Footwear

There's More to Gemma Sangalli's Designs Than Meets the Eye

From Barbie’s surprising influence on cleats to the sneakers she’s currently lusting after, the Amsterdam-based designer shares all.

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Relationships are always unique – and that includes the one you have with sneakers. For Amsterdam-based fashion designer Gemma Sangalli, that connection runs especially deep. A fashion designer by trade, Sangalli has held roles at some of the biggest players in the industry today, including Puma and Tommy Hilfiger, and worked across categories, designing accessories, womenswear, footwear and more.

Her love of sneakers far predates her professional career though – and often goes beyond the real of the physical. While at university she developed an interest in various forms of design, including 3D and product design. Fascinated by the intersection of fashion and product, Sangalli began experimenting with footwear, turning sneakers into a canvas for her ideas and imagination. “Sneakers,” she says, are “the perfect combination” of her love for design and appreciation for art.

In this interview, Sangalli opens up about her design journey, how relocating to Amsterdam influenced her relationship with sneakers, why her Barbie-inspired Puma football cleats underpin two incredibly significant cultural milestones.

Name: Gemma Sangalli

City: Amsterdam

Occupation: Fashion Designer

What’s your relationship with sneakers? And do you have a favorite pair?

Sneakers are more than just shoes to me; I view them as a fusion of art objects and design. They embody cultural significance and meaning, akin to art, while retaining the functional aspects of design. Sneakers hold varied meanings across different sub-cultures and serve as a canvas to express myself and communicate my ideas.

 

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I gravitate towards designs that I perceive as both timeless and experimental in their design language, rather than being swayed by the hype of sneaker culture. A standout shoe for me is the Miu Miu Bubble Sole Mary Jane from 1999, as its silhouette is unique and modern. I appreciate how this particular design has served as inspiration for other sneakers and footwear styles that are prevalent in today’s fashion.

What would you say came first: your love of sneakers or design?

My journey began with a passion for art, and for my formal studies, I chose fashion design for its practicality. I discovered my love for sneakers organically while exploring different facets of fashion and design. Sneakers are the perfect combination of my love for design and appreciation for art.

Gemma Sangalli, Footwear, Sneakers, Sneaker Design, Baes With Kicks, Puma, Tommy Hilfiger, Birkenstock

What sparked that interest?

While I was at University in London I developed a growing interest in various design forms, such as 3D and product design. Intrigued by the intersection of fashion and product, I began experimenting with footwear. To my surprise, some of my work gained traction online, introducing me to the collaborative and engaging community centered around footwear. Despite my primary focus on fashion design in my professional life, I’ve continued the footwear journey as a way to explore different creative territories and engage in the design community. It provides a personally rewarding escape and brings a renewed perspective to my daily routine. While it currently remains a personal exploration, who knows, it might eventually evolve into a more professional pursuit.

You’re originally from New Zealand and currently live in Amsterdam. How would you say your relocation influenced your relationship with sneakers?

Relocating abroad has significantly shaped my relationship with sneakers. In New Zealand, sneaker choices were limited, with stores mainly offering basic models from major brands and they weren’t a focal point in my awareness. In Europe, particularly Amsterdam and London, the vibrant sneaker culture exposed me to diverse information, inspiration and communities. While still navigating my place in the expansive sneaker world, being in Europe has been eye-opening, witnessing a diverse range of artists and creators carving their own niche, inspiring my continued exploration of design and art.

You’ve worked with everyone from Puma to Tommy Hilfiger, designing accessories, womenswear, and footwear. In addition to being an inherently creative person, what has you so devoted to the art or practice of creating?

I thrive on keeping things fresh, and experience great discomfort with stagnation. My desire for creative freedom and growth is a driving force, leading me to explore new avenues, diverse job roles, and strive for the perfect balance. When growth plateaus, I push myself to embrace change, seek the right fit, and follow my instincts. It’s an ongoing development, and I follow my interests organically as they unfold.

Let’s talk about some of your own footwear concepts. From Crocs to boat shoes, to the mary jane, what inspires you to reimagine these universally recognised shoes?

To create something completely unrecognizable and out there rarely resonates with people because it has no context to ground the idea. Creating an unexpected twist on an iconic footwear silhouette from a brand that’s prominent within popular culture is an easier way for people to understand my message or concept. I enjoy juxtaposing silhouettes, iconography, and cultural references to craft a creation that is simultaneously familiar and recognizable, yet entirely alien.

Your latest Barbie-inspired Puma football cleats are amazing and we all know the world definitely needs these. Talk us through the process of how these came to be.

During the creation of this project, there was huge hype around the release of Barbie and the kickoff of the Women’s Football World Cup. I believe the film generated interest among women because it had the potential to offer a different perspective on femininity that resonates with the modern day.

Gemma Sangalli, Footwear, Sneakers, Sneaker Design, Baes With Kicks, Puma, Tommy Hilfiger, Birkenstock

The iconic Barbie doll, dating back to the late 1950s, has been a topic of debate regarding its suitability as a role model for young girls. The discussion revolves around the inherent sexism tied to Barbie’s image, encompassing both physical and behavioral ideals imposed on women during that era. Interestingly, during the period when Barbie was introduced, women’s football was also banned in many countries. In the UK, players and football writers have argued that this ban was due to jealousy over the substantial audiences drawn to women’s matches and the Football Association‘s lack of influence over the revenue generated by these events.

In reshaping our future, women hold a key role in reinterpreting these historical narratives. We still live in a world where power dressing, in an attempt to be taken seriously, often means adopting a more traditionally masculine style and behavior. The persistence of these dynamics is evident in sports, where male teams consistently hold the spotlight, garnering far more attention and credibility from the public in comparison to women’s sports.

My goal was to adopt a different approach rather than mimic the male football aesthetic and instead to explore the power of hyper-femininity. I discovered a meaningful connection between Barbie and the Women’s Football World Cup, acknowledging them as iconic moments deserving celebration. Inspired by Barbie’s distinctive pink and plastic aesthetic, combined with elements from 1960s style and the functional design of football cleats, I crafted this concept. The intention was to construct a compelling narrative that not only embraces femininity but also underscores the synergy between cultural milestones.

If you could officially collaborate with a brand to bring to life one of your very own custom concepts, who would it be and what silhouette would you choose?

I’d choose the Birkenstock Boston Clog. I’m drawn to this silhouette and brand because it already carries universally recognized iconography and cultural context, and it would be interesting to explore a new interpretation. I became acquainted with the Boston Clog during my childhood as it was my mother’s preferred gardening shoe to support her flat feet. The subsequent resurgence of this style in both streetwear culture and fashion has captured my interest. I would enjoy reimagining this timeless silhouette, seeing it as an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective and new meaning to its cultural presence.

Lastly, what sneaker are you currently lusting after?

The Puma Mostro.

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Amber De Luca-Tao
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