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The recipients of New Gen Men, one of London’s most highly regarded initiatives for fledgling menswear design talent, were announced this week by the BFC. Backed by Topman, the scheme provides successful recipients with tailored mentoring support alongside their sponsorship, with a view to helping these emerging designers build their businesses. Among the latest line-up (and receiving the New Gen funding for the second time running) is shoe designer Diego Vanassibara. Diego cuts a dash not only with his unique personal style but also as the solitary men’s shoe designer within the line-up of colourful, largely East London-based fashion designers.

I caught up with Diego in his refreshingly leafy, suburban studio to discuss all things shoes. Originally from the South of Brazil, Diego initially studied architecture in his native country. Finding the Brazilian emphasis on engineering within his archictecture studies to be too restrictive, he switched to shoe design and came to London to study at the legendary Cordwainers College in Hackney. Graduating in 2011, Diego Vanassibara the brand launched in 2013. The shoes he designs are elaborate in their construction but still subtle, featuring elements of crafted exotic woods as components, sometimes lacquered to the gleam of a grand piano casing. They really have to be experienced in person to appreciate the story and passion behind them, but hopefuly the extracts from my interview below will give you an insight into the fascinating design process involved and the story behind the brand. What I really can’t recreate here is Diego’s very Latin gesticulations and occasional finger clicking as he enthused away.

SL: Where are you from exactly in Brazil?

DV: From the very south, near Argentina, about 1000 km from São Paulo; Fazenda Souza, which is in the interior. The very south of Brazil isn’t really visited, it’s a bit more mysterious. The landscape of the interior changes a lot… it’s freshwater rivers, caves and animals; Savanna meets Australia. Its very different, you have… expanses. There’s a lot of space, a lot of space down there.

SL: How did you get into shoe design? 

DV: When I studied architecture there was a stage in the course when it got very technical, too technical and then I started to look at the profession and it takes too long for something to happen in architecture. I wanted something dynamic but I didn’t want fashion. I wanted something object-driven but I didn’t want to be an industrial designer either. Then one day I had a realisation it was shoes, it was a perfect match; a bit of fashion, a bit of architecture, a bit of product design. I was studying in the south of Brazil and I decided to come to Europe and I went to Cordwainers.

SL: Is there a shoemaking tradition in Brazil?

DV: Very much so. The south of Brazil was the major centre of shoe production in the world before China took over, maybe 20 years ago? A lot of factories closed down, a lot of people were without jobs. But now it’s coming back. Brazil has always had quality especially in women’s [shoes], so much so that before China the Italians were already making shoes in Brazil. You can find good shoes for men, they are not like European shoes, its a cross between smart and casual, the leathers are not so refined, the construction is not European. It’s not like what I do, they are not beautiful. So definitely, a big, big tradition, not in my family though, no one has ever worked in footwear. I am kind of the outcast, that was the thing that I liked about it, no one in my family did this before.

SL: So were you always into shoes?

DV: When I was a kid I had so many dreams, but not fashion, I didn’t have magazines. You hear the stories of people here… I didn’t have Vogue! For some reason I always like beautiful artisinal things and art. When I was a kid I had the books at school, there was no internet, no TV,  I would see these beautiful buildings in Europe, that was the only reference point I had for art… that and carnival. So much so that one of my dreams was to become a designer of carnival, that was quite serious. Where I am from you are either a lawyer, or you work in the fields, or you are a politician or you work in metal mechanics: nothing to do with art! Shoes really happened when I was 19/20, that’s when I immersed myself.

SL: Did you set out to design men’s shoes?

DV: No! When I entered university, imagine doing men’s, please! How boring is that? I wanted a lot of room to work with and be crazy!  Then in the second year of university I took up the challenge, and thought ‘let’s try men’s’ and I completely fell in love. I went to a sample sale and it was mostly men there, and I thought there is a demand here. Then I started to learn more about men’s shoes and was getting more passionate about it. Then you have a whole opportunity to change things, not many are people are pushing it.

SL: You use some very special materials, how did that come about?

DV:  I’ve always liked natural materials, the tactile: wool, wood. I climbed trees when I was a kid. I experimented a lot with wood at college. Whenever we travelled, especially somewhere hot and tropical, I would end up bringing back some wood to experiment with. It’s such a nice material. I wanted to bring it to the forefront, to the top of the shoe. We had been to Indonesia, where I saw people doing absolutely phenomenal things out of wood but I wanted a more modern proposition, not folklorical, it needed to look modern. We ended up meeting an artisan who spoke English and who had been to university, and his family, there is an area where everyone does something with wood, and  he was very excited because he was only doing furniture, exporting beautiful furniture. So the idea was to combine the best of this tradition (the Europeans don’t really carve any more) with beautiful shoemaking. We wanted to make in Britain but unfortunately our shoe industry here does not tend to collaborate much with very young brands, so I ended up going to Italy, they are still OK to work with smaller brands. We started working with this family company, wonderful people, very good. There is that element of craft in what we do and respect for artisanship. This new range we are developing, its bigger and we will be offering different price points, still high end but including more of a weekend shoe.

