Meet Louis D’Arienzo, the designer behind the eponymous shoe company making beautiful, eco-friendly, gender-neutral shoes.
(Tap any photo to view set as a slideshow.)
Can you briefly sum up the path of your career to this point?
I’ve always nurtured my creative spirit. It was a kind of language that I understood and thrived in. It made me happy, confident, strong and calm.
The fine arts were my base and I received a B.F.A. in mixed media. Design seemed the natural progression and I began to apply what I felt comfortable with into commercial art. I practiced and dipped my toes here and there and then a job to design men’s shoes for Tom Ford at Gucci called. I have been living in Europe for 20 years and it’s been an incredible experience working with tremendously talented design teams and respected fashion houses.
Years ago, you worked in the graphics department for New York fashion and pop culture magazine, PAPER, when it was a black and white, newsprint, cut-n-paste (literally!) “Downtown” magazine. Any special memories from working there? Did working at PAPER influence how you thought about fashion?
Oh this was one of the most thrilling experiences in my career hands down. I was 22 years old and working as a graphic designer for PAPER (magazine) in a loft in Soho. It was like a dream. A creatively kooky mix of established artists in popular culture and the avant-garde that PAPER has always championed.
I was creating layouts for designers like Andre Walker, Angel Estrada and Isabel Toledo. Now that was a time–and what an introduction to the fashion industry!
Clearly design is your love. How did you get to and why shoes?
A good friend was taking footwear design and millinery courses at F.I.T. She was bringing home lasts, hat blocks, leather, felt, soles, components. I was hooked and I made the promise that I would focus on what I loved, menswear.
Did you apprentice anywhere?
For footwear, no, I kind of hit the ground running and was thrown right into it. Learned on my own, starting a collection of shoes made in L.A. and the rest followed. Having said that, I was the apprentice of an extraordinary artisan by the name of Maureen Fullam for years in NY. She is now a guilder of handmade mirrors in Hudson. She taught me how to see beauty in materials and process. I learned so much from her.
How did your own shoe line come about?
I wanted to try something on my own.
The key was to start with a singular idea, design and concept that payed close attention to how it was being made and told a story. A kind of trifecta that seemed realistic. There’s so much that goes beyond designing and making when starting a small business. I wanted the vision to be able to stay pure. I knew if there were bumps along the road, and believe me there have been and I’m sure will continue to be, this is where its strength would lie.
What was the initial concept behind mission for the shoe line?
My design philosophy is about pairing down the design to a simple flattering form referencing a kind of multi-culti tribe–overlapping cultural references that aren’t necessarily obvious. I promised myself that should I bring a product to market I would use the most environmentally conscious materials and processes possible, no easy task! The industry I work in is terribly polluting. I believe this is the only way forward. What is important however, is that the product leads with its aesthetic.
There are three shoes in your line so far. What’s the story behind, personality of each?
All three styles are quite primitive in a sense. I love gaucho culture and I love the aesthetic and stories behind it. It’s a very simple and rather rustically sophisticated style. Perfect ingredients to me.
La Brana (past collection)
La Brana is a small mountain town in the north of Spain. The remains of the La Brana 1 man were discovered there in 2006 dating some 7000 years old. He was said to likely have dark hair and skin and blue eyes; one of the first chronicled mixtures of African and European DNA. The La Brana side lace-up has quite an ancient look to it.
Payador (current shoe)
The Payadors were gaucho singers who used improvisation as musicians and poets in a dual of song with each other. Instead of physical combat, they would try to take down their opponents with teasing and trickery much in the same vein as breakdancing or rapping; using ingenuity, talent and art. The Payador slip-on is an easy style that would “tread” well on the pampas of Argentina, Uruguay or Brazil.
Payada (Spring/Summer 2020)
A Payada is the song sung by the payadors. It’s an improvised ten line verse sung with the guitar.
The Payada style is an even purer more simplified version of the Payador.
The Payador and Payada names come from South American gaucho culture. (Battling payadors and their payadas remind one of other nonviolent combat, such as capoeira, rap and vogueing.) You’re a big fan of gaucho style. Why the fascination and how has it influenced your design esthetic when it comes to your shoe line?
