A Step Above

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Shoe designer Brian Atwood brings his talents to Bally and reinvigorates the iconic brand

One of the most pleasurable sensations known to womankind is that feeling of slipping on a killer pair of shoes and being transported to sensational new heights. No one understands this divine relationship better than Brian Atwood, who began his career in fashion as an international runway model and quickly became one of the world’s top shoe designers. After being hired by Gianni Versace in 1996 to work on the Versus line and then being quickly promoted to chief designer for women’s accessories, Atwood struck out on his own, launching the Brian Atwood line in 2001. It has earned him critical acclaim from the industry and from adoring fans worldwide, all of whom long to step out in his magical creations.

In addition to adorning the feet of women with fabulous footwear, Atwood also creates handbags. He is now using his formidable design expertise in his exciting new role as creative director for the Swiss leather goods brand Bally, the oldest and most venerable luxury brand in the world. New Orleans men can now step right up and enjoy a “Cinderfella” experience, thanks to Saks Fifth Avenue, which carries more than 15 exclusive styles from the Bally’s fall-winter 2008 collection. From classic oxfords to Wellington boots, men can indulge in an earthy palette of eclectic shoes constructed of gorgeous enduring materials—from supple, burnished leathers to rich, elegant velvets. New Orleans Living recently caught up with Atwood after he spent the summer traveling to faraway places.

Hello, Brian! It’s hard to get ahold of you with your travel schedule, but I’m sure you’ve taken some fantastic trips this year that will really inspire your work.

I love to travel, and that can be part of my inspiration. It is not just the places I go, like South America, Turkey, Los Angeles—or for example, this year I have been to Hong Kong for the first time, and I will also be traveling to Japan for the first time—but also the act of traveling itself that inspires. Of course, the sights and culture of these places affect me, but even more so it’s the people I meet and experiencing the music and lifestyle they are into. I find it can remind me of other places, other friends, other times; one moment can bring many memories flooding in.

You grew up in a suburb near Chicago and your mother had an impeccable wardrobe. Obviously she made a big impression on you. Your mother is so proud of you, isn’t she? She must be one of your biggest customers!

She certainly is. She is a big supporter of my work and has helped me in reaching success. She has been a great driving force.

You studied clothing design and graduated from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Is designing shoes something you always wanted to do?

I was always very creative, but it was not until I was studying architecture at the University of Southern Illinois that I realized I wanted to be doing fashion. So I applied to FIT and moved to New York. It was the best decision I ever made.

You were a model for some time after school. You were steaming up the catwalk before you entered into a career of designing shoes.

As an FIT graduate, I was already a designer, just not one with a job! [Laughs] When the modeling opportunity came along, I knew it was the perfect chance to learn a lot more about the industry, make contacts and see the world, all of which was really helpful to my career.

Tell us about your time spent working with Gianni Versace.

I started on the Versus line doing clothing; it was absolutely amazing to be part of that incredible time in fashion and to work with Gianni, who truly inspired me. He saw my talents right away, and it wasn’t long before I moved to doing women’s accessories for the mainline Versace collection. He really helped me see where my true talent lay. I set up my own label in 2001, but I continued to be the Versace women’s accessory designer until 2005. Everyone at Versace was always so supportive and encouraging, which gave me the confidence to do my own label.

What’s the type of work ethic you must possess to make it to the level of design that you have achieved?

It takes a lot of work for sure. It is really important for me not to lose my vision. I am constantly researching fabrics, designs and getting inspirations. But having a good work ethic is as important as having a strong team that you can share ideas with.

Tell us about the “Cinderella factor” you often speak about.

It is simple, really. When a woman steps into a beautiful pair of shoes she is instantly transformed, physically through posture and emotionally through confidence. Shoes are just like Cinderella’s fairy godmother appearing out of nowhere and making you the belle of the ball!

For people who don’t understand the intense emotional connection between women and their shoes, please explain it for them.

Hmm … sometimes I think that not everything should be understood. I think it’s enough for each of us to know what makes us happy. There are many things that men are intensely connected to that women do not understand; I think it is something that, like a guilty pleasure, it is all the more intensely enjoyed by being personal, even private. Part of the pleasure is feeling that you have indulged yourself. I think shoes are a pleasure that all people deserve.

Great shoes can do more for a woman than prescription medicine can sometimes do. I’m sure you agree!

