Mauro Massarotto is known to the Croatian public as the “father of the new-millennium Startas sneakers,” the man who resurrected the sneakers of our collective childhoods. With his creative team he infused colors, variety and modernity into former Yugoslavia’s once flourishing, now floundering shoe magnate– Borovo. Literally and metaphorically, but (alas) only temporarily. Massarotto’s Zagreb store Sheriff&Cherry was the only breath of Berlin or New York street style in an otherwise style-wise dull Zagreb.
The store was shut down two years ago, the Startas story came to an abrupt halt, but all that didn’t mean the end of Massarotto’s career,in fact, just the opposite happened and his career took off.
His eyewear brand bearing the same name – Sheriff&Cherry, is slowly but surely finding its place within the world market, while Massarotto also managed to, in the post-Startas period, resuscitate the Italian brand Ellesse, which turned out to be an even bigger international success. He launched his studio and shop in Barcelona, the Studiostore, and is working on several creative collaborations, preparing new projects, and has just briefly popped into Zagreb in relation to another story tied to eyeglasses. The recently opened Ghetaldus Pop Up Store, i.e. a project including the rebranding of old Ghetaldus models, where he collaborated with designer Anamarija Brkić – A’marie.
Massarotto’s story is always in plural, not only because he does a lot of collaborative projects, but because he’s free from having an inflated ego and pays his respects to all his collaborators and coworkers in giving them their due credit. He sees himself as neither a fashion nor a product designer, but rather a lifestyle designer. It’s difficult to convey the interview with him just as it was, as the charming and energetic designer speaks Croatian infused with notes of the Istrian dialect, all the while mixing it up with Spanish, Italian, and English.
Check out what Mauro had to say about work, his career, the epilogue of the Startas sneakers project, his current projects, including the Ghetaldus Vintage collection – the very reason he was visiting Zagreb:
“For some time now, we’ve been collaborating with the Ghetaldus eyewear factory and I’ve been obsessed with old models for the past year… While we were working on the Ghetaldus Vintage collection, we retrieved their old models from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, revived and reinterpreted them. But still wanted them to remain classic and recognizable. A’marie and I worked on the design together, while I, being the project manager, had to pay a bit more attention to the campaign, website and the production of the Pop Up Store Opening event.“
All his projects realized in Croatia, whether or not they have adequate media feedback, have a worldly air about them. They are all well thought-out and complete. As is the case with these new vintage eyeglasses which boast production at the highest level. “I always believe in creating pomp for a purpose. Everything you do should have a certain level of professional sophistication: photos, websites, video clips, it’s a way of presenting yourself. If you work methodically, things can turn out very good. But I think that Croatia doesn’t fully appreciate the added value of design. On the one hand, I don’t think that vast amounts of money should be randomly shoveled at designers for their efforts and work, but on the other hand, it seems as if no one cares. In addition, it’s not about showing something off. You have to factor in the reality of your environment and the people who buy these products, namely, the end users.”
It seems like eyewear design is right up Massarotto’s alley. His brand of multi-colored (and inexpensive) Sheriff&Cherry eyeglasses has just presented its third collection for which the campaign was shot in India. Even though the whole production process would be much cheaper if it was manufactured abroad, they are made in Croatia, at the Ghetaldus factory in Samobor, and Massarotto points out that he’s immensely satisfied with the quality of production. Hence, here we have a highly successful Croatian product we’re not even aware of.
“The S&C business has really grown. We have a serious agent, one of the best buyers in the world. Along with myself, my friend Mark Vassallo is also included in this project, he’s the creative director who’s behind this photo-shoot in India, photographed by Australian photographer Kane Skennar.
We sell our eyewear in over 60 stores worldwide, from the Far East, via China, Korea all the way to the US. In Greece, where there’s an immense crisis, our eyewear are sold in over 20 high-end boutiques throughout the Greek islands.”
Massarotto explains that the price in Croatia is some ten Euros less than abroad and regardless of the brand’s huge success, he stays grounded and emphasizes that Sheriff&Cherry don’t want to “play” the big-name game. “Chanel and Vuitton can let themselves be called brands in the literal sense of that word. As soon as you get the idea that you’re some kind of brand where things should be done in a specific way out of your head, the easier your life will be. I don’t need to have a collection complete with a campaign, all I need to do is create good stuff and showcase it.
