‘The shoes do the talking.’

By Pamela Golbin
Portrait by Thomas Lohr

Insider. Fabrizio Viti. - © System Magazine

Stepping out with Fabrizio Viti, the discreet but daring shoe designer behind everyone (like Gucci, Prada, Helmut Lang, Louis Vuitton…).

There’s nothing showy about Fabrizio Viti. A perfect combination of elegance and classic Italian class, the shoe designer has spent more than two decades creating styles as avant-garde as they are popular. Since graduating from fashion school in 1991, he has worked and learned, and been an inspiration behind the scenes at the biggest French and Italian houses. This steady climb to the pinnacle of fashion has seen him create shoes for the likes of Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Helmut Lang, and, at Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and most recently, Nicolas Ghesquière.

Thoughtful and warm, Fabrizio Viti recently invited us to discuss his new side project. After designing thousands of different styles for other labels (and selling millions of pairs of them), he has just released his first collection under his own name. In his typically Parisian apartment, we discussed this new step, the passion that drives him and how work –
whether at Vuitton or for himself – remains a thrilling creative process. After happily spending so long as the preferred translator of the best contemporary designers’ visions – trilingual, he is as happy in English or French as his native Italian – it now feels natural that Viti should want to speak using his own design language. Fabrizio Viti is finally ready to step out into the spotlight. Which, it turns out, is where he has always deserved to be.

Pamela Golbin: When did you become interested in fashion?

Fabrizio Viti: In school. I first wanted to be a fashion designer when I was seven or eight, but I had no conception of what a designer was or I don’t even think I had any idea of what fashion was. My notion of a fashion designer was very confused until the middle 1980s when Gianni Versace, Gianfranco Ferré and Giorgio Armani became the legends they are now.

For me, fashion was more about female beauty, mostly what I saw on the TV with my mother who always showed me Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe movies. Actually, it was kind of strange. I remember looking at the movies and wondering why the actresses didn’t look like the girls I was seeing on the street. I remember Lauren Bacall with the big shoulders and I was like, ‘Why don’t women look like that?’ And then, of course, I had my two sisters and all of my female cousins.

In the 1970s, I was extremely influenced by the new TV shows. Charlie’s Angels aired and all of a sudden you saw these beautiful girls, and they had like eight costume changes. The first season they were very sporty; later they became more glamorous. Then there was Dynasty at some point, which is not such a great reference, but at least it was a showcase of what was going on in fashion. I don’t know if it was fashion, or the idea of fashion that they had. But at least there was a vision that women could have lots of clothes, and they would change quite a lot and so needed new ones.

‘Everybody started wearing more black in the 1990s, and those black nylon Prada backpacks. I guess it was a reaction against that whole Dynasty world.’

Fabrizio Viti

You started your studies at art school in Carrara?

Yes, because I was born there and as you know, it is the Italian city of marble. Basically, when you’re young in Carrara, you have to go to art school, or otherwise you won’t do anything! And then after that, I went to Marangoni.

Were you already interested in designing accessories?

I always loved shoes, because they are objects; they are sculptures. They stand by themselves and they carry the weight of the person who wears them. I don’t want to say they are more real because clothes are also real, but they have a function, which for me is interesting. They also change and transform the way you walk and give you a certain kind of attitude and more centimetres, which is a blessing for everyone. And men cannot do that! There is something magical about stepping into a shoe and growing 10 centimetres.

Your schooling in late 1980s and the early 1990s coincides with a pivotal moment in fashion. There’s the arrival in Paris of the Belgians and the beginning of a new movement, Minimalism. It was a turning point for accessories. Also, the prices of shoes were lower than those of clothing, making it much easier to buy a pair of shoes or a pair of sunglasses. I arrived at a very, very interesting moment. It was not easy to understand at the time, but at one moment you began to see those black nylon backpacks from Prada on the streets and everybody starting to wear more black. I guess it was a reaction to the Versace aesthetics, the Dynasty world in a way. For me, it was also very exciting because the 1960s influences were very prominent; if you remember, there were the Prada campaigns: Steven Meisel with Linda Evangelista and Meghan Douglas and the chairs and little flowers. Minimal could be boring, but it could also be very glamorous as well. So it was a good moment to begin.

