Phillip Nappi

When Phillip Nappi decided to move his family to Italy to learn the art of shoemaking, he did not expect to uncover a family legacy. Phillip, an accounting major from Columbus, Ohio whose first job was selling shoes, was busy pursuing his passion for footwear and learning about his Italian heritage when he discovered a history that would change his life. His grandfather Peter Nappi, whom he had never met, had emigrated to the United States a century earlier and was himself a shoemaker. Taking this as a sign, Phillip established his own premium leather footwear brand –appropriately named Peter Nappi– in his adopted city of Nashville, Tennessee, in 2011.

Looking at the shoes, it’s easy to see why the brand has become so successful. Seamlessly blending Nashville style with Italian craft, Peter Nappi shoes put quality first. The business has a personable tone that shows through every aspect of the company. Phillip’s passion for what he does truly brings to life an artisan tradition. His family is the inspiration behind the brand. It is dedicated to using Italian artisans who hand-make each product and the Nashville storefront has the philosophy: “ti voglio bene.”

Mood of Living Q&A

Mood of Living: Where did you grow up? How did that influence you?
Phillip Nappi: Mostly in Columbus, Ohio around my large Italian family. My parents were always dressed to the nines, entertaining or going to nice dinners. My father always had a smile on his face and my mother looked like Sofia Lauren. They were both my heroes. My father passed when I was 10, then my mother passed 16 months later. Every day I am grateful to have had such amazing parents, for whatever time I had them. I think losing the most important thing in your life gives you a certain level of courage. The worst has already happened – and I lived through it. I know whatever challenges I face, I’ll get past those as well.

MoL: You moved your family to Italy in order to learn the craft of shoemaking. Why did you feel this was an important step to take? 
PN: Italians are known to be some of the best shoemakers in the world, and I wanted to learn from the best. Also I’m Italian, and loved the idea of re-connecting with my roots.

MoL: What is your core mission at Peter Nappi?   
PN: We aim to champion the cultivation of personal style over a lifetime. We want our products to be experienced and enjoyed in a way that’s genuine and timeless. We want to provide the best possible product using the finest materials, made by the most skilled artisans we can find at a price that’s fair and approachable.

MoL: Do you have a style icon or certain aesthetic that inspires you in creating your products?  
PN: I’d describe our aesthetic as “peasant chic”. Understated but timeless – kind of like Axel Vervoordt in the interior design world. And I love Johnny Depp’s style.

Peter Nappi and documentation from Ellis Island that lists his occupation as shoemaker.

MoL: Speaking of inspiration, your inspiration for starting the company seems largely built around the legacy of your grandfather. How do you incorporate his work and life into your company?  
PN: What I’ve learned about my grandfather is that he was uncompromising. He never settled for second best and was know for his attention to detail. These are some of my personal traits as well, and what I feel is the foundation on which we stand. Our mission is to produce the very best product, with the very best people, at the very best price. Nothing is compromised or overlooked.

MoL: After moving to Florence to learn your craft and discovering your grandfather’s history, you moved back to Nashville to start your company. Nashville and Italy both have such vibrant cultures; however, most would say they are starkly different. How do you marry the two cultures in your products and your company? 
PN: Nashville has been our home for over 15 years and is no doubt a cornerstone of our brand. We strongly believe we would not be where we are today if we were in a different city. One of the things that makes Nashville so great is the unity of the community. People genuinely want to help one another and share in their successes. It’s a mentality of “the rising tide carries all boats”. People are often treated as an extended family; and Italians are all about family and community. In that sense we see strong similarities. We often have clients come in and share family stories of when their grandparents or great-grandparents came to America to build a better life. It’s a story that most of us have in our recent past, and a really special bond. What we’re trying to do it marry the American dream of building more for your family, with the Italian tradition of expert craftsmanship.

The Nashville store which has a stage for special events.