Yes absolutely! You got the similarities spot on. There is a sexy nonprecious relaxed quality to gaucho style while at the same time feeling smart and well considered. There is a real non fussy unassuming pride to the way they present themselves.
The colors are beautiful, yet neutral. Calming. What was your process, mood board, if you will, for developing the color palette, as well as design?
As I mentioned earlier, I like overlapping cultural identities and references when designing something. That’s not to say it’s obvious. I like to think that Payadas could look like they’ve ‘walked’, again no pun, out of Moroccan, South American, Mongolian or European cultures.
The use of natural and recycled materials dictated the color palette. Form follows function.
Many, if not all of your business partners are in Portugal. What’s your relationship with Portugal?
Portugal has a long standing culture of great shoe-making. Many smaller and emerging labels continue to look to Portugal. They offer a quality product at a very fair price that can be passed down to the customer.
When I was organizing the biggest spokes on the wheel, I made sure my key partners, factory and fulfilment center were in close proximity. In fact they are a 45-minute drive from each other. Even my website designers and technicians are based in the Porto area. Trying to keep my footprint as small and tight as possible.
What concerns did you have to address when deciding you wanted develop a collection based on environmentally conscious materials and sustainable methods of manufacturing?
Creating an environmentally conscious product is no small feat. You’re spoiled for choice with standard materials that the industry currently uses which unfortunately do not respect the environment and are comparatively much less expensive.
For my project, I had to research and work with materials that are not prevalent or readily available. For example, from the bottom up, we use soles made from up to 70% recycled content from the sole factory, components like footbeds, toe-puffs and counters made with natural materials like cork and latex or recycled cardboard and 90% recycled foam rubber. Our leathers are vegetable tanned and use no chromium or heavy metals in the tanning process than can pollute the water table or can be irritating with contact.
We are even going to test a plant based fibrous faux leather when it becomes available, so not a plastic petroleum based alternative to real leather. We have also found a thread made from recycled plastic bottles or rPET that we are implementing. We use adhesives that are water based which are far better for the people using them.
Our factory is pursuing HIGG index certification by The Sustainable Apparel Coalition. It essentially provides the tools for a company to measure its facility’s sustainability performance as well as its social practice. It is designed to promote better choices during the sustainability journey. It is not designed to fail, but to encourage and guide.
I will continue to research materials that will have the lowest impact possible and will improve what we use and substitute as new materials and advances become available.
What where were the biggest challenges and how did you address them?
Trying to achieve a reasonable and fair price using materials that are not easily available and are therefore likely to be costly. By pairing down the designs and trying to integrate the components in a clever way, we feel we can bring a conscientious and quality product at a fair price.
Also, keeping an available and attainable stock with hopefully having the least excess possible.
This is a work in progress as we find the right balance between a realistic yet rapid time frame between orders and production.
You’re originally from the New York City area and have lived in New York, London, Amsterdam and now call Paris home. Which if any cities or have influenced how you design shoes in general and, specifically, your line?
The beginning and core of my career as a footwear designer was spent in London. I lived there for 12 years. It is truly the world class city of the world. It is an excellent resource and endlessly inspiring for not only the history of menswear in general but more importantly men’s accessories. Now that I have been in Paris for six years, I have found it to be the best balanced example of creativity, exploration, wearability and marketability. Paris has been a tremendous influence when it comes to working in the fashion industry.
You’ve designed shoes for Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Berluti and Ermenegildo Zegna and even airline interiors. What have you brought from those experiences to your own line?
Well, I’ve always said that I have been blessed with great working relationships with the teams I have been a part of and the artistic directors I have worked for. The icing on the cake is that many of them have remained close friends.
Taking a hiatus from footwear design to aircraft interiors was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It was a huge challenge and a sharp learning curve but incredibly rewarding and creatively renewing. Those years opened my eyes to such magic in transport and industrial design. They were amazing.
