The partnership of Tony Gaziano and Dean Girling, pairing their respective second names to form their brand name Gaziano & Girling, has produced a great number of bespoke shoes for clients from around the world. Their classic approach, teamed with carefully considered modern flares has earned them their spot as a highly desirable and respected brand, with a retail location on London’s Savile Row. We sat down for coffee with the duo, to discuss early ambitions and how the pair got the brand to where it is today.
So, where did you grow up Tony?
I grew up in Kettering, Northamptonshire, which is where the factory is, actually.
Oh, ok, stayed close to home. What sorts of things would you get up to as a young lad there?
Well, it’s a very small town and to be honest, there wasn’t an awful lot to do. You would have found me playing around in the fields, outside, that kind of thing. Just messing around as young kids do [laughs].
My father was always working, quite a normal life for most English kids of that particular era. I was blessed really with that environment, beautiful countryside for biking through, building treehouses.
And some mischief…
[Laughs] Yeah, Huckleberry Finn style.
[Laughs] And so you were educated around those parts also, presumably?
Were you particularly academic as a kid?
School wasn’t really for me. I went to an all boys’ school, and what I found was that there were only two subjects I had any interest in, languages and design. More so on the artistic side of design, and I ended up chasing after that path. It just came quite naturally to me. It wasn’t like I did badly at school, but it was more about my motivations.
Following school, I attended college to study architecture, which turned out not to be my thing either [laughs].
[Laughs] Clearly. So, did you have early career ambitions?
My father had always been into property development, building houses and so whenever I had free time, I would go and do work experience with a good friend of his who was an architect. I would sit with her and help her with these technical drawings, which I really enjoyed, hence why it felt like a natural choice to study at college. My plan was not to go into business with my father, but to go into a similar business.
You felt as though you had a basic understanding of it, or a foot in the door, so to speak?
Yeah, exactly. Watching him working on sites gave me a bit of an understanding, and then working on drawings developed my understanding of the actual building process.
So, what switched you off of it?
There was a lot more involved than I had anticipated, that I struggled to have an interest for.
Mathematical equations and that sort of thing?
No, it was more learning about different materials, the composition of specific materials that I lost interest in. A lot of these materials just seemed like things that you’d never even actually use in practice, and I think the course was badly managed at that time, so I just drifted away from it.
What did your father make of that?
He felt that I just needed to persist with it and get through it, but it just didn’t give me what I was looking for. I could have done technical drawings from sunrise to sunset, but that just wasn’t reality.
Was it the meticulous nature of it that you found enjoyable?
Yes, I loved the precision of it all, the level of detail, it was very appealing.
Where do you think this appreciation of detail comes from?
My slight obsessive compulsive nature, to be honest with you [laughs].
”I loved the precision of it all, the level of detail, it was very appealing.”
Oh, definitely. In whatever I’m doing, there’s an impulse to make sure everything is in its place, be-it a knife and fork on a table, or two lines meeting perfectly on a drawing. I think it came from my father having the same frustration towards things not being quite perfect. Or even if they were perfect, they could be more perfect. In the end, it can drive you crazy, because you keep pushing it to the next and the next level of perfection.
So, in a sense, it’s never enough?
Exactly. You know, I think part of getting older and gaining more experience is being able to strike a balance, because through the years, I’ve seen things that really irritated or annoyed me, the fact that certain levels seem unachievable. Real talent, is being able to achieve a high level and balance that feeling.
You’d be quite unhappy in life if you never accepted what you’d created, right?
I think so, because I see other people working that have a similar issue, and they probably have little self-awareness of it. These kinds of things can destroy you, not being aware of it, at least.
This striving for perfection, do you ever feel like this is a limitation of where you can potentially take things?
No, I don’t think so. Creativity is a different format to that of perfection, because you have to round off the edges of the project. For example, you’ll do something, you’ll look at it, and then you change it. It’s all about the tweaking, constantly tweaking and changing to the point where you find a balance. My obsessive nature can sometimes be counterproductive to the creativity, because that obsession with perfection can sanitise things to the point where it loses the feel.
Like in music, where notes are played not necessarily perfectly on beat, but it creates a soul or character to it?
Definitely, I mean, not to divert too much, but you see these types of shows like the X Factor or The Voice or whatever and that demonstrates quite clearly that talent isn’t just about the perfection of someone’s voice. It’s made up of a combination of things, it’s part of the creativity and it’s got an appeal.
Do you enjoy working within certain rules or parameters?
I do, actually. I think a lot of design out there is done without these limits or rules, and the result of that is very flaky design. It applies very specifically to the footwear industry, because you have a lot of designers that set out to create a shoe that they want everyone to love, but it just doesn’t strike a chord. There’s no resonance between the designer and the customer. The boundaries are useful, because it helps you to understand where the line is, how far is too far to push something. It’s important to know these rules in an industry like ours.
And there are a generally accepted set of rules right?
Yeah, absolutely. This is something that I’ve learned from working with different brands, rather than just designing for myself. Young designers don’t know these constraints and work quite idealistically, which is interesting, but not practical. I find this part the most interesting, coming up with a design which is within our style, but appeals to multiple people.
"Quite simple really, I was thrown off the course [laughs].”
Just to jump back slightly, how did you make the transition from architecture course to designing shoes?
Quite simple really, I was thrown off the course [laughs].
That’ll do it…
[Laughs] I just stopped showing up, much to the annoyance of my father, whose response was, “Just go out and get yourself a job.” Coincidentally, a shoe factory within the area was advertising for someone to work in the design department. I applied, and that was that. My boss at the time was a lovely old guy, and I went in there thinking I’d be drawing pictures all day and he turned around and said to me, “Roll up your sleeves and get on the factory floor, before you pick a pencil up, you’re going to know everything about what we do.”