SL: Does the family in Indonesia still make the wooden pieces, the carving and the lacquering?

DV: Oh, God yes! But for the lacquering we are working with a company in England, in London. It’s not easy to do the lacquering,  when you have a large surface [the process is typically used for piano casings], its easier to hide, you don’t notice little defects or faults. It’s about 5 times you have to lacquer and sand, and you have to buff it at the end, it takes a lot of time. We have been building something really elaborate. But its great to expand your idea and offer something else.

SL: Where does the wood come from?

DV: We use mahogany and New Guinea rosewood and they come from a sustainable plantation. They are not from a native forest, they come from a plantation, they are generally younger trees, about 15 years old not 100 years old.

SL:How would you like to see your shoes being worn? Do you have a vision in your head?

DV:They are so versatile, you can wear even with denim. We don’t want to be niche, I  don’t want to speak to one kind of man only, especially as a menswear brand. With clothing you can have a much more distilled point of view, because you’re offering the whole look. I can not offer the whole look… unless it’s like a boots-only party in Vauxhall!

I love when we lend them to stylists and the result is something I would never have thought of before, it helps me develop as a designer. It might be easier if I mention some designers: my hero in Japan, Mihara Yasuhiro who is actually introducing my shoes to Japan. Dries, my shoes go and fit perfectly… which is brilliant, because I love Dries. Ann Demeulemeester, Haider Ackermann, Lanvin, Marc Jacobs. Raf Simons, some of his things… there is something with what I do and the Belgians. Stylists style it with Italian tailoring, Bruno Cucinella, Vuitton and sometimes with London designers as well. I don’t want people to think Diego is this one thing. I want to have space to experiment.

SL: What is your vision for Diego Vanassibara the brand?

DV: I don’t want what I do to be seasonal. I want it to be with the times but I don’t want it to be too seasonal. All the craft behind it, if it’s too disposable it doesn’t make sense. The vision I have for the brand is very embedded in craft. I think that menswear also allows you to be like that, which is perhaps why I’m in menswear.

People talk about my colours, colour in mens shoes has not been explored enough I think. I push the boundaries but I understand that it has to be at a pace. It has been said that it appeals to the more normal guy because its still acceptable for him but also for the fashionista because the difference is enough for him.

SL:Why do you think there aren’t so many new shoe designers compared to young fashion designers?

DV: The reason for that is the complexity of making shoes. I appreciate that clothing is not easy but you can always stitch clothes in your house, it requires technical skills but shoes require a lot more technique and it is more expensive to have it produced. There is a level of complexity, you have to really love shoes. You have to be a bit more grounded!

SL: How do you feel about being based in Britain which has its own shoemaking tradition?

DV: I think that it’s an opportunity in the sense that Britain has the name, so when I align myself with Britain, it adds curiosity and interest. I would like to reinvent, to add energy. When you look at my designs there is an element of familiarity to them, I am not making something star shaped. The breakthrough I want is to really make people ask “Can you re-energise the shoes? Can you make them more exciting? Can you add a bit of fun, flair, design to them? Get a bit of dust off and move it forward?” Undeniably there is a classic angle to what I do, there is that element. There is a tradition, a history. The fact is that I love living in Britain, we’re a British-based brand, there is that influence. The contamination is good, cross-polination is very healthy. That’s what London always has, because you’re surrounded by people from everywhere, you absorb it.

Diego Vanassibara will be showcasing his latest collection at London Collections: Men in June. His shoes are sold in stores around the world including Joyce in Hong Kong. Watch this space for UK stockists. Meanwhile you can buy online at Diego Vanassibara.com or Grey Book.

Diego Vanassibara in his studio.
Diego Vanassibara in his studio.
Diego holding lacquered wood components.
Diego holding lacquered wood components.
Student pieces by Diego, before his switch to men's shoes.
Student pieces by Diego, before his switch to men’s shoes.
Diego's collection for AW14.
Diego’s collection for AW14.
More wood and woven leather details.
More wood and woven leather details.
Lacquered wood detail, AW14.
Lacquered wood detail, AW14.
Rich colour and complex construction are part of the Vanassibara signature.
Rich colour and complex construction are part of the Vanassibara signature.

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