BEHIND THE BRAND with Designer Zack Lo of Zack Lo Footwear

Whatlookslikecrazy.com goes BEHIND THE BRAND with designer, Zack Lo of the eponymous shoe line Zack Lo! We talk inspiration, business, and why shoes make a women swoon. This is a "must-read" profile for those who are crazy about shoes!
More after the Jump
How did you get your start in shoe design?
ZL: At first I started to help my friend the shoe designer by doing his layouts and graphic presentations.  Little by little, as our friendship grew, I began to contribute more and more to the actual content of his work in terms of color, applied textures and silhouettes--my fine arts background came in handy!!  Soon, we were collaborating  directly together on design projects.  I got more and more excited, until I finally worked up the courage to create exclusively on my own.  
At the same time, that "be practical" voice in my head kept telling me that I did not know that much about shoes--about the fit, how they are made and produced.  So, I sought out some internships to learn more.  This lead me to a designer of handmade shoes for women in London, where I got to experiment with everything I had learned about shoes thus far--from shoe design, to material selection, to the construction components, to the importance of a good list, actual construction. I got to really experience the full process from design concept to end product.  Most importantly, I paid attention to women's reaction to this end product.  How did they like the aesthetics? How did they feel when they were wearing the shoes?  Were they comfortable?  Would they buy? 

This was the best education of all for me--since it really taught me a lot about what women want--fashion choices to express how they feel about everything!  And then, with this knowledge, I started to watch what women were wearing on the streets of London.  I can remember following a particularly beautiful well dressed women for 5 or 6 blocks, watching how she walked in a great pair of heels, how she seemed to relate how she moved in them to everything else she was wearing and everything she was doing, and of course her awareness of the attention she was commanding in doing so. 
Once I had the concept drawings of my first collection finished, I began to show them to my industry friends in London--to get their reaction.  I showed them to people connected to the entertainment industry, to executives with established fashion labels, even to shop attendants in stores.  It was good to get all these reactions and to consider feedback on all levels--and of course to feel validated by  favorable responses.  Then someone I had met who works with Vivienne Westwood strongly encouraged me to get product samples made of my designs.  So I worked for a long time with my Taiwanese friend on bringing my first shoes forward.
Did you study design formally in college?
ZL: I actually studied fine art originally--though I have been passionate about fashion and fashion design from a very early age.  I was so very intrigued with how Andy Warhol, for instance, started out as a shoe design illustrator and then went on to create individually or in collaboration in almost every other possible medium--painting, film, music, performance.  
I am the son of a very traditional Taiwanese family!  That meant that I felt a strong responsibility to pursue a "male" career path that appeared to offer stability. I struggled with an inner belief in my design talent and the pressure to provide for my family. I compromised by studying communications design at the masters level in the UK, [to please] my parents, but at the same time to still provide me with opportunity for a creative life. All the while, however, behind the scenes of my studies, I got involved with the projects of my fashion designer friends.  This was both rewarding, and at the same time, frustrating because, I was not true to myself.  
It was not until my second year in London, that I met completely by chance a fellow Taiwanese citizen whose family owned a shoe manufacturing business and was in Great Britain, to study shoe design.  It was as if the gods were finally smiling on me, and this is where the story of first collection started.
What were some of the lessons learned as a business owner that you weren't prepared for?
ZL: First, I was surprised to learn that very few people, if anyone in fact, ever gets very far alone.  I am lucky to have been surrounded by supporters of my work, by folks who encouraged me, and by several people who believe very strongly in what I am doing.  They lend their considerable talents and resources to me as I develop a Zack Lo brand.  To them I give my heart, devotion and respect.  I guess, I was expecting there to be NO trust in business, and it is taken me a long time to get comfortable with the fact that there is a kind of "family" too in working together. 
I also learned that in many respects--work is never done.  There is always another project, or deadline, or a problem to resolve-yesterday.  As a designer, I can't just "turn off" when I get tired--I have to always live with my work, because it comes from such a personal place, and because so much of me is put into it.  So, I am learning to continuously relax, and to enjoy what there is to enjoy in life.  For me, that is often going out to new restaurants and cafes and clubs with my friends.  This way, I get to share new things and new experiences with those close to me while I observe the changes, trends, and expressions of art, culture and fashion always around us.
Your design aesthetic is very innovative where do you find inspiration?
ZL: As I mentioned, I design from a visceral place inside of me.  Perhaps because I did not go to design school where I hear they often expose you to a structured way of thinking. My process is very free form for me.  I don't edit as I go, and I don't usually develop a strong concept FIRST and then create various aspects of a single idea.  The interpretation comes after creation for me, and not BEFORE, and never DURING. 
Because my process is essentially emotional my inspirations come from many sources.  I am inspired by what I perceive as beautiful.  This has often meant vintage and luxury goods that have survived the test of time and changing trends.  I like often what we may consider "classic," but reinvented with some modern twist.  My friends and colleagues tease me by repeating a phrase I once said, that "for me, beauty is always and elegant interpretation of the past." I think this is rather true. 

