FAIRHAVEN — Chris Donovan’s is a unconventional Cinderella story — you know, the fairy tale featuring a very special shoe.
Donovan is a barrel-chested man with a curly white goatee who worked for decades as a telephone repairman. But the 61-year-old’s bright blue eyes absolutely sparkle when he talks about shoes. Since he was a teen, Donovan has harbored a secret love affair with footwear, filling napkins and notebooks with sketches of women’s heels that seem to defy the laws of gravity. Now, as he has launched his first line of Italian-made women’s shoes, he’s being hailed by his mentors as the next footwear superstar, the next Manolo Blahnik.
“In my industry we need a new star, the new Christian Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik. And I’m banking on Chris,” said Aki Choklat, an internationally recognized Finnish footwear and accessories designer who pushed Donovan to pursue his passion.
And Petra Slinkard, curator of fashion and textiles at the Peabody Essex Museum, sees the future of the footwear industry in Donovan’s designs.
“Historically, exceptional shoe designers like Salvatore Ferragamo and Christian Louboutin have blurred the line between wearable fashion and art,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Chris Donovan’s approach is no different.”
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Worcester, Donovan never assumed he’d find a toehold in the global footwear market. His obsession with shoes began when his classmates defied his Catholic high school’s dress codes by wearing platform heels. He was amazed at how they managed to keep their balance: “It was almost like sculpture. A piece of art. If you could do that, what else could you do?” he pondered.
Just as fascinating was how the shoes transformed the wearer’s demeanor. “It changed how she walked and her attitude,” he recalled. “And so I started sketching. And I did it for the next 35 years.”
Donovan earned a degree in religious studies from Assumption College, but despite his mother’s wishes, had no plans to become a priest. Instead he landed a job at New England Telephone at 29 and spent the next 25 years doing phone repairs and installations. But the shoe obsession lingered, and even the conduits and fiber optic cables served as inspiration; he’d often incorporate them into his scribbles while sitting on conference calls.
As he approached his 50s, Donovan began to question his life’s path. “You spend all your free time drawing shoes, why are you spending eight to ten hours a day trudging through life?” his husband Stephan Wierzbicki recalled telling him.
So Donovan relocated his job to Providence to attend evening classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. Then he received a prostate cancer diagnosis. “It lit the fire in me that I needed to get it done,” Donovan recalled. He recovered, then retired at 54 and set out to find his way into footwear, signing up for a two-day course in footwear design in New York City.
The instructor was Choklat, who had also established the footwear and accessories master program at Polimoda, Italy’s leading fashion school. Choklat’s first assignment for students was to draw a shoe in 60 seconds, a task that immediately demonstrated Donovan’s talent.
“Ninety-nine percent of the students drew something that looks like a boat,” he recalled. “Chris designed something that Lady Gaga could wear.”
At the end of the course, Choklat pulled Donovan aside and told him he needed to study in Europe. It was both validation and the start of Donovan’s second career. Donovan drew from his savings and enrolled in Polimoda, spending nine months in Florence. The experience was overwhelming: His classmates were beautiful twentysomethings with experience at major fashion houses, and he struggled to find his voice.
Then one day, an instructor pulled him aside.
“You’re crude,” she said. “Do crude.”
It was the permission he needed, and he stopped trying to fit a preconceived notion of high-fashion. A flip through his portfolio now reveals a porcelain pedestal sink spotted in a salvage yard reimagined in miniature as a topsy-turvy stiletto. A stack of wooden balusters from Home Depot seem to float around the heel of a boot. In a design he submitted for an AARP-sponsored Project Runway contest, he used a gnarled trunk of a lilac bush from his yard in Fairhaven as the heel of a reimagined 1970s double-ring moccasin.
Project Runway host Tim Gunn loved it. “Have I seen this before? No,” Gunn marveled in an AARP video that got 5 million views. “Does the world need this? Yes.” Donovan won the contest, and the exposure offered an inroad into European footwear market.
Design consultant Richard Siccardi remembers getting a message from Donovan on Instagram and nearly writing him off.
“I was thinking this must be the usual pretentious young guy in school with lots of creativity but no idea about what making shoes means,” Siccardi admitted. But Donovan’s maturity and devotion to understanding the manufacturing process made him stand out.
“He can produce new designs like a machine gun,” he said.
Siccardi is now Donovan’s agent in Italy, and helped him gain access to one of the famously impenetrable high-end footwear factories in Vigevano, which rarely take on new designers. (Italian custom dictates that footwear designers not reveal the factory of origin of their shoes.)
While most factories need to produce between 30,000 and 60,000 pairs to be profitable, Siccardi said the factory was willing to take a risk on Donovan.
Italian shoemakers “do it for passion,” Siccardi said, and when they see a “design and that is outside of what they’ve done so far they’re curious and interested. That was the key for Chris Donovan.”
But there’s no small amount of risk on Donovan’s part. According to the research firm NPD Group, which tracks US shoe sales, US women’s fashion footwear declined 5 percent in the last year ending in November, with dress footwear down 7 percent. Meanwhile, sales of “sport lifestyle” styles that might provoke cringes in Milan were up 13 percent: comfort-oriented sandals, fashion slides, and clogs were all big sellers; Crocs and Birkenstock sales surged.
“Sneaker culture have taken over our industry,” Choklat lamented. But the growing backlash against fast fashion and newfound appreciation of well-made, long-lasting goods could help sustain upstarts like Donovan.
Donovan has shown his designs at Dutch Design Week and the global Shoetopia! exhibit in Detroit; locally, he has contributed to Boston Fashion Week, Hubweek, and the MFA’s fashion forums. In October, he launched his first line of pumps (starting at $465) and flats (starting at $385). His line is named after celestial bodies, and the heel of his boldest design, the Alpha ($895), features a black stacked architectural pedestal. He is selling directly to consumers and was showcased at the MFA’s holiday artisan fair.
Michelle Finamore, who recently served as the MFA’s curator of fashion arts, said Donovan’s shoes capture different design eras — “his architectural heels are very Cubist, constructivist,” she said — while also reflecting his distinct vision. “That’s what separates a really good designer from someone who is doing something more referential.”
Donovan says his shoes are for strong women pursuing their passions. Wearing them, he said, should produce an unmistakable sensation: “The feeling of going after what you want.”