Interview with Michael Rollig of Zonkey Boot

We are proud to present you an interview with Austrian shoe designer Michael Rollig: respected founder of Saint Crispin’s and co-founder of Zonkey Boot.

L’interview en français.

For The Discerning Few: Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background?

Michael Rollig: I have been in the shoe business for 27 years. I first started as an industrial designer and almost by accident I got into shoe designing. I was still a student at the time and I was contacted by Ludwig Reiter, a shoe factory in Vienna which was close to bankruptcy at the time. They had this crazy idea of hiring me: a designer who had never made shoes before, so that I could create shoes which had never been made before. Obviously, it was complete failure!

However, it made me realize that designing shoes was a fascinating thing. From then on I started to learn pattern making with the help of an old pattern maker from the factory and I really started to focus on shoe designing. This was really a turning point in my career because Ludwig Reiter then became really successful being one of the only factories in Austria and Germany to product welted shoes.

I then became a freelance shoe designer and I worked for many different companies while on the side I started to make handmade shoes which were made-to-measure with a Turkish shoemaker in the basement of my house. At the beginning I did it to impress my clients: the owners of shoe factories because at the time handmade shoes were sort of a “new old thing”. It was really a side business, the shoes never fitted, it was horrible! But I did not care because it was a hobby. Moreover, the handmade techniques I had learned from this shoemaker I worked with allowed me to reintroduce things such as hand stitching methods and leather stiffeners made out of leather into the shoe industry.

I then wanted to develop my own line of handmade shoes which was at the time Saint Crispin’s. The hardest part was to find a place where I could make these shoes because I could only make bespoke shoes which involve a wooden last. This was a problem because at the time nobody was able to make good looking lasts for bespoke shoes. Anyway, after many unsuccessful attempts I developed, fifteen years ago, my own workshop in Romania which is still active as of today.

The problem with Saint Crispin’s is that I was not able to market it as well as I should have even though I had the ambition to make the best shoes in the world. I wanted to make ready to wear shoes entirely made by hand which would not cost more than a pair of Edward Green’s or John Lobb’s. The crisis hit my business and the orders decreased of 40%.

I met Alexandra two years ago when she interviewed me for a cover story for Forbes. After a few months we got together and she moved to Vienna with me. We wanted to start something new, I was tired of bespoke shoes and of running a workshop abroad because it was too energy consuming so we created Zonkey Boot.

FTDF: How would you describe yourself as a designer?

Michael Rollig: I am interested by the technique, by how things are made. I like to make something that is new. I like clean designs; I am not fond of decorating a shoe for the sake of it.

FTDF: What was the idea behind Zonkey Boot ?

Michael Rollig: The main idea was to make shoes that would still be elegant and of good quality but to make them less expensive. So we met the Giacometti brothers who own a factory in Venetto in which we now produce our shoes. They are the right partners for us because they also make handwelted shoes. This was crucial because I believe that having the sole sewn by hand makes the shoes more comfortable because when the sole is stitched by a machine the shoes are too stiff and too rigid. The difference is amazing; you have maximum flexibility and comfort. It is what Zonkey Boot is about: great quality and great comfort. As a matter of fact comfort was very important for me from the start, I am 55 years old, I am fed up with hard shoes, I have had it enough (laughs)!

FTDF: Where did you find your inspiration for the models?

Michael Rollig: When I worked for Saint Crispin’s I used to wear suits and well polished shoes all the time because I was very much inspired by Naples’ tailors and shirtmakers and when I designed a shoe for Saint Crispin’s it was a classic shoe and it was easy because I knew exactly what I liked and what I did not like.

Then about 3 years ago, I came to a point in my life where I started getting bored of my suits and my polished shoes. So when I designed the models for Zonkey Boot I aimed at creating the shoes that I needed, shoes that would be elegant but also versatile so that I could wear them to walk in the woods or to ride a bicycle for instance because you cannot do those things with classic shoes. Also I found myself wearing jeans again something that I had not done for years, so I needed shoes that would look good with jeans because I have always hated guys who wear classic shoes with jeans, I found them “lazy”, it is the worst fashion faux-pas as far as I am concerned.

Then I needed shoes for the summer and especially very hot days which was always an issue when I worked for Saint Crispin’s because when I made moccasins they would cost 900 euros, now the moccasins I designed for Zonkey Boot cost 400 euros which is still expensive but more affordable.

So in a nutshell, I wanted to make shoes with a purpose, not influenced by any fashion trends.

FTDF: How did you come up with the name Zonkey Boot?

Alexandra Diaconu (co-founder of Zonkey Boot and Michael Rollig’s lover)  : A Zonkey is cross between a Zebra and a Donkey. Michael likes Donkeys, I like Zebras so while we were trying to find a name for the brand, I googled Zebra and Donkey and that is how Zonkey came up and we added Boot so that people would know instantly what we are about.

Moreover, the Donkey stands for strenght and quality while the Zebra stands for style and charm. These are qualities we wanted our shoes to have so it makes sense.

FTDF: What kind of materials do you use to make the shoes?

Michael Rollig: We mainly use Vachetta that we use on both sides, but we also use calf leather that we hand stain ourselves. We now use crocodile that we dye ourselves in the factory. We have used canvas. Of course, we have suede in a wide range of colors.

FTDF: What is your ambition now?

Michael Rollig: To be rich and famous (laughs)! No, seriously our ambition is to keep making exceptional shoes for a reasonable price; I don’t want to cheat my customers. As I like to say: “honest work for honest money”.

For The Discerning Few wishes to thank Alexandra Diaconu & Michael Rollig for their availability, their simplicity and their kindness.

This Interview was conducted by PAL and VM for For The Discerning Few. Paris, June 2011. All rights reserved.

Pictures courtesy of Alexandra Diaconu of Zonkey Boot.

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