NEW YORK — During a lively conversation with Edmundo Castillo at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on Wednesday evening — part of its Diseño lecture series that heralds the impacts of Latinos on American design — a few things about the Puerto Rican footwear designer became abundantly clear. Castillo is passionate about shoes — he’s completely energized by them. He lives to create and to make women feel fabulous. And he hates peep-toes.
Though Castillo’s own label, launched in 1999, earned accolades — including the CFDA’s Perry Ellis Award for Best Emerging Accessories Designer and the Rising Star Award from Fashion Group International, among others — he’s also known for working his magic for several other brands. From Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, Sergio Rossi, Castañer and Santoni to Aquatalia, where he is currently the creative director and executive vice president, Castillo relishes the challenge of honoring a brand’s codes while continuing to evolve and stay true to his own creativity. “I love doing shoes that are a challenge for me,” he said. “It drives me crazy, but it’s that thing that fuels me to make it work. To make it good. To make it sell and have success. And experimenting with all these different categories has been a wonderful thing that I didn’t plan.”
The hour-and-a-half chat, moderated by Erik Maza, W magazine’s digital features director and WWD’s former co-Eye editor, touched upon Castillo’s early life; how he changed course from fashion illustration to shoe design, and his many influences. Below, some highlights:
On his first memories of shoes:
I have no doubt that I was meant to do this. I grew up in Puerto Rico in a family of a lot of women. My mother has nine sisters…and I have three sisters older than me. There was a lot of shoe conversation in my house. But I don’t know if that was all I heard, or if that was all they spoke about….Puerto Rico happens to be a place where women are very passionate about high heels — platforms and metallics have never gone out of fashion; day or night, it doesn’t matter…Sometimes, I couldn’t concentrate because I was wearing the wrong shoes. There were times that I would make excuses to go home from school and change my shoes.
On the first time he fell in love with a shoe:
My sisters would get ready for parties, all their friends would come over, and they were in their early teenage years. I would just wait to watch them walk out and have an opinion about the shoes. I hated the shoes in the Seventies. Those huge platforms, those clunky heels. I hated everything; I just didn’t get it. But there was one particular shoe that I discovered in one of my sister’s closets that my mother had bought…A pointy, pointy, pointy shoe. I hadn’t seen anything that bizarre, because in the Seventies everything had a big, round square toe. It had a thin heel — not very high — but so thin that the heel would fall to the side. It was brown alligator. It was a bizarre, beautiful thing…I would stare at that shoe and wonder how that could be something on anybody’s foot. It was an object that was so beautiful that gave me an emotion when I looked at it that I didn’t understand.
On the difference between shoe design and the art of shoemaking:
They’re very different. The art of shoemaking is when something new is invented. Designers throughout decades have invented construction, or come up with something that people love wearing that has evolved into something better — more modern and more relevant to the lifestyle that we live. Shoe design, to me, is what is taken from the art of shoemaking to turn it into a business, and there’s nothing wrong with that. All of us want to turn our art into a successful business. But shoe design cannot exist without the art of shoemaking.
On studying at the Altos de Chavón School of Design in the Dominican Republic under the late fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez, who encouraged him to pursue shoe design:
He would go around class, and he said to me, “Edmundo, you have to look at it, study it, take it all in, and just throw the lines up without thinking about it.” It wasn’t as easy as that simple explanation, but I understand that designing was from just taking the inspiration — absorbing it — and just letting it out. I understood how spontaneous everything was, and that’s when I decided that was the kind of designer I wanted to be. And I understood that fashion illustration was not what I could do that with. I stayed in touch with [Antonio]…and on the first day of our second seminar, he said, “Edmundo, forget about fashion illustration. After me, fashion illustration is over.” He said, “You should be a shoe designer.” He died two years later.
On moving to New York to study footwear design in 1986:
I arrived in New York and I had mapped out the stores. I didn’t care about any landmarks — I mapped out Saks, Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdale’s. I went to Saks…and I saw the Manolo Blahnik boutique. I saw shoes with leaves and cherries and stuff I hadn’t seen before. It was a level of fantasy I hadn’t seen before, but still wearable…I would spend hours and days in shoe departments. The shoe summer class [I moved to New York for] got cancelled because there were not enough students in it. There was no shoe program at the time.
On working for Donna Karan:
What was wonderful about Donna was that she didn’t tell you what to do. You had to come up with the silhouette. Every collection started with the shoes. It gave me room to play with platforms, flats, open-toe, rounded…all kinds of silhouettes. It wasn’t about the trend at the time. It was about creating the trends. Now it’s all about the trends but back then, it was like, “Let’s see what you dare to present.” With Donna, that exercise was beautiful, and it allowed me to connect….We argued. To push her from an 85-mm heel to 90 mm — she wouldn’t go higher than 85 mm. But it always started with the shoe. She would drive us crazy with shoes.
On his tenure at Sergio Rossi:
I saw it as a great opportunity to explore with a bigger audience; they had 19 stores around the world [at the time]. It was a brand that I knew well, related to, and in the same way I respected Donna Karan’s aesthetic, I needed to respect the heritage of [Sergio], but then also inject myself into it. But how? It was a challenge that was so scary, but I love that kind of thing…[He motioned to an image of a pump with a paint splatter effect]. This shoe was from the “Surreal” collection. It was kind of a scandal, because they were like, “Who’s gonna wear a pump with a splash of paint coming down the front?” And I was like, “Well, who wouldn’t?” What was wonderful was that we had stores to put them in; we didn’t have to wait for department stores to react [to the designs]. We could put out what we believed in, and [that collection] was a big success.
On the inspiration for his own line of footwear, launched in 1999:
People in general have always been the inspiration. Personalities. I made up a muse: This girl had a boyfriend and they were rich and free. They did everything that they wanted. They traveled around the world depending what they were in the mood for. They were famous as they went around… I wanted to add that extra touch that was going to make it my shoe and not just any slingback with an open-toe. I was like, “What is the language that I want to speak?” I want women to buy shoes, but I want them to collect. Not because it was a trend. Every silhouette that I designed was that purpose.
On opening his own store in Manhattan’s NoLIta neighborhood in 2002:
The store became like a hangout where girls came to talk about their experiences with the shoes. They didn’t know that I had an office downstairs and could hear all the conversations. That was wonderful. Everything that I wanted and fantasized to hear about, that was all I heard. Sometimes, when I wasn’t there, I’d [ask the shopgirls], “Tell me what happened and who told you what.” They were all these fabulous stories about shoes in the bedroom…they were fuel for me to make more beautiful things. All I wanted was to make beautiful things.
On what women want in a shoe:
It depends. They want to feel fabulous, first of all. I think that shoes, for women, are like underwear. You choose what you’re going to wear. No one tells you what you’re going to wear. If you don’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to wear it… Feeling great [in a shoe] means feeling comfortable, sexy, attractive, hip, modern. Any of those things. She has to handle the shoe instead of letting the shoe handle her — although there are some women who are handled by the shoe, and I don’t know if they know it. Ultimately, it’s about feeling charged. But it’s not necessarily that [women] want people to notice their shoes when they walk into a room. It’s about what the shoe does to their entire mood. Shoes are mood-enhancers.