Most paths to success — at least the most interesting ones — are not linear. They're filled with diversions and risks that inevitably lead to the big goal, the highest honor, or — in the case of the three Polimoda alumni below — the launch of their own fashion brands.
Polimoda is known as one of the best fashion schools in the world, and former students Marco Panconesi, Frederikke Schmidt and Chris Donovan all took different paths to finding success in industry — including studying at the Florentine institution. For instance, Panconesi thought he might become an archaeologist before designing jewelry for the likes of Rihanna and Riccardo Tisci. Schmidt is using her studies to revolutionize comfortable heels with sustainability front of mind. And Donovan unconventionally launched his shoe design career after his 50th birthday.
Though their paths look wildly different, they each have applied so much of what they learned in Florence to their work today — not merely the technical skills, but also the ability to creatively think outside the box. Ahead, they share how their education and passion have led to success.
Marco Panconesi, Founder of Panconesi
Marco Panconesi may have only launched his namesake jewelry line in 2019, but his career's been spent behind the scenes at some of the most recognizable fashion houses in the world. This includes Givenchy, Balenciaga and Rihanna's own Fenty. His career path is a "surprising" one, the Florentine designer says.
"As a child, fashion or jewelry design was not my dream," says Panconesi, who once hoped to become an archaeologist. "I came from a family of characters each with their own interest in craft; for example, my grandfather was a teacher professionally, but in his own time was an avid woodworker. He passed on a respect for materials and a real love of craftsmanship to me when I was growing up, as did a cousin who would teach me artistic methods like gold leafing and wax sculpting."
His appreciation for design eventually led him to Polimoda. "It had an experimental approach especially under the design directors Linda Loppa and Patrick de Muynck — the Antwerp approach challenged you and pushed the limits of fashion education," says Panconesi, who studied knitwear and clothing design. "It just really pushed us to not only be a commercial designer, but to have fun with shapes, forms, colors, everything."
However, it wasn't until Panconesi landed a post-graduation role working with Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy that he finally honed in on his passion for jewelry design. "At Givenchy, it became apparent to me that jewelry has a connection to architecture and object making and that, most of all, it's fun!”
Panconesi spent two years at the French fashion house, where he got his professional start, then went on to work with Balenciaga, Mugler, Mulberry with Johnny Coca, Pilotto and Fenty. "Collaborations are about a sense of community and synergy," he says of his partners, which presently include GmbH and Fendi, "when you can create something beautiful with two minds."
Still, despite his ability to create within the other established brands, Panconesi's new eponymous label stands out from all his other work. "When I started Panconesi, I wanted to approach jewelry making in a different way, speaking less about karat, cut, grade," he explains. "I think there is a way to speak about jewelry outside of costume or fashion jewelry — there is an experimental space in between."
Panconesi references all aspects of his experience in his namesake line, including his familial learnings and formal education. He also established a brand signature that's uniquely his: the Upside Down earring. "I had created it very organically: a simple gold, fluid, curving line that as a piece of jewelry can be worn traditionally or in a modern way," he explains. Other standout designs include uniquely structural earrings that hug the ear and burst like a constellation of stones, as well as delicate cuffs and rings that wrap around limbs in a subtle-yet-daring fashion.
"Personally I feel successful when I get to manifest ideas and then translate and manipulate them into something else," Panconesi says of his work thus far. And even as the fashion cycle slows down due the recent health pandemic, the designer has no intention of hitting the breaks. Rather, he intends to be thoughtful about how to move forward.
Frederikke Schmidt, Founder of Roccamore
As a student at Polimoda, Frederikke Schmidt says she loved to zero in on the small details. "I would build collections around a certain flower that a native tribe in Africa considered holy or study all the variations of a butterfly wing to draw patterns from it," the Copenhagen-based designer says. "I loved the creativeness and the ability to really study something on a geeky level." Later, her attention to minute details is what led her to create her line, Roccamore.
"I applied my geekiness to the anatomy of the foot and have spent most of my career trying to understand how I can optimize the experience in high heels," says the designer who, after working for several other high-end shoe lines, went out on her own in 2016.
"I was tired of working with male designers and only focusing on the aesthetics," she says of the decision to go solo. "A shoe has to be beautiful first, yes, but then it has to be comfortable." With this theory, Schmidt launched Roccamore as a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter. Within 30 days she had raised 220% of her goal. "I never decided to start a business or make my own label. It sort of just happened, and then I went along with it."
