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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Riccardo Sciutto: Meet the man responsible for reinvigorating the Sergio Rossi footwear brand

“My motto is always ‘think heritage, play digital’. If you think heritage and play heritage, it’s boring. We hate it and the ­millennials, they don’t care," says Riccardo Sciutto

Riccardo Sciutto, chief executive of Sergio Rossi, says the brand’s factory has produced footwear for brands such as Gucci and Versace in its factories in the past. Courtesy Sergio Rossi
Riccardo Sciutto, chief executive of Sergio Rossi, says the brand’s factory has produced footwear for brands such as Gucci and Versace in its factories in the past. Courtesy Sergio Rossi

Beyoncé is a woman with the world at her feet. Having sold nearly 35 million albums (both solo and with Destiny’s Child), she has amassed a fortune worth US$355 million (Dh1.3 billion), according to Forbes. Her stage shows – with their lavish costumes and high-octane dance routines – have become must-sees. Designers are falling over themselves to dress her and, while she skips from label to label for her performance outfits, for her feet, apparently, only Sergio Rossi will do.

“We did Beyoncé’s tours boots for her,” explains Riccardo Sciutto, chief executive of Sergio Rossi. “We made 30 boots in one week and delivered them to her. When you do three hours in a show and dance like her... well, she tried everyone else, but now she only wants Sergio.”

While clearly delighted with such a glowing celebrity endorsement, Sciutto is not, however, surprised. “We know about our shoes that if you try them, it’s done.”

Founded in the 1950s by Sergio Rossi, in San Mauro Pascoli, Italy, the company quickly earned a reputation for creating elegant, well-fitting footwear crafted with exceptional workmanship. It soon became the go-to for A-listers and film stars, and even appeared in Federico Fellini’s classic black-and-white film La Dolce Vita (1960). “[The designer] was very good friends with Fellini – they both came from Rimini – so for the film La Dolce Vita, Rossi gave him the shoes,” says Sciutto.

In the UAE to open a new store in The Dubai Mall, Sciutto is full of enthusiasm about the founder of the company he now heads. “[Rossi] was an artist and an engineer. He was fantastic at balancing masculinity and femininity. Comfortable shoes that you can wear all day long, with femininity and discreet elegance,” Sciutto explains.

This unique skill set drew not only clients, but also other brands, to Rossi’s door. “Everyone knew if you wanted to do shoes, you went to Sergio and pray that he’d make a shoe for you.” Brands such as Versace, Azzedine Alaia and Dolce & Gabbana all had their footwear collections made by Rossi. When Tom Ford took over as creative designer at Gucci in 1994, he insisted all its shoes be made by Rossi, too.

“Tom told us, when he saw the Sergio Rossi factory, that for him this was the dream factory. He fell in love. It was like a lover and a beautiful lady. He decided that they needed to do all of Gucci’s shoes there.”

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Ford was so convinced, he persuaded Gucci’s parent company PPR (now Kering) to purchase the label, which it did in 1999. Things began to go awry in 2004, however, when Ford quit Gucci, leaving Sergio Rossi as part of a global conglomerate with bigger ambitions than protecting the unique heritage of a small brand. “The lover and the lady, they lost each other,” Sciutto says dolefully. “The factory was not used properly. When I arrived, people were working one day, [taking] one day off, because Kering decided to produce half inside the factory, half outside.

“Of course, the logic of big groups is not to preserve small DNA. I appreciate the work they have done in terms of ­international development but, for me, they lost their way.”

Faced with flagging sales and a loss of identity, Kering sold the brand in 2015 to the private equity firm Investindustrial, which in turn installed Sciutto as chief executive in 2016. Tasked with reviving the ailing house, he has been on a mission to reignite the passion he feels the brand deserves.

“Today, millennials want to know the story. I’ve got it. I don’t need to invent anything. It’s my story. I can show them the factory. All 30, 000 square metres. We are the only shoemaker able to produce everything internally, in-house – everything. No one else in the world can do that. There are no factories making this anymore – no Gucci, no Prada – we are the last, the only one.”

Sciutto realised there was no Rossi archive, so one of his early moves was to establish one, which meant scouring auctions to buy back original shoes. “Now we have collected over 6,000 shoes, and all the shoe lasts from 1959 to now. The last is the soul of the shoe, and is created by hand from wood. You make the shoe around it, and then take it off. You dress it, you undress it.”

Bringing together all these past designs means that not only is the legacy of the company protected for the future, but also that the current Rossi design team can use the DNA of the house to better engage with a newer, younger audience.

Drawing on the archive, the company unveiled SR1 (Sergio Rossi One) in 2017, a range of updated and fresh designs. In a move that raised a few eyebrows, Sciutto chose to launch this with a challenging square-toe shape, only later followed by the more customer-friendly pointed toe. “The point is a bestseller, and that is easy, but if I start at the easy one, you don’t create the break in the wall. You need to be passionate,” he says. “As a shoemaker, you can’t be in the circuit of [following a ] trend, and with a story like Sergio, I cannot destroy that.”

Another part of Sciutto’s strategy was to deliberately withhold parts of the collection, despite it being fully ready. “The collection was ready – that means everything – but I told them: ‘This season, release only three, next season, only three.’ You need to be straight and coherent, before you create the break.”

His bold plan is seemingly paying off. Despite being only in its third season, SR1 already represents 60 per cent of sales. A second launch, called Milano, followed this year with a collection of trainers. “Already it’s a bestseller. It’s a sneaker, but sophisticated. You can dress it with a dress or a suit.”

As with many other brands, a customisation service came next. The difference with Rossi, however, is its exceptional turnaround time. “For everyone else, it takes 20 to 40 weeks. For us, it’s four to six weeks. Why? We have the factory. Here in the UAE, you will have your shoes in six weeks. In Italy, in three.

“We also present at fashion week. Because we have our own factory, that means that every month we can deliver something fresh. No one else can do this. I can go downstairs and say, today, make me 1,000 new shoes. And it happens. We have 125 ­artisans, people who have worked with us for 40 years. First it was the father, now I got the son.

“My motto is always ‘think heritage, play digital’,” he continues. “If you think heritage and play heritage, it’s boring. We hate it and the ­millennials, they don’t care. We all used to be millennials, but the point was when we were that age, we followed our parents. Now, it’s the opposite; I am following my child. This is their power, because now if you can catch the millennials, you can catch the grandmother,” Sciutto maintains.

“When we arrived on Instagram, we had 60,000 followers. Now it’s 800,000, and it was organic. We have a team that produces 700 pieces of content per season, because, as with the factory, we had to rebuild ­everything. Now we have the credibility and we have enough followers to support the business.”

To prove his point, Sciutto shows me a recent post about a stretchy ankle boot completely covered in sequins. Despite its simplicity, it was fiendishly difficult to make, and took the brand more than eight months to perfect. The effort is already paying off, though – just days after being posted, the video had already been viewed more than 197,000 times.

“In Riyadh, we have customers who are buying three pairs of shoes a week, because you can add your initials, and have a plaque in a colour that is not in the collection. And women today want to be comfortable. Uncomfortable shoes are such a 1980s, 1990s philosophy.”

With much being made ­recently of companies reaching the ­billion-dollar mark, I ask if this is part of Sciutto’s plan, too. “We want to be a $150m, $200m company. These shoes are not for everyone; they are handmade and each shoe takes between 14 and 28 hours, and 120 people, to make so, for me, this is more than enough.”

Returning to Beyoncé and her tour boots, I am curious if the relationship is ongoing or whether it has run its course. “We made another two for her last week. A green one and a gold one. Now if you go to the factory and see strange colours – it’s Beyoncé.”