10 Questions for Gary Wasserman

The longtime designer is adding new and original styles to the offering at Zelli Shoes.

Gary Wasserman of Zelli Shoes

Gary Wasserman of Zelli Shoes

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Zelli Shoes has brought in the big guns.

The small Fort Worth, Texas-based men’s brand recently hired footwear veteran Gary Wasserman to boost its style quotient and create a strong signature look. Wasserman, former lead designer at Cole Haan, among other brands, is also well known for opening Garys, a high-end men’s shop in Newport Beach, Calif., which he sold in 1984 to Cole Haan founder Dick Braeger, who was already a partner in the business.

Now Wasserman is working to move Zelli beyond its niche as an exotic shoemaker, introducing more materials and casual styles. “Zelli is a well-kept secret,” Wasserman said about the company founded in the mid-1990s by President Tom Mantzel. “The shoes are ridiculously well priced. I used to sell $2,500 skin shoes at Garys. These are all shoes that are considered more classic and still very original in style, but now they compete on a much broader platform.”

Zelli footwear opens at $295 for leather and suede styles, and tops out at $995 for exotics. The Italian-made collection comprises at least 100 styles each season, with fall ’10 focusing on restrained bursts of color and combinations of suede and leather.

“We also believe that hybrids between dress and casual shoes haven’t been developed at all,” Wasserman said, “so we’re launching three of them for fall.”

Here, Wasserman discusses his design goals, the evolving market at Zelli and how the Internet is changing things.

1. What were your goals for evolving the brand’s design?

GW: I’m trying to create modern classics. Tom [Mantzel] doesn’t want to be in the high-fashion business, and he shouldn’t be. His philosophy about the footwear comes from his knowledge about exotic skins and footwear manufacturing. But I could use my experience in the contemporary classic world, where I’ve spent more than 40 years, to bring originality.

2. What changes have you made so far?

GW: We’ve added more opening price point shoes because of the economy, in really great calfskins, nappas and some with exotic trim, so everybody gets the best of both worlds at very advantageous prices. And of course, I’m doing full exotics too. Zelli has a good share of the exotic market, but it’s still small. So I’ve been putting together shoes that are more commercially viable at this luxury level.

3. How aggressive have you been with changes?

GW: I wanted to be quite aggressive. I’ve added a lot of color instead of hiding under a rock the way so many companies are right now. I’ve also added fun colors on trims, still tasty and wearable. I started the driving shoes for Cole Haan a million years ago, so I did an English suede in a nougat color, trimmed with a matching crocodile penny strap. Then around the top I applied a gorgeous orange crocodile strip that I tanned myself. It was quite a showstopper.

4. What has been the reaction to going more edgy?

GW: This is no white-and-purple python cowboy boot from Dolce & Gabbana, but it’s more original and certainly more modern. [The reaction] was very good. We picked up lots of new luxury accounts. And a good portion of the existing accounts — not all — really liked it.

5. Was it important to branch out with more casual product because Zelli is known for being traditional?

GW: Absolutely. [Zelli doesn’t] sell $95 shoes made in places you can’t pronounce. It’s only an expensive shoe out of Italy. Today, you have to give a person a reason to buy.

6. How does a poor economy change your designs?

GW: You just have to be mindful of value. People who like quality or luxury are not necessarily going to start shopping for secondhand clothes. As it relates to design, you start to think of ways of getting the very best prices for the best value for the customer. In the case of Zelli, that would be the growth of exotic trimming of shoes versus always doing almost totally exotic skins.

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