The dazzle of Aquazzura
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I’m unloading on Edgardo Osorio about my issue with heels. How, after wearing impractically high shoes throughout my early 20s, I’ve been left with unsightly feet that couldn’t squeeze into a strappy stiletto even if they tried. What could Aquazzura – the brand he founded in 2011, which is renowned for its elaborate, skyscraper heels – possibly have to counter such a dire situation?
Osorio, effortlessly playing the part of a sales clerk, rattles off my options: there are “sexy and cool” mid-heels that are still comfortable; boots made from malleable nappa that mould to the foot; Tequila stilettos that are high yet hug the foot through cleverly placed straps; or the lace-up, flat Christie style – of which Aquazzura has sold hundreds of thousands of pairs – which was specifically created for such a bugbear.
After all, Osorio started his business specifically to cater to women who wanted comfortable yet glamorous footwear. “I attended 12 weddings one summer, and all I could hear was women complaining about their shoes and sore feet,” says Osorio of his entrepreneurial catalyst. “I was curious because everyone was wearing beautiful, expensive shoes, but their feet were hurting even before they started dancing. It wasn’t a good sign, and it dawned on me that it was an opportunity.”
It’s a proposition that has seen Aquazzura stand out among the many contemporary shoemakers on the market today, and nip at the heels of its heritage counterparts. The brand, which recently celebrated a decade of business, has annual revenues of around €70mn, with growth up 82 per cent in 2022 on the previous year. With ambitious plans for product category expansion, including into leather handbags this month, the brand is aiming to pull in €100mn by 2025. All while still being independently owned.
Osorio was born in Cartagena, Colombia, and recalls being creatively fired by the colour, prints and energy of the city. “If you walk down the street in Cartagena, there’s always music playing, and everyone’s smiling. Whether you have money or you don’t, there’s just a lust for life.” He did a summer course at Central Saint Martins aged just 14 and, after graduating high school at 16, went on to study accessories at London College of Fashion. At 19, Osorio moved to Florence to start a consulting company, advising some of the industry’s top accessories brands, including Ferragamo and René Caovilla, as well as working at Roberto Cavalli as creative director of shoes.
Osorio took a “leap of faith” starting his own brand aged 25. He teamed up with a technician who had 50 years of experience, and who had studied the anatomy of the foot. Together they created what would become the base of Aquazzura’s shoes, focusing on technique and construction. “I wanted the shoes to have a specific look, a specific lightness and sensuality, but also with a real focus on comfort, which at the time was almost a dirty word,” says Osorio. “So many things that look beautiful on the shelf don’t work because the designers don’t work around humans; they are working to make an object, like a sculpture, that’s in their mind. But, for me, the shoe needs to become part of the body.” Osorio settled on a last specially developed to evenly distribute the weight of the body throughout the foot, and added a single, identifying marker – a pineapple – to the sole.
Aquazzura’s early success coincided with the explosion of street-style photography and the celebrification of fashion editors, such as Giovanna Battaglia Engelbert, who favoured the brand’s look-at-me designs. “The shoes were not fashionable, but stylish, comfortable and incredibly feminine – they fit like gloves for the feet,” says Battaglia Engelbert, now the creative director of Swarovski. “Those were the shoes where I had the most people stopping me to ask where they were from.” Adds Osorio: “Three years into the brand, I remember going to a show in Milan, and half the front row of editors were wearing Aquazzura. I couldn’t believe it.”
This was buoyed by celebrity endorsements from Rihanna, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, as well as, more recently, Catherine, the Princess of Wales. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, is a longtime supporter of Aquazzura; and wore a pair of white pumps with blue soles at her wedding reception (the bridesmaids sported Mary-Jane flats by the brand). The shoes have also featured in Hollywood blockbusters: on Lady Gaga in House of Gucci, and on Ana de Armas in the James Bond film No Time to Die.
Some of Aquazzura’s most notable hits include the Papillon, a tie-up sandal with wee butterflies that garnish the foot, and the Wild Thing, a heel with tassels and fringing that became the subject of a 2016 lawsuit against Ivanka Trump, who was accused of copying the style for her own footwear brand. MatchesFashion, which has stocked Aquazzura since 2014, also cites its platforms and boots. “Aquazzura is well-known in the footwear industry for exceptionally combining innovative design with embellishments and vibrant colour pops, all under the umbrella of great luxury Italian craftsmanship,” says the retailer’s head of womenswear Liane Wiggins.
Osorio expanded into costume jewellery in 2021 and homeware – including dinnerware, table linens and tea and coffee sets – last year. His new leather handbag line, launching this month, comprises half “day-to-night” bags, which are designed to work in an office setting, and half evening styles – “fun, emotional, party bags” – to go with the brand’s occasion shoes. “None of the bags has a logo, it’s all about the design,” adds Osorio. “What I see on the market now is a bunch of very basic bags with a huge logo on them – they all look the same. I wanted to do the opposite.”
Next, he’s launching men’s shoes, and is thinking about beauty, fragrance and eyewear. “Ready-to-wear is the only thing I would not do,” Osorio says. “Sadly for the luxury world nowadays it’s more of a communication tool, because no one really sells a lot of ready-to-wear, so it’s kind of a waste of time. I like to sell products that people wear.”
Which is all part of Osorio’s grand plan to create something bigger than just shoes. “I named it Aquazzura because I had in mind to do a lifestyle brand,” he adds. “I wanted it to mean something Italian: I wanted it to be the Italian dream, in a way.”