Absolutely! State of mind has a great healing power. I do believe that having confidence in the way you look will affect the way you feel. Shoes can go a long way to making anyone feel great, but I would not go making any prescription substitutions! [Laughs]

How do you manage to make women look completely sexy in your shoes without destroying their feet from wearing your shoes all night? How do you work that kind of magic?

The magic is both inside and the aesthetic of the shoe. The cut of the upper is key to highlighting and exposing true femininity; however, the trick to making a real success lies in the fit, so despite great heights, as long as the right balance is created in the shank linking the heel and sole, you can also have comfort.

You are a completely handsome man and you design fabulous shoes—so do all the women you meet want to date you?

That is very flattering! [Laughs] Don’t you think women gravitate toward any designer whose product makes them feel good? It’s really important to me to make women wearing my shoes feel the best they can, and of course to feel confident and sexy.

How exciting was it for you to become the creative designer for Bally in 2007?

It all sort of happened when I wasn’t exactly looking for it, which made it all the more exciting. Bally has so much potential, and of course such a strong history. It’s been a year and a half, but honestly it still feels like it happened yesterday. The excitement has not diminished at all. The people I am working with at every level are so inspiring. We are all working together to take Bally to the next level and having fun doing it!

Your first collection of men’s shoes as the creative director for Bally makes its debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in New Orleans this fall. New Orleans men will be excited about this! What excites you about this collection?

Bally has enormous archives in Schönenwerd, Switzerland, and many of these exclusive shoes for Saks come from the original Scribe collections, inspired by the hotel Scribe in Paris and produced since the 1930s. I have to say I’m particularly proud of this season’s Scribe collection. It was really an exciting challenge to update something so iconic, to work with such skilled craftsmen to focus on the heritage and to ensure that Bally continues to offer the perfect modern, classic shoe. There are over 200 steps, all done by hand, that go into the making of every Scribe shoe. They take four days to make; it is really a remarkable experience to see these shoes get built up step by step.

Tell me about your relationship with Saks Fifth Avenue. I know that Saks loves you very much!

I have been fortunate to have a great relationship with Saks with my own Brian Atwood brand and now for fall, they will carry my new men’s shoe line for Bally. I truly value my relationship with them. They have been so supportive. It’s a real honor to be able to say such an iconic company is behind the work I do.

What are the big differences in considerations for designing shoes for men versus shoes for women?

Women are very emotional shoppers. Men shop quite differently, so I wanted to keep that in mind and try to make it as simple as possible for men, giving them easy and classic choices. I have to say it has been an absolute pleasure to design for men as well as women, but I have to try and avoid creating the whole collection just for me. I do not have enough closet space for all my new shoes! [Laughs]

What is the highest form of flattery for you when it comes to your designs?

Seeing people wearing my designs is without a doubt the highest form of flattery.

Some of those people who wear your designs are celebrity clients. I’ve seen photos of Madonna wearing your shoes.

Yes, Madonna has worn my shoes, which was very exciting, and more recently Angelina Jolie, Sienna Miller, Kate Bosworth and Kate Hudson have all been seen wearing my Bally designs. It’s also really exciting to see some of the male celebs gravitating towards Bally—Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Zac Efron and Ashton Kutcher have all recently been spotted in Bally. I adore strong, iconic women. For fall, I took some inspiration from Julie Christie, who has always been a natural beauty with effortless style.

What makes you a big fan of New Orleans?

I have been a few times; there is nowhere that compares to New Orleans! The combination of the food, the sounds, the architecture and the people make it like no other city—incomparable! I have not been since I was quite young; the demands of my work have quite dictated my travel schedule. I actually enjoy combining work and travel, so hopefully there will be an opportunity soon to travel back to New Orleans. I definitely can’t wait to re-experience the food, but this time I think I will stay away from those famous New Orleans cocktails! [Laughs]

You divide most of your time between New York City and Milan. What great cities!

I work in both places, and I call both these places my home—all for the amazing things they have to offer. When it comes to working, I have a studio in Milan where I design and build my creations. New York I use for meetings as well as inspiration. But both these places attract people who live all over the world. Very glamorous and sophisticated men and women crowd the streets of these cities making fashion and style very visible on the street. Not to mention the shopping in both cities is fantastic!

What’s next for Brain Atwood?

What can I say? I am really enjoying every minute. I am exactly where I want to be in life; I am really looking forward to the year ahead. There are so many exciting developments happening at Bally. We are expanding into some new markets, including Egypt and Poland, so there are some exciting travel destinations ahead.