I was fascinated by that. I would think: "wow!" It's like watching a cocoon turning into a butterfly. I was fascinated to see how an inanimate object had such an influence on transforming someone. It was like a new attitude. You move differently.
Time went on, and I decided I wanted to work in fashion, I had a passion for shoes, but most of all I wanted to be in the fashion industry. So I went to Milan to study at fashion college, and as soon as I started working I realised that shoes were not only fascinating me because of what they meant for women but also how shoes are made, the process, from creation to the actual making.
So I started immediately. I was with Costume National at the time, I started as an assistant for men's clothes and said "I am very happy here but I want to work in shoes, so either I can do that here or I can find another job." So I started assisting in shoes, because shoes are very complicated, you can't just be in charge of it. Then I went to Miu Miu where I started designing and I worked under Fabio Zambernardi, who is one of my mentors. Day by day, year by year, I improved my knowledge, I improved what I needed to know about shoe design and more importantly, about shoe making.
"The high heel, emotionally is the one that touched me the most..."
So those memories of seeing your mother's clients putting on the high heels. Is it really just about high heels specifically or all shoes?
The high heel, emotionally is the one that touched me the most. Because the high heel is the one that put into place the physiological change. If you go from a ballerina to a sneaker, nothing changes. So if I have to talk about emotionally, yes it is the high heel. But if we are talking about shoe making and if I prefer to design a high heel rather than low, or if I prefer to see a woman in a high heel rather than low, it's the same, as long as the woman is happy and she feels good. Even with in my collection we have high and we have low. We have more day wear in the new collection. I like to examine the emotional right through to the rational side. And the most rational side is to appreciate how we make shoes. That evolution also went into my taste and passion.
What inspires you in your design process?
I always say that our brain is like an archive. We all have this archive. But we see and feel things differently. The difference between a creative person and someone who is more scientific, is that a creative person can go into the archive and let all of those images that are stocked in it, the sensations and feelings, and bring them out, with another language, and use his own dictionary.
So to answer your question, everything inspires me because everything goes into my archive, and whenever I start to work on a collection I try not to be fixed into something, because this will restrain me. It won't give me the freedom to translate an image in my own way. If I design shoes for a model, and in those shoes I have the African culture, the minimalism of the line, I don't want to be scared of mixing those two things. So I like to let those things come through and put them together in a unique way. It's the only way to make something unique. Everything has been said and everything has been done, it's the way you say it and the way you do it that makes it special. We're talking about expressing emotion. It has to be a free process.
What made you make the leap from working at some of fashion's most established and aspirational houses, to creating your own label?
On one side, not to have regret, because I was always fighting, saying I will or I won't I will or I won't.... and then I was turning 40 and I said it's now or never! Because when you start from the beginning, you have nothing, Especially when you have been working with big houses you get spoilt, you have a team, you have people helping. Doing everything on your own without investors (because I wanted to be free and do everything exactly how I want to) it was not to have regret on one hand.
And on the other hand, to be able to create a corner, my corner, where my values and my idea of shoe making could be expressed in the most unique and personal way. When you work with a brand, you work based on DNA and code and in a team. Today I have a team, but I am the leader, and it is my story and I don't have to decodify the story of someone else.
So has this bespoke approach to both design and the boutique come from that same motivation?
It's the only way I could do this. Because it's got my name on it. I am someone who is intimate, I am someone that is more into the personal approach than a big thing. It's the only way I know how to do it, because it my way and it belongs to me.
You come from Italy and lived in Milan but have based yourself and your boutique in Paris. Where do you call home?
I moved to Paris for YSL, I had been living there for 15 years, I was 26. Before that I lived in Milan for 10 years. I left Milan because I was tired of it, I wanted to move to a big city. I briefly went to New York but then when the amazing opportunity came to head up the department at YSL I moved there. I grew up in Paris. I bought my apartment, my friends are there, it became my city. So today I am based in Switzerland because my partner is based there, but I also live in Paris because we have our store, but it the city that I feel is my home. Naturally it became my city.
Was it easy to decide that Paris is where you wanted to open your boutique?
I didn't even question it for one second. It was Paris. Naturally. It's home.
Has there been a defining stand out highlight of your career to date?
Every step was a different step, its like an education. You have primary school, secondary school, university and masters. You can't say you prefer one or the other, they were for different ages and you are open to learn different things at different times. So all of my career is like the translation of my professional education. So I went from college, to university to masters to having my own job.
So who has been your best teacher?
Each one was the best teacher for that moment, because for education it went chronologically. So when I worked for Costume National, that was college, then I went to Prada, which was university and then YSL was my masters and now I have graduated for my own job. That is why I always say it is the end and it is the beginning. It's an evolution.
"A woman that stands up on their own with their own voice. That is what is attractive to me."
Is there anyone in particular that you would love to see in your shoes?
No, for me it's always difficult. Imagine, you have an image of a woman, she has no face, no shape, just an energy, a movement that we call personality, so I do have women that I am more attracted to. But it is difficult for me to put that movement or that energy into a specific body.
What is that personality?
It's my mother. It's a woman that made me. A woman that has raised children, a woman that was working, a woman that was the heart of the home. A woman that has assumed a strong place in the world. A woman that is not an object. There are women that assume being a woman, as a gender, and make their place in the world, they have a career, work, and family, they are equal to men. A woman that stands up on their own with their own voice. That is what is attractive to me.
What are your plans for the future?
Mainly two. One is to grow our address in Paris, enlarge our boutique in terms of space and enlarge in terms of service. And then to have the chance of sharing what we're sharing in countries where we still don't have presence, the intention is to grow organically. It is important for me, myself to be physically there wherever we open a new space. And I can't be there if we grow to fast. Having the chance of sharing what are my beliefs.
With your growth is it important to stay bespoke? Do you find that there is a possible conflict in ambitions to grow and keep your intimate approach at the same time?
It's crucial. I think the world is very big, and there are many women that despite different culture they feel the same. I think it's important to be true to yourself. Globalisation is very interesting because it allows us to see and be what we were not able to see and be before. I think that with everything – Instagram, the Internet, it depends on how you use it. You can use globalisation in a way that shares yourself with the entire world, or trying to catch as much as you can because you want to be big. I first and foremost want to be true to myself and have a product that responds to my values, entirely. It's like having this woman that has this energy, and giving her the shoes for the day, the shoes for party, the shoes for work, so enlarging, but being true to that woman and to myself.
The secret is keeping the collection very small and creating classics. That's why I don't change the collection every six months. If there is something that can still be beautiful in five years time, why should I throw it away?
What is your next stop after Dubai?
London, because we are launching online with Mytheresa.com they have asked for two seasons already, and I resisted. But I need to be realistic. The reason that I changed my mind about launching online, is because I started to see online as private shopping. When you buy online you can try it on at home and you can send back whatever you don't want. So we think of it as our virtual private shop.