When we started out with the Sheriff &Cherry project, everybody around us saw the potential for the development of a big business, but we decided to go slow. After the lesson learned from the Startas sneakers project, I want everything to go slower and to think things through, I have no intention of putting myself in the midst of a chaotic situation again. I don’t want large infrastructures around any one project, as I prefer to have enough time to do various things, and that way I also have more free time to travel.”
This whole Startas story, that is, the never-told epilogue, is what interests me the most. After the huge success on the Croatian and foreign markets, and everything that Massarotto and his team achieved in terms of resuscitating this brand, the pomp surrounding the Startas sneakers project abruptly came to a halt. New editions of the popular sneakers couldn’t be found, Massarotto’s samples for sneaker designs were inadequately used (without the author’s consent) for other Borovo products, while the public never got an explanation what went wrong with the most original “revival” of any Croatian product ever.
But Mauro emphasizes that it’s in no one’s best interest to smear the collaboration with Borovo and talk about it in a negative context, but his disappointment at the (non)survival of this project is very much in evidence, as this project had the potential to turn into something really big.
“At one point the Startas sneakers project had grown considerably, we had stirred a huge interest, the sneakers were being sold at 250 shops all over the world. Around 50.000 pairs had been sold, but then unfortunately, a few typical Balkan scenarios happened. A bunch of negative outcomes, indifference and ignorance… which is better left unsaid. Every trip to Vukovar was a struggle.”
Mauro points out that they had done all the work with the Startas themselves, even the segments that had not been strictly related to design and campaign. “Suffice it to say that, until we stepped into the picture, the Startas sneakers didn’t even have a professionally vectored logo. Need I say anymore?”
I was curious to know how the first collaboration had come about; prior to the “worldwide success”. “I had written to Borovo saying that I wanted to make leather Startas sneakers with a bow. It resulted in a whole collection which had become a huge success, starting from scratch. To go to the first events and fairs, we had had to max out our accounts, borrow money from our parents, but it had all been worth it. We had been the poorest of the poor there, and yet, our stands had always been packed, as if there was a party going on. I think all the others exhibitors hated us. We had carried out extensive research in terms of music, architecture, design and the aesthetics of that period; the YU New Wave, and the whole team working on the project was rolling with it. ”We were fresh and interesting, original and cheeky. The campaign photographed by Bruna Kazinoti had a bit of a gipsy touch (in the positive sense); but that’s how we were, compared to others. For me it was the first time that I had come in contact with certain things and felt a kind of nostalgia for the more fortunate aesthetic times, at least from my point of view; which made me feel proud of where I came from, and helped me realize more things about myself. The New York Times, Monocle, Dazed and Confused, Teen Vogue – all ultimately did pieces on and endorsed the Startas sneakers.”
Regardless of the snags with the Startas project, Massarotto has not said “NO” to collaborations in Croatia; and following Startas a huge amount of new work opened up, which made him look at the whole (un)successful project with Borovo as something that had actually opened a window of opportunity for many other projects. One of those “other” projects was once again “a resurrection”, this time of the big Italian brand Ellesse:
“We did four heritage collections for Ellesse, and I did the entire creative process for Pentland (the brand’s owner), which is one of the biggest shoemakers in the world. We also did a lot of research with Ellesse, before the actual collection; and that’s the part I always find the most interesting. With its starting figures at zero, in two years, Ellesse has achieved a 3-million-Euro turnover; in 12 markets.”
However, that wasn’t the end of international collaborations, on the contrary. At the beginning of the year, with friend and business partner Lafede (Federica Sandretti), Mauro opened Studiostore in Barcelona; a working studio and shop in which, in addition to some of their own brands and products, they also plan different happenings, collaborations, events.
Amid the throes of the recession they nevertheless managed to find a large space at a great location, which is surely a perquisite for success: “We have an area of 400 square meters on two floors in the city center, in front of the Chocolate Museum, on a very interesting street; next to the Mutt, one of the best bookshops/art galleries in Barcelona. 5 years ago, it would’ve been absolutely impossible for us to pay, or rent, this kind of space; now it’s possible. We’re using it as a studio, shop in shop, we rent it out for events; we’re collaborating with the guys form Woof… Fede is in charge of organizing and managing the whole thing and she is more involved with her studio; I take care of art direction, product development and collaborations.
Our goal is to make our own things as much as possible, as well as to collaborate with various invited authors. The whole project has huge potential, but we’re taking it slowly, one step at a time and learning the trade. There, we can test the market and see how it responds to our products; which also means that every few months I have to go to Barcelona for a few weeks.”