Your bio states that your experience designing shoes for major houses and even airline interiors has made you a better and more conscientious designer and provided you with a well-honed understanding of what inspires and drives choice. Can you elaborate, give some examples? And how has this cumulative knowledge influenced how you design?
I think there is an innate resistance that designers have to merchandising. We’re always trying to push the envelope with a conviction that what we are doing is best. And that is what we should do, as designers. But one of the people I worked for once said, “25% of the time we are artists, the rest we should be businesspeople.” I think a more even share than that can be achieved but they were talking sense. You have got to listen to the market and therefore listen to your customer. None of the joys of the creative side would be possible without selling product.
The challenge is always presenting a fresh perspective and a decent quality product to people that want to wear and enjoy it. I think more about what is going to put my shoes on the feet of customers than ever before, and I like it.
In 2019 you collaborated on a shoe benefitting The New York City LGBT Center’s Youth Program. The design, which features a sketch of two hands holding one another and surrounded by X’s and O’s over the word “Pride,” was by 20-year-old Michael Nieves who received a share of sales.
This was a really wonderful project. We worked with The Center’s Youth program on an initiative where we asked young aspiring designers to submit an idea for a printed Payador sneaker whereby a share of the profit of sales would go back to the winning artist. I had the privilege of visiting The Center on a couple of occasions and had the chance to sit down with a few young LGBTQ kids. These young people were from 16-19 and to see their interest in what I was trying to do, sharing our stories and hearing about their dreams and aspirations was phenomenal. It was a safe and encouraging environment.
We felt we could really get behind Michael’s design entitled ‘Love and Pride for All’ and its universal message.
Read the Out.com feature on Louis D’Arienzo and his Pride shoes here.
How did the collaboration come about? How did you find Nieves and pick the design?
Michael participates in the CENTER’s Youth program. It provides a safe and affirming environment that give young LGBTQ people the tools they need to be strong and confidant and make a life for themselves.
Michael was one of five participants and it was a process of narrowing down the entries and finally working on and guiding his chosen concept together.
You’re open to more collaborations. What are you looking for and what do you need to make it work?
I really enjoy working with other designers in fact I think it is one of my strengths. I like to collaborate, listen and explore. So I have no real criteria to be honest, accept for a mutual appreciation and enthusiasm! A respect for the environment would be a highly motivating factor.
You’ve name-checked designers with a message, like Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood. Anyone else?
Oh man, Dries Van Noten from a designer’s designer point of view. I look to him always and his vision is stunning. Umit Benan’s aesthetic is really beautiful and the way he puts things together is very inspiring. I’ve just started to really look at Emily Bode. She repurposes vintage fabrics and findings which is brilliant but it’s her designs themselves that are gorgeous.
Who’s got great style?
Umit Benan. A guy I work with by the name of Stefano Aimone. Gauchos.;)
What is your perfect dress and casual outfit?
They have a tendency to be interchangeable with just the edition or subtraction of an element here or there. I like to keep it timeless and mix it up with an ethnic edge. As far as footwear, the perfect boot, oxford or Payada of course! Nothing about my style screams out at you.
What’s a typical workday for you?
Hopefully a decent night’s sleep, coffee, shower, researching new materials, reaching out and responding, sketching or leading a prototype review.
Typical weekend day?
Hopefully a decent night’s sleep, coffee, exercise, catching up, social meal, and probably more work!
You live in Paris. How do you like it?
I love Paris. I don’t love it any more or less than the fabulous cities I have been lucky to call home. It’s its own perfect unique story. So much to be uncovered in Paris. She always surprises you.
What’s the biggest contrast to living in New York? Biggest similarity?
My heart will always be in New York City. I was young there and I explored life to its fullest. Some of my happiest memories and closest friends remain there. I will probably always regard it as the greatest city there is really. New York always has so much without ever wavering.
New York and Paris have a lot in common; kind of scruffy around the edges, sexy, anything can happen!
You’re a big traveler. Where are you off to next?
I long for an exotic far away locale. If I had my pick; Vietnam, Kerala, somewhere in the Pacific. It might have to wait for the moment…but I could always pop down to Athens!