Roccamore stands out among other footwear brands because it's not built on the assumption that the customer is constantly consuming. "The idea with Roccamore was to not create seasons, just really good shoes that would last," Schmidt says, adding that her styles are made using leftover materials from other, bigger fashion houses. "We use what is already out there and then make the quantity that is possible. When a shoe is sold out, that's it, it might come back in a similar tone, but it will never come back completely the same."
Beyond offering limited quantities, Roccamore's sustainable measures include working with biodegradable and zero-impact materials. Schmidt says this process started six months ago and has already been well-received.
Finding success within the footwear industry is no easy feat, but Schmidt and Roccamore are making it work by keeping the customer experience front of mind. The brand offers one-on-one shopping appointments, for instance. Last year alone, the brand sold 10,000 pairs. "Listen to your customers and take all feedback seriously," she advises. "Do not think you know better, be humble and listen to everything they say."
Roccamore has stayed consistent with this approach amid the pandemic. "We're testing many new concepts, like 45-days full return, home delivery, private shopping events, live streamings etc. and monitoring everything very closely, so we can quickly tweak and adjust," says Schmidt of the company's recent measures to address a challenging fashion industry landscape. She optimistically adds, "New circumstances are creating a lot of opportunity for business to think new, but also for new business to start up. If you can survive in times of crises, you can survive anything."
Chris Donovan, Founder of Chris Donovan
Few footwear designers are able to earn comparisons to the iconic Manolo Blahnik. Among them, even fewer started their career in footwear design in their 50s. In many ways, Chris Donovan breaks the mold.
The Massachusetts-based designer's appreciation for footwear began in high school but it wasn't until a few years ago — after a 25-year career as a telephone repairman — that he decided to follow his passion.
"At 50 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was caught early and cured but it changed my priorities," says Donovan. "This passion for shoes was too important. I knew if I didn't do something with my designs I would regret it the rest of my life. I saw a two-day class with the designer Aki Choklat in NYC and decided to have him look at my work to see if I had any talent. After the first day Aki pulled me aside and told me that I was born to do this and that I needed to apply for a Masters in Europe. That's all I needed to hear and decided to take the leap."
Donovan enrolled in Polimoda's nine-month Master of Footwear program, which today is regarded as the Master in Shoe Design, where he was able to fine tune the skills he'd need to bring his love of footwear off the pages. "The master crafts people, like Angelo Imperatrice, taught us to become proficient at making all the different styles of shoes. Angelo then would help us create some of our most innovative designs for our graduate collection. I learned to challenge ideas without losing my own vision. I have taken those lessons I've learned there and embodied them in my work."
Like so many industries, fashion often favors wunderkind and Donovon experienced challenges after graduation — no one would speak with him about a job. Again, Donovan took an unconventional route.
"I found a contest from 'Project Runway' to meet Tim Gunn and have him critique my work on the show," he says. Not only did he win the contest, but the exposure and advice from an industry vet like Gunn was the push Donovan needed. "The most memorable thing he said about my work was, 'Has the world seen this? No! Does the world need this? Yes.'"
Following the contest, Donovan says his work — recognizable by its bold, architectural silhouettes — gained more recognition, including from museums in the U.S. and abroad. "I decided with the support of my husband that if the world was going to see my designs that I would have to do it myself by starting my own line."
The Chris Donovan footwear brand launched officially this past October. By January, he'd been called "the next Monolo Blahnik" by the Boston Globe. "I am deeply honored and humbled by the comparison," says Donovan. "I don’t compare myself to others in general because I know my vision is unique and my designs are powerful. I want to be the new star in the industry."
Thus far, the now-sexagenarian is doing so by staying true to the things that make him unique. "I think what makes me different are the years I wasn't in fashion. My inspirations come from things that aren't traditionally considered beautiful. My designs come from woodturning, fiber optic cabling and the folds of a paper airplane. I translate that into shoes that are different and blur the line between art and wearable fashion."
As far as Donovan is concerned, he's already achieved great personal success having followed his passion into shoe design, to Polimoda's classrooms, and to the helm of his own label. He's let his love of design lead him each step of the way and encourages that in others, even during challenging times like these. "Use this time to do what you love. Create, sketch, build and explore."