We’re now in 1991.

I started working for a studio in Milan. There were still studios working for different brands then. They asked me to do more accessories than ready-to-wear. I embraced it and started working on shoes in the studio that was collaborating with smaller brands. That is where I met Fabio Zambernardi, who today is my best friend. Patrick Cox was a friend of Fabio’s and was looking for an assistant. I started working with him and that was a real turning point. Up until then, I was designing quite a lot, but with Patrick, I was going to the factory in the south of Italy and spending a week at a time there. I learned how to make it happen from sketches to reality. The collections were big. There was the Patrick Cox line, men’s and women’s, about 80 styles each, and there was also Wannabe. It was intense, but not like today. And we were doing bags, as well. I enjoyed those years.

In 1998, you are called by Gucci.

At the time, I was very excited to be in the same room as Tom Ford and Carine Roitfeld who was always wearing a black pencil skirt and stiletto heels. The first show I worked on with Tom Ford was Spring/Summer 1999, what we called the Hippie collection. It was super successful and also my first experience of a major show. After all the years spent in factories, Gucci was my first step into the glamorous world of fashion.

Gucci was known for very aggressive high heels, but that season, Tom wanted to do something different. So the heel was very, very small, round and embroidered. It had a very Indian feeling. You know, that fabric with little mirrors? He was looking for that effect. We were already set up in the Corso Venezia showroom in Milan, which meant the show was five days away. The problem was that we couldn’t find the fabric. I had an idea and asked Tom to lend me his driver. It was pouring with rain and I went to all of the Indian restaurants in the Porta Venezia area of Milan. It took me a while, but I finally found the fabric. It was covering the wall of a restaurant. I calculated the measurements and said, ‘Yeah, we can do one pair of boots’. But the owner couldn’t understand what I wanted. I tried to explain to him that if he took the fabric from the wall, I would pay him for it! All the while I was calling the people at Gucci asking, ‘How much can I pay?’ And they were like, ‘Whatever! Just get it!’ Finally, he agreed to sell, took it down and dusted it. I rushed back. It was all multicoloured with little mirrors.

Two days later, it came back from the factory as these beautiful boots.

During the fitting a few days later, Tom comes to me with the boots and says, ‘Fabrizio, can we dye them black?’ And that was the beginning of ‘Fabrizio, can we…?’ Since then ‘Fabrizio, can we…?’ has become like a leitmotif. I was like, ‘Sure’. I took brush and the paint and one day later they were black. It was the beginning of a certain kind of attitude, which I keep today, where everything is possible. If you cannot find it there, you will find it somewhere else.

‘Tom Ford lent me his driver and I went to all of the Indian restaurants in Milan until I finally found the right fabric. It was covering the wall of a restaurant.’

Fabrizio Viti

You only stayed for a few seasons?

I was not ready for the politics of a brand like that.

And in 1999, you started working at Prada.

I was very, very close to Fabio and Prada had always been my dream. At the time, Prada was not what it is today. There were harsh reactions towards the collections. And that was very exciting to me, to be honest. We were like the cool ones. I started working with Fabio who I consider to be the best shoe designer in history. He changed what we do today both in catwalk and commercial collections. He changed the perception of shoes by mixing rubber soles on heels, romantic heels on ugly structures, pushing boundaries. It was about mixing up a sort of emotional state, from hard to sweet and romantic at the same time. He took elements from sportier shoes from Prada Sport. If today, Dior is doing embroidered sneakers, it is because of Prada, of course. Fabio drastically changed the way we look at shoes. They finally became independent of the clothing. It was always Fabio at Prada. The heart of the Prada shoes is Fabio, not me. Fabio was like me now at Vuitton. He is very humble, but also super tough, and he knows what he wants. I learned how to design, how to develop an idea and how to do things myself. Fabio is super quick, and so talented. He has a sort of natural approach. He always told me, ‘If you don’t get it right after two or three times, then just leave it, it’s not going to happen’. I started to work with these huge companies, huge organizations, and you have to go through a certain process. Fabio taught me how to get to the result faster.