Some of the collaborations, whose results can be seen at Studiostore, as well as on their Facebook page; are a product of collaboration with some Croatian names, which is actually just a continuation of Massarotto’s effort of including Croatian creative forces in his international projects, and it is also sufficient evidence of his ability to “detect” talent before others:
“We’ve worked with Miron Milić, Esh from Tuzla… There are many people in Croatia that I like to work with and promote. We’ve always done that.
Just the other day I was talking to a friend about who we were collaborating with in 2006, when we opened Sheriff&Cherry in Zagreb. The main wall on the upper floor was painted by Zlatan Vehabović, and the lower floor was the work of Filjio, i.e. Bruno Pogačnik. We had discovered his works on the street and offered him a chance to collaborate. It was a truly visionary moment in which we hired those two six years ago. And not just because of what they have done so far, but also because of what they can still do.
I think one should have “a hunch” for things like these, as well as for business in general. You don’t need to be the best designer in the world, what you need is to have a vision of what you want, and you have to make it happen at the right time.”
Talking about projects that are happening literally all over the world, one can’t avoid the question about the financial aspect of Mauro’s work and the quality of life it provides. “For me the most important thing is to have the freedom of doing what I want, when I want. There are periods when we can make a lot of money, sometimes a little less, and then there are the pro-bono projects; but of course it’s very important to sell stuff. A friend of mine said: “We don’t want to be famous, we want to be rich.”
It seems we’ve grown a bit, it’s not just about being a part of the “cool crew” anymore, it’s stopped being interesting. If you want to have any kind of real job in these troubled times, you have to attract a different kind of audience; the kind that isn’t feeling the crisis as much. However, I can say I’m happy and I like the way I’m living; I travel a lot and I have enough for certain important things in life.”
When talking to a person whose work is more focused outside their homeland, it’s hard not to touch on the situation in Croatia; and the working conditions, careers, and advancement possibilities here: “I have the impression that everybody here’s always complaining, but at the same time, no one’s doing anything to change something. However, I do understand the frequent frustrations because the people that are competent work for agencies; for beverage, yogurt, and similar clients; basically for those that don’t understand anything. For people who have been given the chance of being “kings”, “gods” after finishing their education, and are making decisions and getting involved with colors, design…
People from marketing; or better yet, managers from the big companies, think they know everything; but there are some things you simply can’t know. It’s not their job, they should think about the promotion that helps the sale (haha)… if you have a toothache you go and see a dentist (haha). In an interview for Vice Magazine, before leaving YSL, Stefano Pilati said that “the people from Danone moved into fashion”, and it’s something like that, though on a different level.”
It’s not easy to catch Mauro for a face-to-face interview, though from everything that’s been said so far, it’s no wonder. It took us some time to arrange this interview, precisely because we wanted to do it face-to-face, in Zagreb. After Australia, USA, and Barcelona, we’ve finally caught up with him in Zagreb. With such a hectic work schedule, we were curious to know, where does Mauro consider home?
“Rovinj is home for me. Definitely. When I’m in Croatia that’s where you’ll find me. Life is a lot calmer there than in Zagreb. I like Istria, it’s you know… Grandpa, Grandma, fish, bike, boat, family… I really enjoy myself there. And no matter where I am, Australia, New York… Rovinj is always on my mind.”
Mauro is constantly working on various projects, and so the answer to the question: “What are you currently working on?” is not always short and clear. About his current business projects outside Croatia, he says: “I’m always busy. I spent the winter in Australia, effectively avoiding it for the second year in a row; and I feel a lot better. At the beginning of the year, I’d spent more than a month in Los Angeles, working on something that had nothing to do with our street wear. We were working on the preparation for launching a high-end underwear brand, with the team that’s working under the Louboutin license.
It’s always interesting to see new things, learn something different, something that makes you think. It was great to experience the working side of America, it’s a working rhythm. Then you realize just how much easier things are there because everything is available. If you need a button, you have 3 streets full of buttons. Things you usually need to personalize are already available there. Besides, we are also working on a project with a company from Slovenia. It’s going to be very interesting and quite big, but more on that some other time.”
From the extensive interview, which hasn’t been easy to shorten, we leave you with one last “pearl of wisdom” by Mauro:
“I’m convinced that the less seriously you take yourself, the better you’ll be at your job. One should laugh with oneself a lot. It’s all about experience. We all make mistakes, but we’re here to not repeat them.”