MoL: Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized you could really do this?
PN: We were in Italy and I was learning all I could about shoemaking. Visiting factories, working with artists, going to tanneries. I was also working on my duel-citizenship which entailed researching my family history. I never had the opportunity of knowing my grandfather, Peter Nappi, and I lost my parents when I was young, so I had very little knowledge of my ancestry.  We found the passage papers from 1904 when my grandfather came to America. You had to list your occupation – he wrote “shoemaker”.  I had no idea. Turns out he and his brother settled in Columbus, Ohio, and had a shoe business on High Street. We traced the family linage of shoemakers back to the 1800s. It was at that point that I felt it was my duty to continue my family’s tradition.

MoL: You work with leather craftsmen in Tuscany to create your products. How did you go about assembling a team and how do you ensure that everyone associated with your company stays true to the same core message?  
PN: We got really lucky honestly. We were in Italy in 2009 – basically the height of the last recession. Most luxury shoe brands were cutting down production as sales were slow. I happened to find a fantastic factory who had been making shoes for the most iconic Italian shoe brands in the industry. I can’t even believe they opened the door. I showed them my designs and they basically said “why not?” They are extremely talented and had been offering new ideas to other brands without much response. I sat down with them and we improved on what I had started. They have taught me so much since then. When I go over I spend time on the line learning from everyone I can. They are all such wonderful people.

MoL: Something that differentiates your company from other shoemaking brands is that you genuinely see your shoes and accessories as more than just fashion in the utilitarian sense. How do you convey the passion you feel for your craft into each of your products?
PN: All our original footwear and goods are handmade in Italy with premium leathers and textiles, bringing an element of understated luxury to everyday staples. Fusing Italian craftsmanship with American individualism, we champion the cultivation of authentic personal style over a lifetime. We want our products to be lived in and loved for life. We design our pieces to stand the test of time, aging beautifully with wear and use.

The shoemaking process at the factory in Italy.

MoL: You sometimes have musicians perform in your Nashville store. How do they interact with your products and your brand, and why did you choose to incorporate performances into your store?
We have events pretty frequently – every six weeks or so. Whether we’re celebrating a holiday or a new line’s launch, we always try to incorporate music. It’s definitely a passion point of our brand and honestly we’re in the best city in the world for music!  From fantastic artists to producers, Nashville is home to a huge music community.  We’ve been lucky to meet several incredibly talented people who have turned out to be very supportive of the brand.  We’re a bit of a “destination” shopping location so these events allow us to invite people to a place that’s out of their typical routine.  An evening of great music and beautifully crafted leather goods in this special space really makes a great experience for our clients.

MoL: Passion and family are two factors at the root of your company; however, growing a business often runs the risk of commercialized, impersonal products. How do you combat this? 
PN: There are so many pressures in running a business. Of course you want to serve your clients, you want to give them more, and at a better price so you can grow. But you also need to run a viable business. Cutting corners by using mass production techniques, inferior components and cheaper labor are obvious ways to alleviate much of this pressure. But when you have your name inscribed in the label, there’s a sense of responsibility that goes with it. The product is a representation of you and your family. My wife works alongside me as my partner. Our daughters are involved as well. This is not just a profit and loss statement – it’s our family. We are working hard to grow responsibly, by slowly building volume and closely overseeing production. There is no “get big quick” formula. You find small ways to grow every day and take one step at a time. Keeping your eyes on your family provides a solid foundation.

MoL: As a business owner, what are some of your day-to-day challenges? How do you overcome obstacles in pursuit of your goals? 
PN: I’d say distractions are our biggest challenge. Almost daily we’re approached with “opportunities” – which although we are grateful for, most often turn out to be situations that take us away from our core focus. The reality is there is no “average” day. We used to feel like we had to say yes to every opportunity to be successful. That simply isn’t true. You have to stay focused on what you want to accomplish and listen to your gut. If an opportunity doesn’t feel right, don’t waste time on it. If we could lock ourselves in our office with no distractions, this would be a piece of cake.

