Alexander Britto gets his kicks designing footwear

Back-to-back awards help VCUarts student leave a footprint on the fashion world.

By Leila Ugincius, VCUnews

When Alexander Britto was in high school, he figured he would go on to business school, because “that’s what you do,” he said.

But then he started thinking, was he really a general-business student? “Is that what I want to do? I don’t even know what that is, I don’t know what that looks like,” he said. “I was not feeling fully into it.”

So, instead, he took a gap year after he graduated high school in 2017.

“It was not great socially during that time period, but I was able to be fully in my work and [explore] my horizons,” he said on the Shockoe Artspeak podcast. “It just gave space for a lot of things to start flourishing.”

Like taking apart a shoe, just for kicks, and then putting it back together “really poorly.”

“I was always interested in shoes, fashion in high school,” said the Richmonder. “I deconstructed a pair of old Air Force 1’s and reassembled them with scrap fabrics. After that, I began to make Jordan 1’s after learning more about shoemaking through YouTube.”

Britto could see himself as an art student and decided to attend the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, where he majors in fashion design and minors in craft and material studies, allowing him to pursue skills with wood and metal.

“These entail designing and making furniture and jewelry in the crafts department,” Britto said. “Ultimately, both of these disciplines can intersect with fashion, and the design process is transferable.”

But while his interest in shoemaking led Britto to fashion design, most shoe projects were outside of the regular arts curriculum.

In 2021 and 2022, he won the Fashion Scholarship Fund — an open-ended case study competition that allowed him to pursue his shoemaking and designing passion. Each year, the fund publishes a prompt that is relevant to contemporary industry trends and anticipated trend shifts. Responses to that prompt include market research, original designs and marketing plans. Each year, about 120 students receive the scholarship, which also provides mentorship and professional development opportunities.

“The competition speaks to me because it allows me to focus on a niche of the industry that is currently outside of the curriculum of my studies at VCU — footwear design. In 2021, my project was an original sneaker brand where the research centered around sustainability and circular production. In 2022, I designed a collection for New Balance that responded to the casualization trend of the pandemic and sampled from the brand’s design history.”

This past semester, Britto has further been able to think about new angles for his work while traveling throughout Europe, experiencing different cultures, art galleries and architecture through the VCU Department of Fashion Design + Merchandising’s program at Accademia Italiana in Florence, Italy. The European studies have less specific prompts, which allows him to be more expansive creatively, Britto said. “There’s more pressure on you to have your own vision and execute it, and there’s less guidance.

“The switch up is refreshing and forces you to modify the way you work. I’ve also been enjoying traveling throughout Europe. It’s great creative source material.”

Additionally, Britto is working with Chris Curry, a Richmond-based streetwear designer who specializes in sashiko — Japanese embroidery — and denim repair, on a shoe that combines each of their skill sets. The pair plan a fall/winter release.

Since the start of the pandemic, Britto has also been creating collages on canvas — abstract compositions made from discarded materials and scraps from commercial design, such as packaging that is normally thrown away. He hopes to eventually bring these compositions to clothing.

“I want to keep practices alive in all the disciplines I currently work in, alongside wherever my career goes in the industry,” he said.

Lead image: Alexander Britto at FSF LIVE, the 85th Annual FSF Awards Gala, on April 11 at The Glasshouse on 12th Avenue in New York. (Photo courtesy Britto)