You’ve likely never heard the name René Caovilla before but you’ve probably seen the Italian shoemaker’s distinctive snake shoe coiling up the ankle of Bella Hadid.
Or Joan Smalls. Or Gal Gadot. Or in the case of Rihanna, who wore a custom pair, all the up to her thigh.
Stuart Weitzman’s Nudist sandal long reigned as the de facto red carpet sandal but Caovilla’s snake shoe, called the Cleo, is gaining ground. The rise of the blingy, verging on gaudy, sandal coincides with the decline of minimalism. Alongside the meteoric rise of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, maximalist brands like Caovilla are finding new footing.
What’s unusual about Caovilla’s snake shoe is that the stars who wear it want to show it off. Shoes are generally hidden underneath a gown. Shoe publicists pray for a rainy red carpet so their client gets an unexpected moment to shine when the star has to hold up the hem of her gown to keep it from getting wet. But the Cleo is a shoe that celebrities wearing high slit gowns or mini dresses gamely thrust into the flashbulbs.
While the ascendency of the Cleo might seem sudden, it isn’t an overnight success. It never is. The success of René Caovilla’s snake shoe is nearly 100 years in the making. I visited the Caovilla factory outside Venice and talked to Edoardo Caovilla, the brand’s current creative director, to find out how it happened.
The Caovilla family has been making shoes in Fiesso D’Artico, a factory town outside Venice, for nearly a hundred years. The brand is currently under the creative direction of Edoardo Caovilla (he also serves as Chief Operating Officer), who is the third generation at the helm. His father, René Caovilla, still serves as president and the brand still bears his name. But it was Edoardo’s grandfather who started the company, and the archives boast shoes dating all the way back to his time.
In those archives—which I saw emerge from behind a remote-controlled mirrored wall in the factory showroom—you can see shoes the family made for Valentino Garavani and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. (The company no longer makes shoes for other labels.) Caovilla also likes to point out that the first red-soled shoe, pre-dating Louboutin’s famous soles, were made by Caovilla in the 1960s. Today, they favor a glittery sole.
A Roman statue of Artemis from the first century AD.
The inspiration for the Cleo goes back further in history. Designed by René in 1969, the unique ankle strap was inspired by coiled Roman serpent bracelets dating back to the first century BC.
In 1975, the shoe was exhibited at the MoMA musuem in New York. Today it’s one of the brand’s best-selling models.
Edoardo Coavilla likes to compare his family’s shoemaking to another high Italian art: winemaking. “Think about shoes as a good wine,” he tells me. “It takes time, the appropriate temperature, and some special secrets.”
The time part is clear: The Caovillas have been at this for a while. The factory, a gleaming white space, hums along with workers doing everything from running state-of-the-art laser-cutting machines to hand-gluing Swarovski crystals. There are workers who have been there since René’s time, and some who are much younger—in their 20s and 30s—a fact Edoardo emphasizes as he seeks to reinvigorate and continue to modernize the brand.
The temperature part is less obvious. The glittery soles of Caovilla’s shoes are not sewn on but glued together using a secret glue formulation (there’s the secret part) that is activated at a certain temperature. It makes for a cleaner line where the sole meets the shoe.
For the Cleo specifically, each single sandal takes two days of work. The snake coil is created with a metal alloy that wraps around the leg with a gentle hug versus a restrictive and blister-inducing death grip. Forty-two different elements go into making one single pump and Edoardo claims 20 people look each shoe over to ensure quality control.
A sketch of the Cleo shoe.
If shoemaking is like winemaking, think of Caovilla like Château Margaux. These shoes are very expensive, prohibitively so for most, but Caovilla doubles down on the hefty price tag. The Cleo, for example, sells for $1,130.
You may love those $150 Everlane heels, but Caovilla would argue that you get what you pay for. “In fashion,” he says, “quality costs money. If you see pumps for less than 300-400 Euro, then something is being sacrificed.”
When I ask Caovilla about the slew of A-list celebrities and influencers who have been wearing the Cleo on the red carpet, he swears they are not paid. “We don’t pay influencers,” Caovilla says. “We have good relationships with stylists. We only send samples for celebrities. We want to build brand loyalty. We are in no rush to dress everybody.”
From L-R: Bella Hadid, Lais Ribiero, Rihanna, Joan Smalls
Caovilla is blunt about it. He would never want to dress Kate Moss. Jessica Chastain, on the other hand, “is a humble person and expresses herself in a nice way.” Rihanna may not be humble, but she certainly expresses herself in the nicest way.