Sunday 7th April

| BY 10Magazine



It can hardly have escaped your attention that Nike is about more than just a running shoe, but if it has next time you are pounding the pavements and feeling all sweaty and exhausted, remember it’s for art’s sake as well, which should make it all the more worthwhile.

He looks like a God. He has a full, grizzly beard and is very tall. Even his name starts with a G. But Giorgio de Mitri, creative consultant to Nike (retail god of speed, winged victory, buzzy trainers and anyone who fancies a bit of a laugh on a half-pipe), is humble and wishes to remain anonymous. In fact, he declined to be photographed in full-face-tagging recognition for this feature. Privacy is paramount. We spoke on Skype, only fleetingly connecting on camera.

De Mitri is the underground Sir Jony Ive of sneakers’ Mount Olympus, if you like. Through his role at Nike via Sartoria Comunicazione, his highly respected creative company based in Modena, he has become deeply influential – and he knows a thing or two about Brazil.

Since he first started visiting the country more than 10 years ago he has come to appreciate that it’s a land of deep soul, a people with great spirit and incredible artistic talent – a magnificent mix that continually inspires him. “I consider myself in some ways a brand custodian and in some ways a facilitator,” says de Mitri. “I am between what the company wants to be represented as and what the artist wants to represent. It’s a beautiful job. I get to work with a great company like Nike, where innovation and sustainability are the key to growth, and with artists like Ernesto Neto, who are in the quest and search for their own expression of art. It’s a beautiful position, you get the best from both – it’s a privilege.”

Most recently he has been working on the Nike Flyknit Collective project in Rio de Janeiro with Neto, who is one of Brazil’s leading artists and renowned for his giant, abstract, soft-form sculptures. For the exhibition, Neto created a huge “airborne” snake, entitled ObichoSusPensoNaPaisaGen, which translates as The Snake Suspended in the Landscape. The gargantuan Bicho was made from the crocheted equivalent of a high-performance fibre that the Flyknit Racer running shoe is knitted from. Neto’s work, like Nike’s, is all about interaction, and so the otherworldly Bicho was suspended above the viewers at the decommissioned Leopoldina Station, a site specifically chosen by the artist for its accessibility for the public, who could interact with parts of it and climb inside, all simply for fun.

“Brazilians are very mellow people, they love to work. The artists are very meticulous, very professional, and they love what they do,” says de Mitri, who describes choosing and formulating which artists to work with, “as a series of signals, I call it pattern recognition. I am never alone on this trip, this adventure, I am always surrounded by other creative people we discuss we compare our results”.

De Mitri was introduced to Neto by Neville Wakefield, a connoisseur of Brazilian art. Through Neto he got to meet Mari Stockler, the multitalented photographer/producer who was instrumental in putting the Neto exhibition together. Stockler is married to Carlito Carvalhosa, another prominent and respected Brazilian artist. “We met through a series of coincidences – I would call it serendipity,” says de Mitri. “I think if you give your good side to people, I think you are going to get better than good. It’s a beautiful process, human life, and I think all the people putting together such a beautiful installation are all people that I love to work with.”

Flyknit was the perfect comms/art collaboration, bestowing artistic credibility and cutting-edge thinking all over the behemoth brand; the kind of go-faster, forward-thinking, wow-factor stuff that corporate dreams are made of but few execute so spectacularly. De Mitri’s next project in Brazil is at the non-disclosure stage, although he is already involved in the 2016 Olympic Games and will be there right up until they open – then they move straight on to the next ones. “[This] is the top of the pyramid, as Kandinsky would say,” he muses.

De Mitri’s work with Nike is ongoing: it started 16 years ago and he says he thrives on the exchange of opinion they have, from the top of that pyramid and the CEO to the product testers and to the greeters at an installation venue.

As a creative consultant, de Mitri is always tuned in to the pattern recognition he talks about; he is immersed in culture and he has recently discovered “a bunch of new kids” in Brazil, including the video director Gabriel Mendez. “I’ve been discovering other Brazilian artists, too, but I’m also having a good time with established artists like Vik Muniz and Adriana Varejão and, through music, Gilles Peterson, a music producer, and with Fernando Meirelles, a film producer. These projects are yet unwritten,” he says, but with the depth and calibre of such artists the project potential is mind-blowing.

“I frankly only to respond to things that give me emotion,” he explains. “What you see is what you are. So, for me, being in Brazil or Japan or Iceland or Italy, which is a country that I belong to, it’s the people that make a difference, and in every country I have the luck of being welcomed.”

He concedes that Brazil needs to work on its own fashion recognition. “They are looking too much to what everyone else is doing,” he says. “The beauty of Brazil is that on the beach everyone looks the same – you either wear a Speedo, a trunk or a bikini, but you are mostly nude, so it’s difficult. Then, afterwards, if you go to a street party or a club then you start to see a huge difference between the rich and poor – the rich go towards the classics, and the poor, very simple, they are wearing flip-flops, Havaianas.” De Mitri helped introduce Havaianas into Europe. He worked with the brand on a project together with Todd Selby and Pamela Love at 10 Corso Como, and on a smaller project with the artisan Fred Pinel for a handful of selected stores including Colette, Dover Street Market and 10 Corso Como.

While de Mitri is aware of the artistic and intellectual wealth of Brazil he understands the poverty of the favelas, but simply says, “You can do beautiful things there. Although it’s a poor community in Rio, they have the best views in the world and I haven’t experienced anyone struggling to eat. Back in the day you had to be much more careful – before the repatriation of the favelas. This year we’ve been shooting there with the video director Gandja Monteiro and it’s much more mellow now – no one has ever confronted me. You see, you can do beautiful work there.” He refers also to the French street artist JR and those startling eyes so famously painted on the buildings of the favelas.

Many of the artists come from such humble backgrounds, he tells me. “The father of Vik Muniz was a waiter and when Vik became a millionaire from the sale of his art he said, ‘Father, you have to stop to be a waiter.’ But his father’s answer was, ‘I love to be a waiter.’ Not that he had become posh, but it’s just an example of how historically composite the population of Brazil is – you have people from 2,000 years ago in the Amazon and then you have the best people coming in and starting a foundation today. There are many different kinds of religion but you feel something more ancestral in Brazil – especially from the population that came from Africa.”

For all de Mitri’s appreciation and love of art he, like a few of the 200m Brazilians, loves sport – until he was 18 he played high-level football in Italy. Take note, he is left-footed and left-handed, too. Genius. His mother was something of a sporting hero in Italy and he grew up in the gym. “She was a volleyball star. It was part of my life as a kid. I was raised between art – my father was a writer and poet – and sport – my mother. So, for me to be involved [with Brazil, Nike and the Brazilian art scene] is something of a feast; it’s definitely a pleasure. When you go to Rio, to Ipanema, to Copacabana, there is sort of an endless series of people enjoying playing, and it’s so beautiful to look at. And, of course, there is this dream to become a sports star, but it’s not as deep as the root culture – the first thing kids do is play and it’s what saves their lives.”

Music, too, is a way of life there and he suggests everyone should watch the recently released documentary Tropicalia, directed by Marcelo Machado, about the bossa nova music style in the late 1960s. De Mitri has been to a samba school – “I love music” – but not yet the Carnival. He would love to go, but he doesn’t like crowds; he is a bear, he says, and “likes his own space”. And he doesn’t like to show his face because, “I don’t like to be recognised. I like people when I get to know them, not when they come to me because they know who I am. It’s very private.”

Text Alison Veness