Can you give us an example?

Take the leather flowers I just did for the first collection of my own brand, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies: cut the leather, do the sample yourself and then show it. Done.

Instead of …

Waiting. And this is very important. Instead of waiting and complaining, just do it yourself. To me, how to do it is part of my job. I sketch very well, and I can cut things so that I can give the factory a sample of what I want. I don’t work through visual references and I don’t use my iPhone. I think someone who does my job has to be capable of making the prototypes themselves.

‘Mrs. Prada tried all the shoes on herself. She’s a perfect size 37. Everything we did with her was for herself and revolved around what she liked.’

Fabrizio Viti

You also worked closely with Patrizio Bertelli, the Prada CEO.

As we know, Bertelli has an intense personality, but a genius vision. His mind is always working. He is constantly talking, pushing you to do things. He always said to me, ‘Do it. If it’s wrong we will see it later’. And that is what I do now. It is really, really helpful. It is better to have something in front of you even if it is not exactly what you were hoping for. As a shoe designer, I am talking about sculptural objects so I need to have them in front of me.

And with Mrs. Prada?

Fabio and I were working with Mrs. Prada, who was herself wonderful. She has a vision of things that is not what you see.

What was the process like with her?

The process was the same as with Tom, Marc and now, Nicolas. You sit down and you talk, then you focus on what you want to do. You go to the factory and you put together the heels and the shape, the inspiration, and the materials. And then you correct the samples.

But Mrs. Prada’s brain works in a different dimension, so it was very interesting to hear what she was thinking, which was not necessarily what you were looking at. Sometimes she would give us an example of something that was not really there, but you could picture it in your mind. For me the biggest difference with other houses was that Prada was a family-owned business. Miuccia Prada is Prada. So we went straight to the source who was right in front of us.

How different were the visions of Miuccia Prada and Tom Ford?

Well, Mrs. Prada tried all of the shoes on herself. She is a perfect size 37. Every­thing that we did with her was mostly for herself and revolved around what she liked and what she thought she could wear or not. Tom had a specific vision of a sexy woman.

And the dynamic between her and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli?

She was the creative side and he was the more business side, even though he is a very creative person as well. There was genuine and intelligent friction between them, even though sometimes because we were all Italians, it was pushed to the extreme. It was constructive, but extreme.

Helmut Lang was bought by Prada in 1999 and you started working on its shoe line as well.

While I was working with Fabio on the Prada line, I was also doing the shoes for Lang which was a completely opposite aesthetic. There was also Melanie Ward and Christian Nissen. We worked in a basement deciding for three hours if the dark brown was better than black. At one point, I was like, ‘I can do both. We’ve been on this for 28 minutes, can we move on!’ It was very minimal at the time as opposed to Prada. For Helmut Lang we were doing the little slingback with the elastic. People weren’t ready. I remember when I showed my first collection for them, the sales people didn’t want to sell it. They kept saying, ‘What is that?’ I had to explain. Flesh-coloured, with a little heel, no details, conservative shapes with strange twists. Slowly, it became a sort of success.

Left: Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière
Right: Fabrizio Viti - © System Magazine

Left: Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière
Right: Fabrizio Viti

Do you think about the form or the function of a shoe?

