In Paris, Francesco Russo does something really new with shoes

Alexander Fury
russo caiman 200x300 In Paris, Francesco Russo does something really new with shoes

A Francesco Russo shoe in caiman skin

I’ve been a fan of Francesco Russo ever since he took the helm of the Italian accessories label Sergio Rossi. In fact, unbeknownst to me, I was a fan of him before that, when he designed the Tribute shoe for Yves Saint Laurent back in 2006. Thinking back, that was kind of a defining moment, not just for Russo, but for noughties footwear generally. It was certainly a shoe that launched a million knock-offs. It’s still with us today – even YSL, in its new incarnation as Saint Laurent Paris, keeps the style going. It’s obviously a cash-cow.

It’s also probably the style that snagged Sergio Rossi for Russo too. His style there was marked by a luscious, sometimes ludicrous luxury – follies like blue fox pom-poms perched on leopard-print ponyskin sandals, flocked polka-dots on white ankle-boots, curlicued pleated ruffles scarpering around the legs. He also expanded beyond the feet and created cast-metal breastplates and waist-cinchers. He designed for Sergio Rossi for 5 years.

Russo is now going it alone. It’s a dream venture for him, one he’s ploughing considerable amounts of his own capital into. He’s opened a shop adjacent to Paris Palais Royal. Or at least, it will be open come January, in time for haute couture week when the line officially launches. During spring/summer 2014 Paris fashion week, Russo previewed his latest creations, a focussed group of 25 pieces.

Russo himself seems somewhat changed. That’s what happens in moving from an enormous conglomerate to a small company you’re controlling yourself, I guess: it shifts your aesthetic. If his Yves Saint Laurent shoes were unabashedly sexy and architecturally vertiginous, and his Sergio Rossi romp had all the exuberance of a Christian Lacroix couture show circa 1989, his own offering is quieter in its luxury, and seductive rather than sexy.

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A Francesco Russo style in polished calf

Russo makes a great play on skins: leather and ponyskin, alongside waxed crocodile, lizard and caiman. Caiman is another type of crocodile, a smaller one, with a hide that resembles wood. It required a special needle to sew it, one which Russo himself had to obtain, driving from supplier to factory to ferry it around. Likewise with skins and supplies. When we met, the discrete logo inside his shoes wasn’t quite right (by Russo’s exacting standards – I thought it looked just fine). The showroom was bare, shoes balanced on blocks of raw wood a little like Dutch still-life paintings. Russo hasn’t fitted his boutique out yet. That looked fine too. It let the shoes do the talking.

I asked Russo what the inspirations were behind the shoes. He wrinkled his nose. “Inspirations… that’s bullshit. I do what feels right.” That’s a refreshing approach to design also. And these shoes do look right. They’re stripped back, they’re simple and pure. The shapes are great. Some combined different materials – a crocodile strap across the toes with a calfskin upper and lizard heel, for instance.

Russo’s idea is to keep the business small, and focussed.  He wants to offer clients the opportunity to have shoes made to order, the existing styles a proposition in case, say, you want to swap leather for crocodile. That’s a decidedly old-fashioned, and very sensible, business model. Supply and demand. But – what do you know?! – it feels new.  And desirable. It’s certainly anathema to the prevailing trend for mass-market, mass-profit ‘luxury’ en masse.

russo leopard 200x300 In Paris, Francesco Russo does something really new with shoes

Francesco Russo's high boots, created from strips of leopard-print ponyskin

Russo does plan on selling to department stores, but just a handful. He’s floated a theory of going to visit the department stores himself, interacting with the clients, creating new styles by offering custom colours and skins. “I don’t want the business there to kill what I have here,” he said plaintively. “This is the heart”.

Russo may be coming from the heart, but he’s thinking with his head. He’s clever. The feel for overly ostentatious accessories is dying a rather loud death, while women still want pieces that make an impact. Russo does that through shape and materials rather than glittery add-ons. The fins of leather rising around the ankles of a number of his styles reminded me of exotic reptiles stalking prey, or maybe a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park. That’s one hell of a thing to wear on your feet.

Francesco Russo’s eponymous boutique opens at 8 Rue de Valois, Paris in January 2014

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