What is the name and inspiration of your first collection? 
ZL: My first collection is called "Voodoo Circus," and its inspiration, I suppose, is the streets of London. From international styles of Carnaby Street, to the little cobblestone side streets of Soho with its many fashionable boutiques and cafes were I would meet my friends.The glossy high end shopping in Knightsbridge and Mayfair, to the manic pace of commerce in Oxford Circus.  
For me, as an artist, I create viscerally.  I mean, I don't think to much about WHAT something is, or about HOW to express it when I am creating.  I capture my impressions.  So the "Voodoo Circus" is my interpretation of a specific time and place in my life.  Of the many vintage shoppes I would frequent, to the glamour of high street shopping, to the exciting night life of the West End with its mingling of art, fashion, and dynamic living.  It is fun filled and youthful--everything you would associate with "circus."  And at the same time, it also captures the hidden mystery or "voodoo" of meeting beautiful strangers, of overheard conversations getting in and out of taxis, of  faces in the windows of restaurants and fancy clubs as you pass by. 

What are some differences in fashion and how women shop in the U.S. Compared to Europe?
ZL: I am originally from Taiwan, but spent time in European at graduate school, and it is where I began designing.  
I think that in Europe there is not a frenzy to have more and more.  Maybe it's just because closets are smaller?  But my European friends shop as much as my American and Asian friends, just differently.  They seem to make decisions based less on impulse and more on how what they purchase works more directly into their personal style, rather than how the style can overly influence them. I know many European women who are not shy at all about wearing the same dress two days in a row and changing her accessories.  I don't think most American women I know would ever do this.  They might wear the same jewelry or shoes two days in a row, but not the same clothing.  Also, I feel that European women use more accessories to complete an overall look.  The apparel may not be the "star" of the stage, for example.  It might be only a supporting character. 
You're very talented. I'm sure you could have chosen to design any product type. What drew you to women's shoes over men's or kid's?
ZL: I am working on a line of heeled shoes for men!  And my original research in graduate school at Kingston University traced the evolution of the heeled shoe in male fashion.  I think I am attracted to height and extension.  For example, we often notice the tall buildings before we see the lower ones.  Isn't that what the great cathedrals of Europe express and what the sky scrapers of NYC ?  Stature and elevation are just dynamic concepts for me, and I feel that high heeled shoes are able to represent this idea in fashion. 
So as a designer and someone in the shoe business, give us your perspective on what it is about shoes, especially high-heeled shoes that makes women go crazy?
ZL: I think women are passionate about shoes because they are  transformational.  When women put on heels, the height changes perspective both on how they look and how they feel. Of course, sexy shoes are sexy shoes whether you are a size 2 or a size 20.  Higher heels extend the line of everyone's legs and make them more attractive in my view.   I think the transformation still occurs whether you are wearing a dress, a skirt, or pants, or even lingerie for that matter.  A customer of mine emailed me a photo of herself wearing a pair of my heels with the caption, "The higher the heels, the closer to God."
Also, the simple fact that a great pair of shoes can dress up the simplest clothes and make them look smashing.  I don't think it works in the other direction though--that an unappealing or uncomfortable pair of shoes can ruin even the most glorious clothes.  I think  that women who dress well understand this--maybe even instinctively.
What makes Zack Lo Footwear so different and appealing?
ZL: My distinct style as a designer is an interest in mixing mediums--multiple kinds of leather, fabric, various colors and textures.  I think shoes can have a very visual appeal, or at least be more than an accessory or apparel.  I think shoes can BE fashion itself.  So in this sense, I am thinking about how to shift or even redirect the ways we perceive fashion.  Of course, shoes must fit well and be very comfortable too.  If a woman's shoes hurt her feet or are uncomfortable, then in many ways I think they have failed her, no matter how lovely, or expensive or fashionable they may be.  I spend a lot time having women sample my shoes to get a comfort fit with samples before we proceed to manufacturing. This is very important to me, and is something I do think that the women who wear my shoes appreciate.
How many pairs of shoes do you own?
ZL: Surprisingly few.  Maybe 10 or 12 pairs.  I look for really interesting vintage shoes that have little or no wear, as I like well made classic mens shoes.  Then I have some comfortable casual wear for getting around quickly!  I don't often go barefoot, even at home.  So I must consider that I have a steady line of good flip flops ready to slip into.
How involved are you in the design and manufacturing process?
ZL: I am completely involved in the process. I work with my folks to select materials.  I oversee the pattern cutting, since my designs can be a little complicated. Then I spend a lot of time viewing samples, and testing them for fit and comfort.  I just feel very strongly that I want to get everything as right as possible, and if there needs to be a compromise, my folks like having me around to problem solve a solution.  When your name is on something, I think you need to take pride and full ownership over all aspects of the product. 
Any hope to expand  into other accessories or apparel in the future?
ZL: Ummmmm . . . . . . yes.  I am working on a small line of handbags that would go with my shoes.  And I have a concept for a line of party dresses too.  I am attempting to stay focused on shoes at the moment, since that is how people have first come to know me.  I don't want to move away from that too quickly.  But let's say that I am excited to be considering other work, and that I am looking for the best time to bring these ideas forward.
How old are you?  
ZL: I will be 33--next week.  But for now, I am still going to say 32!
When did you launch Zack Lo shoes?
 ZL: Zack Lo Shoes launched about a year ago now.  At first we did a few small promotional exhibitions in London, but then we moved very quickly to the USA.  We are based in the Boston area, which has a very strong tradition of shoe manufacturing, I have heard.  Zack Lo Shoes had its first official launch party for press, buyers, and fans late last spring.  It was a 'Circus' themed burlesque event, and was so very fun. 
So, what's in store for the next collection?
ZL: In my first and current collection all the shoes seems like different characters in the same play.  They each have a unique and different point of view, material construction and overall aesthetic.  I mean, they are not various interpretations of one base design.  So, for me this worked well first [time] around, since I got to express a wider range of things and show more of myself as a designer than maybe others do.  My next collection will be a little different.  It is still much like "Voodoo Circus" in being extroverted in its design and having mixed mediums, but rather than being a cast of characters, it is more like many expressions of the same woman.  So it is not a "night life" or "party" shoe collection.  It will have some flats and some lower heels for more casual wear, but still have a few sky high stilettos too.

