Well Shod in the States
Bringing together the founders extensive experience and a sustainable, high quality edge, Nico Zappiello shoes are worth investing in
Article by Rupert Watkins
With a career in men’s shoe design stretching back over 20 years, it is unsurprising that the lure of founding his own shoe brand was too great for Nico Zappiello. Having been working in the US for some years he saw the power and reach of e-commerce; it offered a new brand instant market penetration and importantly for him allowed him to have a fast and direct relationship with clients and fans, “you can get so much feedback and you get it direct, there are no shop managers and wholesalers in the middle to confuse the message.”
Nico moved to the US in 2010. Having designed for and collaborated with several brands when still living in Italy, he found he was doing ever more work for the American market and became keen to understand the dynamics and issues confronting it in more detail. Upon first arriving he found quite a fragmented market, “there were options – they tended to be at the very high-end but then there was a huge gap to the cheaper end of the spectrum.” The recent decades have not been kind to the US men’s shoe industry, a few great names such as E Vogel and Allan Edmonds have continued to produce top end American shoes, but Nico saw across the spectrum the market place was also flooded with many European brands seeking to gain traction in this lucrative arena.
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Moving from Italy, Nico quickly identified certain points; on the East Coast for example – and certainly in New York – there was still a very defined corporate uniform that affected all aspects of men’s buying habits. In contrast, the West Coast is extremely casual. The sheer size of the US market also means climate plays its part; from the cold winters on Chicago to the heat of Florida and Louisiana, any shoe brand needs to hit a lot of bases. One of the main concerns Nico found was the demand for comfort, the shoes are often wider. American customers still love collections, “it’s a very structured market” Nico remarks, “customers love having a framework to think about and buy within, be it “pre-fall” or “back to work” they like to have it broken down more than the spring/ summer, autumn/ winter split Europe is used to.”
A number of factors have affected menswear and shoes over the past decade. Firstly, the increased emphasis by sports team owners on smartening up players meant there began to be a gradual move away from blanket sportswear and fans have followed their sport’s stars sartorial choices. The increasing reach of social media and maturity of e-commerce has also affected the men’s style arena, “the past five years have really seen big changes” Nico says, “because of social media, the information now available and influencers, men are becoming more confident in what and how they wear clothes and shoes. There is an interest, a desire to now look for something really stylish.”
Nico Zappiello was founded in 2018 but the journey to the brand began many years earlier when Nico was still in Italy. Having always been creative with a love of history, he began to study architecture. However, near his parent’s home in Florence there was a shoe workshop and soon Nico was fascinated by the world of leather and artisanship; shoemaking brought together his interest in architecture with his differing creative and historical loves, “the shoe is like a building, you’re designing and building a structure to support the foot.”
Soon Nico was collaborating with brands such as Armani. Following his relocation to the States he worked for a number of New York based brands for becoming in turn design director at Bruno Magli and Zac Posen. With extensive design experience, Nico still believes a fundamental part of designing is done before the pen starts sketching, “you have to research the market, understand what’s out there, what is wanted but you always have to have one eye on the future, ‘what’s moving forward?’” he explains. Initial sketches are very fluid, “there’s still a lot more investigation to do; discuss possibilities and limitations with manufacturers, leather tanneries and other specialist suppliers such as heel makers.”
With his extensive contacts and long-term relationships with Italian workshops, Nico knew that Nico Zappiello shoes would be made in Italy, “I want my shoes made in a certain way and to the highest standard. Italian shoemaking has the history and knowledge base to be able to do that – Italy has also historically had the skills in tanning and leatherworking. Skills are still handed down from one generation to the next, processes are always being refined and I wanted my customers to benefit from this remarkable heritage.” Nico uses three family run workshops in the Tuscany area, flying back around three to four times each year. “I needed certain specialist skills from each for certain collections and shoes” he explains.
From the start, Nico was keen for Nico Zappiello shoes to have a sustainable aspect to them. He saw many people buying shoes and then throwing them away when they were worn; even in New York, there are not many shoe repair shops and they need to be hunted down. With environmental sustainability and fashion industry waste now causing increasing concern and debate on both sides of the Atlantic, Nico is keen to offer a different angle. Nico Zappiello shoes are blake stitched, an Italian specialism and one, with the shoe being lighter and the soles being thinner and easier to break in than the stiffer Goodyear welded equivalent, well suited to the comfort-oriented aspect of the American market. In discussion with one of his workshops, Nico came up with the idea to offer lifetime re-soling for his top-line “Timeless” range of Oxfords, Monks and loafers. For a set amount ($218), shoes can be returned to the workshop as many times as required to be re-soled on the workshop lasts. “The shoe has melding to you foot and with the quality of the uppers these shoes will last many years” Nico enthuses, “it is about investment in the purchase and care of your soles, educating the customer so they understand the advantages of buying intelligently and the best they can.”
As well as his classic shoes, Nico has a range of more casual suede and nubuck upper trainers, “most men still want something very casual and sporty for weekend wear” he says, “but they are now looking for something with a little more flair than a plain sports trainer.” Since the Nico Zappiello launch, Nico’s custom has mainly been North America with many current customers come from all down the East Coast – from Canada to Florida. To his surprise, he has also found he already has a steady stream of custom from Turkey – mainly Istanbul. He is stocked in the UK at The Cherry Moon. Nico is eyeing further expansion, he is looking to the Mid America as a large untapped market, “one big advantage is the US is very comfortable with e-commerce, so once you reach a tipping point in brand awareness take up can be very fast.”
Having also designed women’s shoes and boots when at Bruno Magli, amongst others, Nico is considering expanding the Nico Zappiello offering in the future, “it’s a different dynamic though, whilst women do buy more shoes than men it is a far more saturated market.” With his links to Italian workshops, Nico is keen to offer some small leather – especially a belt – and leather cleaning care products. He’s had enquiries, “but it must be done carefully and properly” he remarks. Offering both quality, service and a sustainable edge, Nico Zappiello is looking to drive education and understanding of fine footwear across North America to ensure this essential accessory receives the attention and investment it deserves.