When Francesco Russo traveled to New York last month to help launch the new shoe floor at the Barneys Madison Avenue flagship, we snagged a moment with the charismatic designer to get the scoop on his new collection for Sergio Rossi. Over coffee at Fred’s, Russo explained the challenge of balancing the heritage of Sergio Rossi with new, forward-thinking, boundary-pushing designs. It is a balance that he has no doubt mastered this season. In our exclusive men’s collection, you’ll find burnished leathers, unique finishes and even a royal blue sole. For women, it’s all about exotic skins and seductive silhouettes. As Russo told us, a shoe’s job is to turn a woman into a femme fatale. If that’s the case, then his shoes deserve a promotion. Read on to find out more about the designer who describes himself as a “wild animal.”
What should we know about the fall collection for women?
I developed the whole collection as a tribute to what Sergio Rossi stands for: the relationship between shoes and the woman’s body. It’s about this idea of a second skin for a woman’s body. I wanted to underline this devotion the brand has and I have for the woman’s body.
It’s a very seductive collection, and there is also a touch of what I call barbaric—but a very refined barbaric. Everything Sergio Rossi does is refined. There’s also a new heel we’ve done for winter that looks like armor. It goes on top of the shoe, and it’s all done by metal studs. In terms of color, the collection is quite dark because that allowed me to show off the different textures of the materials in a much more intense way.
What are some of these textures?
There are all different materials combined together, from basic napa and suede to lizard in two different ways to galouchat [stingray] skin to python to crocodile skin. It’s taking these different skins that exist in nature together and it’s like you are creating a new life together within the shoes.
You mentioned that Sergio Rossi is all about refinement—what are some other hallmarks of the brand that are found in every collection, year after year?
Historically, I think that Sergio Rossi has always been, first of all, a seductive shoe—something that makes the woman extremely … I don’t want to say beautiful because the woman is already beautiful on her own and a shoe doesn’t make her beautiful, but our shoes emphasize her beauty, her movement, her femininity. It’s definitely a shoe’s job to make a woman stand out in a strong way, to create a femme fatale.
And when I talk about refinement, it’s about craftsmanship; it’s about handmade detail. But the craftsmanship is never rough or heavy; the product is always delightful and refined because Sergio Rossi shoes are supposed to be very light. And this is done by the shoe factory we’ve collaborated with for many years in Italy. So it’s really this heritage that I want to underline.
Why do you think women have such a profound relationship with their shoes, more so than, say, a sweater or coat?
That is the question that made me decide to be a shoe designer because I have always been fascinated by the moment a woman puts on high heels. When she wears a loafer or a ballerina, she doesn’t change much, but the moment she wears high heels it’s like another body is incarnating her; she just becomes a different person!
I don’t know exactly what it is, this relationship between women and shoes. I think many people would like to have the answer. It’s definitely an emotional reaction, and I think empowerment is definitely one of the reasons.
Let’s touch on your men’s collection because I bet a man’s relationship with his shoes is quite different.
Even though both are shoes and both go on feet, the process is completely different. All the most beautiful men’s shoes have the traditional finishing, the traditional construction. With women’s shoes, you have to always move forward in the design. With men’s shoes it’s like you have to re-polish the tradition and make it more beautiful. In my case, I try to push forward. I try to add something that could make that tradition more contemporary: in the proportion of the last or the proportions between last, the heel and the sole. And the finishing is very important to men’s shoes. So, yes, the approach is completely different. It’s two different ways of considering it.
I have met many men who are just obsessed with their shoes—they polish in the morning they, they polish at night, they put the last inside—but the mechanism is different. There is nothing concerning empowerment; the connection is not as strict as it is between women and high heels.
Did Sergio Rossi share any words of wisdom with you before you took over as designer?
I worked briefly at Sergio Rossi before being working for YSL, and it was very interesting; it’s a totally different school. I belong to the generation of the designer—of people that bring ideas and then work with the technician to develop the actual product. Sergio Rossi is more like the intellectual of shoes—he just knows everything about shoes, from the last to the model. He’s between a designer and a technician. So of course for me it was extremely challenging and interesting to work with him, because yes, I was a young designer, yes, I was bringing fresh ideas, but he was giving me the history of the brand and the know-how of this object.
In terms of inspiration, are you inspired by specifics, say, a certain painting or era or…
No, no, I am a wild animal. For me freedom is very important; I can’t be put in a cage. So for me to say I’ve been inspired by Africa, it can’t work. Because maybe yes, I’ve been thinking about Africa, but then in Africa maybe there was a building or a concert—everything I live, everything I see crosses my brain and my heart and it gets stuck in my unconscious. The moment I start to work on a collection it’s like opening Pandora’s box—all this information comes out. So it depends on the moment. I work a lot with instinct; I’ll never say, this year, I’m inspired by India, or the 60s. When I like something I ask myself why I like that thing and then from there, little by little, it’s like building a house. You put one piece with another and then you’ve done your building.
So do you like the new Barney’s floor?
Very much! I’m very attached to Barneys. I have worked with the management for a long time—Mark Lee met me when I was 26, many years ago—so I think that there is a mutual support and respect and so yes, I’m very happy to be here.