[Laughs] Wow, the old fashioned approach…
It was probably quite boring at the time, for me, but it was the best thing that could have happened.
There’s probably no way of shortcutting learning about the history of the trade, right?
No, for sure. Only 10% of a design is actually drawing the pictures. These days we rarely even draw pictures anymore, do we [addressing Dean Girling]
Dean: Not really, no, sketches, no.
Tony: You go straight to a working platform, if that makes sense. You’ll be working with materials and forms; the majority of designers that sit and draw pretty pictures, their designs don’t even work in a practical sense.
They just don’t have the experience or understanding?
Tony: Exactly, that’s where I think we excel a little bit, because if you go to a more corporate format, like some of the big designer labels, they will take graduate designers straight out of university and they’ll make these idealistic designs which, when they go to a manufacturer will say, “Well…”
Dean: It’s not practical, or the proportions won’t work in reality. It’s all about proportions and hitting certain points.
So, these youngsters get a sharp reality check?
Dean: Yeah, often it’s just not possible.
So, between the two of you, how do responsibilities divide?
Tony: There are two main elements in the design of our shoes, one is designing the actual look itself, and two is making the product, which is where Dean specialises. I’ll create the upper part which goes onto the form, and then Dean will create the look of the sole and the shape of the heel which, these days, represents easily 50% of the aesthetics.
Dean: It’s actually trialling it as well, because when we have a design on the last, there will be small adjustments to be made which you can only see when it’s physical in three dimensions. We might have to move a toe-cap back 3mm or forward. It’s all about balancing the proportions in that stage.
Dean: You’ll get a different stretch in certain materials. A suede might stretch more than a black calf, so it’s always a challenge.
Does that process take a long time?
Dean: Yeah, and you have to do, what we call, ‘wear trials,’ to see how they look when they’re worn in, in case they crease in an awkward way, or if the seams are in the right place. There’s a lot involved with this kind of thing. It’s very similar to the level of work that goes into a bespoke suit, a lot of consideration and development to make it perfect.
Tony: That’s the real test of good design, and there are one or two specific shoes that every single factory makes, in terms of their style, but it’s the way that style is executed, the proportions, the finishing, the shape that differentiates us. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to come up with something entirely new, and there ends up being lines and shapes all over the place, trying to be as original and unique for the sake of it.
Dean: You could have five different cap toe Oxfords, from five different manufacturers; they all look different, but they’re all still cap-toe Oxfords.
Right, and one will appeal to one person and not to another, for whatever reason…
Tony: Whenever I think of a good example of design, I always think of the Porsche 911. Fundamentally, that car hasn’t really changed shape in all the years it’s been in production [laughs]
[Laughs] That’s for sure…
Tony: But what they do beautifully is in their refinement process. Refine, refine, refine, a little better here, a little better there. It’s similar to what we’ve done here in the shoe industry, we’ve taken something that’s been there forever, and we’ve made it better.
Dean: Sometimes you can go wrong, like when Porsche designed the ‘frog eye’ headlight shape, they did it for a year, but it was awful. Everyone hated it and they got rid of it and went back to the classic oval shape.
"A lot of people will overkill, and that’s the most difficult aspect of design is to minimise what you’re doing.”
[Laughs] Thank god…
Dean: Yeah, they ruined it.
Tony: That’s half the trick, a lot of people will overkill, and that’s the most difficult aspect of design is to minimise what you’re doing.
So, the partnership is quite balanced then?
Dean: Yeah, I’d say so. You’ve both got to have that vision and appreciation of craftsmanship in order to create that. There has to be a synergy, getting back to the car design, you have similar scenarios there, with an illustrator working with a panel beater to make the car shape. There might be a scenario where a curve can’t be in a certain place for whatever reason, and the panel beater knows that.
Tony: The moment you fall in love with something and you don’t know why, an object that you just adore. That’s when you know you’ve hit the magic spot, and that takes teamwork.
Dean: A lot of people don’t see it until they’re educated, but when they do, you just know. I could go and look at an antique chair and have no idea what I’m looking at, but someone in the know could quickly point out what makes it unique.
Part of the challenge in building a business of this nature is education?
Dean: I think you’re right there, yeah. There are still a few brands out there with true craftspeople behind them. We’re still behind our brand, but there are some brands that were founded 150 years ago, whose guys are long gone. Unfortunately, through generations, the special nature of the brand gets lost.
What do you think is the great advantage of having a pair of shoes made specifically for you?
Tony: There are multiple advantages, the obvious one is fit. The second is personalisation. Thirdly, having something which is of such a high standard of quality is a rarity these days.
These kinds of things tend to say a lot about a person’s individuality too right?
Yes, and actually, I would say that shoes share a lot of similarity to watches. They’re very closely linked. Suits are the obvious thing to spend money on, but a lot of people pay specific attention to the other details, like shoes or watches. You can tell that someone is a person of good taste based on these things. Someone might come into our store in jeans and a t-shirt, but you can really tell who they are by looking at the feet and wrist. It works the other way too, people coming in to see us in incredibly expensive suits, but awful shoes.
It’s funny how revealing these things can be…
Definitely, you cannot neglect the shoes and the watch. You wouldn’t put BMW wheels on a Bentley [laughs].
So, where to next in terms of the business for you guys?
Well, more online, but it’s a difficult one for us because people still want to come into the store to see, smell and feel the shoes. So, in a sense our flagship business is safe, but we will be growing our online business. This will come in handy for people who have bought from us before, who know the fit and size they require, but maybe can’t just drop in. There is a definite industry wide trend of things moving to online in some shape or form.
You can read more about the craftsmanship of Gaziano & Girling here.