MoL: In that same vein, what are the rewards and challenges of having a family-run business?
There were more challenges at first.  Now, after eight years, my wife and I have more defined roles which helps. We both have the same “what’s best for the brand” mindset. There’s no pride or personal agenda – we have to choose to put the brand’s best interest above anything else. We’ve invested the majority of our married lives in this, not to mention our personal finances. It’s simply part of our family that we are dedicated to caring for.

MoL: You use the tagline “ti voglio bene” to connect the company to the product and the product to the wearer. Can you talk a little about the inspiration behind choosing this to be your brand’s philosophy and what it means to you? 
PN: My wife and I were married at Our Lady of Pompeii in New York’s West Village by an Italian priest. In the time we spent together with the priest beforehand, we often discussed the meaning of love. This turned into a conversation about the difference between “t’amo”, which is the commonly understood Italian translation of “I love you,” and “ti voglio bene”, which implies unconditional, selfless love and literally means “I want you to be well.” Italians often use the abbreviation ‘TVB’ as a salutation. It’s what they say to friends and family, to parents and children and neighbors, to those who mean the most to them. “Ti voglio bene” has since become the cornerstone of the Peter Nappi brand philosophy. It’s the spirit we aspire to embody in every aspect of our business, from the goods we produce to the relationships we build.

MoL: How does your company interact with and support your local community?  
PN: Tithing is part of our lives and we strongly believe we are called to be responsible stewards with the gifts we are given. We work with The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee as well as our church to connect to those in need. We also have events periodically that tie in a charitable component. Part of proceeds go back to a variety of organizations we work with.

MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things are more likely to lead an artistic lifestyle. Do you spend much time creating a beautiful home? Do you cook?
I do love to cook and find it very relaxing. Growing up Italian we were always surrounded by great food and family. I was lucky to learn a lot from my family and inherited several great recipes. Cooking allows you to create a memorable experience and experiment with new techniques. You take a part of what you learned and add a bit of yourself into it.

There’s a story told that Peter Nappi was a pretty fantastic cook, well known for his red sauce. Apparently he was approached in the 20s by a company that wanted to take his sauce and put it in cans to sell in grocery stores. Well, he couldn’t imagine his sauce being made in factories, by strangers, and put into cans so he turned them down. Story goes they found someone else – Hector Boiardi (later better know as Chef Boyardee). Who knows if the story is true, but I have the recipe and it is darn good sauce.

MoL: Do you have a philosophy for living positively and meaningfully?
I love to read and try to incorporate others’ wise philosophies. One of my favorites is The Tough Minded Optimist by Norman Vincent Peale. Another book I love is A Days Journey by Jon Courson.

MoL: How would you define quality of life?
Doing what you love, giving it 100% and spending time with your family. You can’t ask for a more bountiful life if you can balance those three factors.

MoL: Where do you go for peace and mind and spirit?
Malibu, CA. I have family that has been there for over 50 years and can remember visiting since I was little. My aunt and uncle’s place in Malibu was always where I went to get a clear perspective, to recharge, and to be inspired.  My sister and brother-in-law live just south of there and they always inspire me and make sure my path is centered.

MoL: Do you have a favourite quote you can share?
“Living well is the best revenge.” – George Herbert

MoL: What advice can you give anyone interested in starting his or her own business?
Read. Learn. Surround yourself with smart people who want you to succeed. And never, ever, ever give up.

MoL: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
If you would have asked me that 10 years ago, I would never have pictured where I am now!  And that’s a great thing. Sometimes if we are too focused on a plan or destination, we miss opportunities that could lead us to a far better place. I know this type of thinking drives my wife nuts, but you have to be open to new ideas at all times. Our goal is to make Peter Nappi synonymous with high quality, timeless footwear. That’s our focus today and for our future.

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Photography courtesy of Peter Nappi.