I see both. It is very simple for me because I do the outline of the shoe, so that means I draw a foot, or a leg if it is a boot. And then I play around with the volumes I know have to be there. If you look at what we did with Marc, the shoes are kind of crazy, but the construction is very classic. Now with Nicolas, he is very aware that the shoes have to be worn. I don’t want women to suffer and I want to celebrate women.

Given the close working relationship you had at Prada, why did you finally leave in 2004?

It was a transitional moment. I was very happy at Prada, but it was very, very tense. I remember standing outside the Louis Vuitton store one day and thinking the only brand that could make me leave Prada would be Louis Vuitton. But I knew they already had a super-cool shoe designer.
Delphine Arnault was looking for people and a headhunter called me and said, ‘Do you want to meet her?’ and I said, ‘Yes, of course’. I saw her and showed her some sketches. I met Yves Carcelle, and I was more and more into the idea that maybe there could be a change. It was kind of dramatic because I was very close to Fabio, and still am. I finally saw Marc11 on a Sunday afternoon. He had a good feeling about me and said, ‘For me it’s done – we can work together’. It was hard for me to leave Prada. With Marc we had an immediate connection because I know every single movie from the 1960s and 1970s, every TV show, as well as all of the singers from back then. Having the same pop culture made it super easy between us. Marc comes from a showbiz family. His uncle was Donna Summer’s first agent when she arrived from Europe. So since day zero with Marc there was a sort of communication that was very easy and fluid.

The shoes for the Vuitton Richard Prince collection from Spring-Summer 2008 exemplifies the work you did with Marc Jacobs.

We wanted to do a pump, but we had to find a way to decorate it and decided to used embroideries from Lesage. When they arrived Marc had the idea of cutting them up, kind of destroying the samples. It was three days before the show and we put all 30 prototypes in a line. That’s when Marc said, ‘OK, the right foot will be different from the left one’. Imagine! We had to take the elements from the left foot and change them around for the right foot, and then we had to explain this to the factory!
You should have seen the confusion when we had to ship the shoes. Nobody knew which one went with the other! Of course, the base was the same colour, but when you do 500 pairs of shoes, it can be very confusing.

Drama seems to be a crucial element of the creative process at this moment?

We needed drama to achieve Marc’s vision – it was as if we were setting up a Broadway show. They were pushing him to do the most extravagant fashion shows, which were really massive productions.

How did you deal with these last-minute decisions with Marc?

That’s just the way it was. Our fashion show was always scheduled at 10 in the morning. That was the final goal; how we got there was our business. It took a lot of energy, but that was the way he was working and my duty was to follow him. I never questioned it – the show just had to go on. Basta. Donna Summer once told me about gluing her clothes together just before going on stage at a concert where there were 20,000 people waiting for her. You do what you need to do, and then you forget and go on to the next. It was the same situation with Marc.

The shoes for the Spring/Summer 2009 Louis Vuitton African collection were probably that the most complex designs you’ve ever made.

Those shoes were very difficult because of the numbers of elements used and also because of the number of variations. We had so many details, so many different elements that it was overwhelming. We made close to 300 pairs of shoes in four days. Don’t ask me why. Everything was multiplied.
There was no trip to Africa, nothing. We were sitting at the office and thinking about how Africa was perceived in 1920s Paris and evoking women of the time like Josephine Baker. We had a shoe where there was this gap between where the heel sat and the heel itself and it looked like a fish’s mouth. Marc didn’t like it. We ended up having to go to an airplane factory to make sure that the steel in the heel could hold the weight of the girls. Each heel cost something like €70 each, which I think is the most expensive heel in history!

Marc’s tenure lasted close to 15 years before Nicolas Ghesquière replaced him in November 2013. How was the transition?

The years with Marc were difficult and intense, but absolutely wonderful. My contract finished the same season as his, but of course I knew that his replacement was a designer I really admired.

You have worked with some of the most important contemporary designers of the last two decades interpreting and translating their vision. Why did you decide last year to launch your eponymous collection?

