Sometimes mother really does know best. Sitting at The Room’s new space in the Bay Vancouver, Brian Atwood repeatedly credits his success to a supportive family. Both of them. There’s his “Italian family,” as he fondly refers to the famous Versace clan, and his always immaculate mother, Dusty Stemer, an avid shoe collector in his hometown of Chicago who acts as his muse. It was at her insistence that Atwood first attended university before moving to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. By the grace of his movie-star good looks, after graduation Atwood embarked on a seven-year modelling career that landed him in Milan, exactly the right place at the right time. “One day, I just said I’m done with modelling and pounded the pavement. [Gianni] Versace called me that week. Things that don’t ever happen happened,” says Atwood, who in 1996, at the height of Versace mania, was the first American to work for the late designer. Beginning as his right-hand, Atwood was quickly given more responsibility, first designing ready-to-wear for Versus before being entrusted with footwear and accessories for the main line.
It wasn’t long before Atwood yearned for his own made-in-Italy brand. “I remember asking Donatella [what to do] because I didn’t want to leave Versace,” he says of his decision in 2001 to start a namesake label while continuing on at Versace. “She said ‘Oh my god, that’s all you wanted? I thought you wanted to quit!’” Indeed, the rare trust he built with the Versaces allowed him to carry their accessory charge until 2006, when he left to focus solely on his eponymous line. Atwood’s sexy style immediately developed a cult following. Even now, his collection consistently picks up on Gianni’s supermodel-era signatures: flamboyant embellishment, exotic fringe and gold hardware galore. Ever-increasing sales (the collection is sold in more than 100 stores worldwide, from The Room to Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford) and accolades (the CFDA Swarovski Perry Ellis Award for Accessory Design in 2003) were pivotal in cementing his place in the industry. Then came a stint as creative director for Swiss leather goods label Bally. This fall, Atwood partnered with The Jones Group Inc. for the launch of B Brian Atwood, priced from $300 to $1,200. It was so well received that it won Launch of the Year at the Footwear News Achievement Awards in November.
Atwood spends up to seven months a year in Milan to oversee production. So, what is the science behind a flawless heel? “We have trials of people running around in them in our showroom,” he says. “I need to know what they feel like on.” With this test lab mentality, Atwood uses Twitter to keep a constant dialogue with his fans. “The power is enormous. It touches so many people who aren’t in my immediate circle,” he says on his social media habits, which include red carpet twitpics of Madonna or FLARE cover star Ashley Greene, for example.
As his empire continues to grow, Atwood hints that he will soon add clothing and more accessories to the mix. But before he gets ahead of himself, he’s reminded of advice both his mother and Donatella imparted: Stay in the moment. “You can have it all and then it can be taken away, so just enjoy it.”