Even with two feet firmly on the wooden floors of his company’s Soho store, Del Toro founder Matt Chevallard straddles two worlds. The first is America, where city-dwelling sneakerheads have embraced the irreverent velvet slippers—embroidered with skull-and-crossbones, Disney characters, or even heart-eyed cat emojis—and quilted leather chukka boots that have become his brand’s signatures. The other is Italy, where he was born and now bases the company’s manufacturing.
It’s a balancing act he admits he wasn’t always comfortable with growing up—”I think I struggled as a kid, being born in Italy, having an Italian father and an American mother, fighting the two different cultural priorities and representations, figuring out who I was,” he says—but today he’s clearly found his footing. Del Toro has grown into a burgeoning lifestyle brand, with shoes for men, women, and children; retail spaces in Miami and New York; a growing selection of accessories, and an ever-expanding list of celebrity fans, including a roster of NBA players long enough to draft your entire fantasy league. (Dwyane Wade alone has purchased 80 or 90 pairs, according to Chevallard.)
This month, Del Toro will celebrate its 10th anniversary at Art Basel in Miami Beach with a freshly redesigned flagship boutique and collaboration with the artist Rob Pruitt—not too shabby considering Chevallard started the company back when he was still in high school.
After hunting for customizable velvet slippers for their graduation and coming back empty-handed, he and two friends saw an opportunity to make their own, at a price that wouldn’t set them back in their tuition.
“With the footwear industry, there’s a lot of barriers to entry,” he explains, “but with that shoe, there weren’t really too many people doing it, so we were able to make it economical and affordable and develop ourselves around it.”
Chevallard eventually bought his friends out of the company and struck out on his own, but even today, the most basic style retails for $295—right in the sweet spot where affluent customers can snap up two, three pairs at a time without blinking an eye, while aspirational shoppers can still feel they have the ability to save up.
A self-proclaimed “brand whore,” Chevallard was frustrated to find nothing in the footwear market that combined the excitement of a limited edition sneaker release with a foundation of high-end craftsmanship.
“There were the thousand-dollar Nikes that sold for astronomical amounts and then there were your Balenciagas or Tod’s or Pradas that were five, six hundred bucks, but they’re as generic as can be,” he says. “It’s the same exact shoe in every department store across the country.”
Like many style-minded millennials, “generic” is anathema to the 29-year-old. When I meet him in New York’s Soho neighborhood at Del Toro’s newly opened Mercer Street store—a glassy, loft-like shrine to shoes—he’s wearing a monogrammed shirt, embossed leather chukka boots, and a tangle of bracelets around his wrists, his curly brown hair topped by a navy fedora.
Accessories and footwear, he explains, are vital—especially for men, since they don’t have as many tools as women do to express themselves through style. In that way, as he explains it, the athletes that wear the distinctive shoes off the court—whether to the NBA Draft or on the red carpet—are like fashion evangelists to the masses, spreading the gospel “that fashion is cool and normal, and it’s something that helps you, and that’s it,” Chevallard says. “I think it’s definitely better than a lot of the traditional things that athletes might have communicated.” (Which may be why he doesn’t mind custom-making all those size 20 shoes.)
The message also seems to be getting out: Del Toro now has more than 150,000 Instagram followers, plus an official brand ambassador in the Dallas Mavericks, Chandler Parsons.
“I think there’s a lot of individuals like me in their twenties, where maybe they grew up wearing nice things, wearing traditional things that their parents may have bought them, but now want something with a little more character and substance,” he says. “Us being a smaller company, we can still maintain the integrity and craftsmanship that a lot of our neighbors in this neighborhood—whether it’s a Brunello [Cucinelli] or a Versace or a Balenciaga—that they might have, and at the same time I think we can offer a lot more substance and a lot more value.”
As much as Del Toro has grown since that first velvet slipper, it’s still a lean operation, with only about 20 employees in the U.S. So, in between emailing, Instagramming, and interviews, Chevallard spends most of his day thinking about the bottom line.
“Obviously there is a creative part—that’s what we do, that’s what we’re about—but the business side of things, especially being independent and self-sustainable—we don’t have a fund, we don’t have investors, we’re really bare-boned—we always have to figure out how to continue operating and surviving. That’s always the number one priority.”
Running a bootstrapped operation is never an easy job, but Chevallard seems more than up for it, and at least in this case we can rest assured the bootstraps are made of hand-tooled Italian leather.
Photo credit: Lauren Kallen