My own collection doesn’t come out of any frustration. I couldn’t be freer at work. I am very fulfilled with what I am doing now, what I did in the past, and what I will do in the future. It was a sort of long, but very natural and fluid process. I am very blessed because the numbers are amazing, which made it very easy for me to choose who I wanted to work with for my own line. I decided to do this collection because I like to have fun and it is a challenge. I am finally showing my personal vision and hoping that women will like it. It’s a small collection of 16 styles but very focused. It is called Season One because to me it’s like a TV show, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, my favourite. I am always using contrasting elements: matte and shiny, rubber and leather, candy colours with black
pipping. For now, it is a small project, but the reaction has been really, really good. We’ve sold almost 900 pairs, which is very good for such a small collection.

What are the keys words you would use to describe this collection?

Fun, joyful, wearable, and maybe, timeless. Shoes that you like for longer than a season. There is no ‘sex is in the air’, no seduction, no red carpet. They’re shoes for wearing.

Very straightforward like you!

Super straightforward. It’s something that I did for my friends and my love of women. My references are women aged 15 to 85. Sofia Coppola is one of my inspirations. I don’t care about major exposure for myself; the shoes can do the talking. It is a very joyful collection, and I had a joyful time making it. Next season I will do something else. There is no need to over-analyse the collections.

When I work with other designers I always really enjoy working with them. It might not be my aesthetic, but my goal is brand identification. When I design for myself, it is much more fluid because I am not dealing with somebody else’s taste. The direction changes when you work for yourself. There was no preconception of what I had to do so I did what I felt. It’s not a goal-driven project; it’s a process.

How would you define success?

Success is being able to do what you want and have people who like it. I don’t care so much about compliments. My shoes are not done for a woman to seduce a man. These are not ‘man-catcher’ shoes. I design them for women to have fun.

‘My shoes are not designed for a woman to seduce a man. These are not ‘man-catcher’ shoes. I design them for women to have fun.’

Fabrizio Viti

You’ve played a part in making shoes into a multi-billion-dollar business.

I know! We created this system, this fashion system. I am definitely part of it and began really during the time I was at Prada. Why would I criticize a system that I helped create? If you are smart you can take advantage of it and continue working as a creative person, always looking for possibilities to push the limits. Those who criticise are often not part of the system. You cannot be paid by François Pinault and then talk badly about the major shows. If you don’t like the system, go somewhere else. I am very proud to be part of this shoe industry that makes millions of dollars and euros – and I hope I can make millions, too. And be part of it now under my own name, why not? I have been here for 20 years; no one is forcing me to do anything. It is not that complicated. Barbra Streisand has been with Columbia Records for something like 40 years; she couldn’t have done it on her own. But she did what she wanted with them because she found an agreement.

How can you justify shoes that cost several thousand dollars a pair?

I can’t talk about other brands, but for Fabrizio Viti and the brands I work with, I swear to God we try to keep the prices the most real that we can. If they cost a certain amount of money, it is because of the work, the material and the time it takes to make them. At Louis Vuitton, we are constantly working within a wide range of prices to give different options. If they are expensive, then there is always a reason.

When you design something is that always in the back of your mind?

Yes, of course. As a designer, the correct way is to start from what you think could be very beautiful and then scale it down to something more approachable.

How many shoes do you design each season?

Overall, a thousand, maybe more. Three shows, pre-Fall collection, two commercial collections, and all the special projects. I do what I do because I forget; every season is like a new TV episode.

Where do you see the innovation in shoes coming from?

I am not looking for a revolution; I am not going to change the world. I am probably not going to invent a new kind of shoe. To be honest, I don’t care about the new. I like the things as they are now.

One last thing, we didn’t really speak about your passion for Donna Summer.

I didn’t really mention her and it is so strange because she is my love. My next collection will be a tribute to her. My favourite Donna song is ‘Our Love’, because of the refrain: ‘Our love will last forever’.

Taken from System No. 8.