This shoemaker’s tale has its roots in the style and status-obsessed 1980s, when the then twenty something Casadei joined his parents, Quinto and Flora, in the family business. As a teenager, however, Casadei had dreamily entertained ideas of working in real estate. “It was very strange,” he confesses. “When I said this to my father he said to me, ‘Cesare, are you sure? Before you decide to do something different, try shoes.’ So I designed shoes, I sold them, I met the retailers. It was fun.” He adds that his daughter, Arianna, has followed suit. She now works for Casadei in public relations and e-commerce, a side of the business that over the past three years has “grown fast and is now very important”.
Assigned his own team of 10 skilled workers, Casadei started with a signature collection of styles for both men and women. Then, in 1994, he became creative director of the company. Over the years, his experimentation with novel materials (the majority of which are created exclusively for the brand) and techniques has made him instrumental in defining the aesthetics of the Casadei style – architecturally elegant pumps and uppers featuring exceptional leather handiwork, intricate embroidery and crystal embellishment. The last of these, in particular, has been the subject of much evolution.
Casadei admires Swarovski’s efforts to move forward the art of embellishment. “When I started to work in this business, all of the embroidery involved stitching. Today, technology offers a lot of different solutions, including adding crystals and sparkle to leather, not just suede as in the past.” Indeed, the highly technical creations that the house turns out today, such as the Blade and the Tank (so-called because of its cleated sole), may seem a far cry from the olive-green calfskin sandals set on kitten heels that his parents founded their family business upon in 1958, although each pair of shoes is still produced in-house.
Casadei’s fortunes have always followed those of its well-chosen location, near Rimini, on the Adriatic Riviera, where the business opened its first workshop. Soon, what was once a small town grew in international stature thanks to its glistening beaches filled with sunbeds and colorful parasols. Rimini, and other resorts like it dotted along the coast, blossomed as Americans and Europeans descended in search of la dolce vita and, of course, exquisitely made Italian shoes. In those post-war boom years it wasn’t long before Casadei’s business became an international one. In 1967, the collection launched in the United States; a decade later, Casadei shoes were being sold in Japan. “It was not like it is today with video conferencing or mobiles,” recalls Casadei. “Then, we had a room housing a telex, a large, complicated machine, which would print the order from New York or Los Angeles.”
Fast-forward to today and there are stores in Russia, the Middle East and China, and a new flagship that opened in Rome last year at Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina. Up next is a London flagship store on Albemarle Street, Mayfair, opening later this year.
What originated as a small workshop soon morphed into a factory that still sits in San Mauro Pascoli, a shoe-centric village about 14km inland from Rimini. Other Italian accessories brands have headquarters here, including Sergio Rossi, which now belongs to Aston Martin’s owners. In fact, for a heritage label like Casadei to still be in the hands of the original family (along with Arianna, Cesare’s wife, Alessandra and other relatives are involved in the company) is rare, not just in San Mauro Pascoli, but throughout Italy.
“Every woman remembers the first time she wore high heels,” says Casadei, as he admits that he relies on Alessandra for the female point of view. “When a girl wears high heels she feels like a woman. As men, we don’t have this moment.” At home, too, they “discuss shoes, projects and our dreams. We work very well together.”
Alongside the family know-how, there’s also the expertise of Casadei’s employees. One of the longest serving is Oriana, an embroiderer who has been with the company since she was a child. “Many of our styles feature hand-embroidered motifs, undertaken by Oriana and her team,” says Casadei. He recalls one year in August, after everything in Italy had shut down for the summer, when coral was required urgently as the final flourish for one of his creations. But he couldn’t fathom how on earth he could get hold of some. Oriana came to the rescue by pulling apart her necklace and bracelet and using it for the shoes, a fact he discovered only once the shoes were finished.
Although it is the Blade that has taken the company center stage, it remains only one element of a collection comprising towering platforms, crystal-embellished runners, wedges, flats, sneakers for men, and a range of beautiful wedding shoes. In fact, there are a staggering number of shoes in the Casadei archives: 20,000 or more.
One of the styles that Casadei is most proud of is the Atelier, a showstopper of a bejeweled platform sandal that straps around the ankle, which took a week to craft. “The inspiration for the embroidery was born from the desire to revive the opulence of 1980s glamour,” says Casadei, who, like Jeremy Scott at Moschino and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, riffed on the decadence of the era in his Fall/Winter 2016 collection. “The chain of crystal stones, one of our iconic designs, was made up of about 800 crystals, each hand-mounted and embroidered onto the shoe to produce a chain effect of infinite nuances.”
Earlier this year, Casadei collaborated with Swarovski on a project with online fashion retailer Luisa Via Roma, entitled Tech Dreamers. For this limited edition capsule collection, Casadei designed a sling-back named Daisy, which incorporates the Blade steel heel and comes with embroidered floral uppers comprised almost entirely of crystals.
Casadei’s aesthetic has also had an impact on the world of photography. Long before the appearance of the Blade, the company earned a reputation for creating compelling, high-impact visuals, dating as far back as 1986 with a campaign shot by Hiro (a protégé of fashion photography legend Richard Avedon). Since then, influential names including Nick Knight, Mario Testino, Javier Vallhonrat and Raymond Meier have also shot for Casadei. “The advertising image has always had great importance in our history,” Casadei explains, adding that to commemorate the brand’s 50th anniversary in 2008, Ellen von Unwerth was commissioned with the photography for a book and a retrospective exhibition that traced their success.
This is a designer whose understanding of how women can best carry off a pair of shoes has not just been sharpened by making and designing shoes, but also by spending days on set. One of the most memorable shoots, he says, was for the Spring/Summer 2004 advertising campaign, shot by Raymond Meier. It was inspired by the game of soccer, of which Casadei is “a big fan”, with a playful take on soccer shoes. “The shoe upper recalled the structure of the soccer ball, while the heel could be unscrewed and changed," he says. This hero shoe also graced a limited edition Italian postage stamp that same year, delighting philatelists, shoe lovers and fans of the sport itself.
Photography is clearly Casadei’s passion, too. He mentions that the most recent exhibition that really made an impression on him was Avedon’s Beyond Beauty at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome. “It was very inspiring,” he says. “I have always appreciated photographers who are able, through their lens, to glorify the femininity of a woman” – a quality emphasized by the wearing of his brilliantly crafted shoes.