Who is the Zack Lo customer?
 ZL: I think our customers are women who are confident and not afraid to make a statement.  Women who take risks in expressing themselves, and are not slaves to obvious trends.  I do believe there is not anything very interesting in everyone wearing the season's "uniform,"  unless you are able to really mix it up and put a  personal stamp of style on it.  Otherwise, it is just like in the magazine spreads about "who wore it best."
I think the Zack Lo customer is a woman who has a distinctive sense of style--who searchs out more than the established designer brands, someone who looks  for what is interesting and provocative to her own sensibilities.
What are you doing when you aren't designing and managing your company?
ZL: When I am not working, you can find me sleeping late and watching tv!  These are my guilty pleasures.  I also love to go shopping to see what is available and what people are buying! I love to have late lunches with my friends in the afternoon, and then walk the streets to experience all the energy of the city at the hustle and bustle of rush hour, then maybe try out a new lounge or cafe for some drinks.
Who are your fashion icons?
ZL: Galliano and McQueen. I like designers who are extremely extroverted whose work has a theatrical aspect to it.  Fashion is at its best, in my opinion, when it is traveling the line between fantasy and expectation, between "costume" and everyday wear.  I like these two designers because there seems to be something like alchemy in their work--combining so many different elements that transform into something new and exciting, and yet, both designers work have always seemed linked to history and tradition. This allows the extremity in what they create to be perceived as somehow familiar too.  It is that constant play between reality and art that is always fascinating for me. And that I hope people can experience in some way with my own work.
What's your favorite color?
ZL: I need to pick just one?  That will be hard--as an artist I am not that partial.  I tend to see color in association to other colors, so, for me I like combination.  This could mean a preference for contrast which you can see in many of my shoes in the current Voodoo Circus Collection. Or if I am designing in one color, such as my Black Magic evening shoe, I like to combine many different textures in the same tones to create interest. 
Beyonce or  Lady GaGa?
ZL: Wow!  Another hard question.  Can't choose.
Gaga is the vivid cameleon forever changing and changing again to create a persona which is never a fixed point in the media landscape.  The way in which she churns out so many varying and varied "images" of herself to support her art in music is very fascinating, and revelatory in its own way.  She is always pushing people to go beyond their expectations and experience.  She is often accused of just grabbing attention, of EXPOSING-of which she is a brilliant mistress of doing! But she has been around a relatively short amount of time and has already commanded so much attention, so her approach at extreme visibility has really served her well.  Everyone is always waiting to see her next move.
Beyonce is a more elegant and naturally beautiful woman in my view, and she expresses herself more directly than Gaga.  I mean, I think that she exposes her "naked or true" self as an artist, and uses less artifice than Gaga.  Its like the opposite approach at expression.  I find Beyonce more emotional somehow, and maybe that is the actress in her coming out. I feel like she is often not just "performing" a song, but "being" a song, if that makes any sense.  She has a very pure form of expression!  And I love her work just as much as Gaga.
But.... they both dance something fierce, and have killer legs.  I would love to design some so shoes specifically for them.

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