Broadly considered Britain’s finest ‘new generation’ men’s shoemakers, melding traditional craftsmanship with a sleek, contemporary aesthetic, Gaziano & Girling has won a cult-like following globally in the 12 years since the company’s establishment. Ahead of G&G’s third bespoke and made-to-order trunk show at Kevin Seah — the sole retailer of Gaziano & Girling shoes in Southeast Asia — we spoke with Tony Gaziano about his dedication to the craft and the intricacies of running an artisanal business.
Kevin Seah: You started out designing shoes and subsequently trained as a last-maker. Why did you gravitate toward that side of shoemaking? What made you want to develop an expertise in that highly specialised area?
Tony Gaziano: I realised that without the knowledge and the ability to create a last, I was really limiting the aesthetics and what I could achieve through design. You know, it’s such an important part of the design procedure, many other companies will actually use a last manufacturer to make models for them, they’ll describe what they want, and I really wanted more control over that. I wanted to be able to create what I pictured rather than specify what I wanted and leave it up to somebody else to do. So when I first got into a last making, it was for design purposes because I wanted to create these fluent, elegant, balanced shapes myself rather than leave it to somebody else.
KS: Would you say you’re a bit of a control freak in that sense?
TG: I am obsessive about details, beyond probably what other people — apart from designers or last-makers — could see, almost to the point of insignificance. Most people would look at a detail I’m fussing over and think, ‘Well, what do you want to take that bit off for, what difference is that going to make?’ Maybe it won’t make any difference, but I need to do it anyway because it’s in my head, you know? So yes, I’m very obsessive when I create a project that it has to be done to all the mental standards — the last has to be a work of art. It’s not just a functional tool.
KS: Was it a desire to have that degree of control — which you’d never have at another company, where they’d adhere to a strict house style — that motivated you to set out on your own with Dean Girling and found G&G?
TG: To be honest with you, I enjoy both. I also enjoy being given a project and realising that for somebody else. At the time when I was designing for (British shoemaker) Edward Green, it was an incredibly hard company to design for because the boundaries of design at Edward Green are very limited. So it was challenging in itself to be able to create something that was still very classically English but at the same time, new. After a while, there were particular ranges and looks that I could only achieve on my own. And I think knowing it was there and suppressing it over a period of time was just getting too much. So, you know, it was Dean that probably pushed me into leaving the companies that I was working for, and starting on our own and pursuing all these ideas. I was aching for it towards the end.
KS: At many of the Italian companies we’ve visited, there’s a very familial atmosphere — the boss or owner will go to the canteen and eat lunch with his staff, he knows everyone there from higher-ups to the janitor, and will help out when any of them need assistance. Does that atmosphere exist in your business?
TG: Yes, definitely. Actually, once the factory was set up, one of the first things I did was put a ping-pong table in the canteen area. And I try to make a point of twice a day going and playing table tennis with the staff — partly because I know I can beat them. (laughs) It’s one of the best things that I did because it’s so great for bonding — not just with me but with each other. It really bonds people together. We never play singles, it’s always doubles, it’s great fun and makes people laugh and really brings us together. We also always have a couple of summer parties and everybody in the factory gets invited. Everybody has too much to drink, there’s a lot of dancing and, you know, we do other activities as well. There is a lot of togetherness in the factory. And likewise, yes, when people have been in trouble, we try and help them out. There’s certainly been a few times specifically when people got into debt problems where we’ve helped them out of the hole. Personally, I’m very much somebody that believes if you’ve got a happy employee it will come out in great work.
KS: Given that close relationship with your staff, is the fact that you’ve got 30 families’ livelihoods depending upon the business’s health a weight to carry on your shoulders?
TG: Sure, but I mean, I don’t really dwell on it too much. I found the best way to deal with things is to be forever the optimist and literally just stamp out the negative sides of things in the business. And there are plenty of negative sides, some of which come from them (G&G’s employees), because being friends as well as employees they come with all the emotional baggage and problems in life. So, you deal with that kind of thing as well. Yes, it is a weight, but I try to be strong enough to fight it off and just get on with the job, make sure that we don’t get anywhere near the danger zones.
KS: Final question: You’ve been terrifically successful in the 12 years since establishing Gaziano & Girling. If you could, is there anything you’d go back and change about the way you’ve done things over that period?
TG: There’s one thing that irritates me a little bit, and that’s how we’ve built our range of shoes. So for example, when we launched the company, we initially launched about 40 different styles. Now we’ve got more than 120 styles. I wish I would’ve made the range a little bit smaller and took my time to release certain models in a different way so that each model got the attention it deserved as a piece of craftsmanship. When you release too many shoes, things get lost in the mix. So that’s probably my own regret. Other than that, there have been a lot of struggles along the way, a lot of complicated situations to deal with in the business – but I don’t really regret them, it’s all been part of the learning curve of going from shoemaker to salesman to manager to businessman, balancing all those skills.
Sample the exquisite shoemaking skills of Gaziano & Girling at their latest Singapore bespoke and MTO trunk show, taking place at Kevin Seah’s 5 Jalan Kilang atelier, 11 and 12 September (11am-7pm). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call +65 6532 2018 to make an appointment with G&G master craftsman Daniel Wegan.