Behind Den Ly’s Pikolinos win: Good design. Good business acumen. Triumph over tragedy.

Den Ly

Seems simple enough. Talented BFA senior from Accessories Design sees contest opportunity. Submits a nice entry. Wins the top prize last fall for his beautiful sandal design, in a contest sponsored by Pikolinos.

Spain-based Pikolinos, one of Europe’s top brands, offers affordable luxury in the $150-$200 range. The company is known for its solid craftsmanship with shoes for men and women. It has a long history in Europe and is starting to get a devoted American following.

“Everything they do is very sustainable and with thoughts about the environment,” says Den Ly, 37. “That appealed to me because when you look at their stuff it looks like products of a tannery. You would think that must be toxic but Pikolinos uses mostly vegetable-based chemicals.”

Den Ly presenting his Pikolinos designs to the judges. Photo: Teresa Miranda

The competition was to make a summer/fall sandal. But the story is not just about stitching and lacing. Den Ly’s win includes uncommon business acumen and an unmatched life history marked by triumph over tragedy.

Pikolinos is Den Ly’s latest award. Others he’s won include a Two Ten footwear scholarship, an award from the Accessories Council for his AAS exhibit, plus two second-place awards for footwear and belts. “I enter as many footwear competitions as I can to pay for school supplies and expenses,” he says.

Den Ly

“I do all types of footwear but mostly menswear and hybrids. This was different because it was for women and meant to be a luxury sandal,” he said. There were 13 who entered for three cash prizes with the top winner getting a two week internship.

Thus, said Den Ly, it was like going on a job interview. So Den Ly, a Cambodian who came to the US as a child refugee, tried to learn a paragraph in Spanish. He said the Pikolinos representatives responded by saying “I’m glad you respected our culture.”

Den Ly’s 2015 collection and award

Pikolinos, he noted, wants to build on its heritage but bring a new atmosphere. To prepare for his contest presentation, Den Ly looked at pictures of Pikolino’s model on Google and judged her supposed lifestyle – “a luxury vibe,” he says, “but approachable.”

“Den Ly’s design displayed a modern take, and yet kept the brand’s artistic vision making it a perfect addition to our SS2018 collection,” said  Pikolinos Group President Juanma Perán.

Den Ly’s sneaker collection for a performance footwear sketching class

Den Ly says he wants to be a creative director of footwear. He hopes to direct a brand and eventually to create one of his own.

That’s quite a life change, and the change involves quite a story.

Not long ago, Den Ly was living in Cambodia teaching mixed martial arts for a living after an injury in Florida cut short his promising MMA career (11 wins, 2 losses and 6 KOs).

Den Ly’s shoe design for a private client used for Two Ten scholarship entry

He credits his pet monkey, Gizmo (from the popular 80s movie Gremlins) for the career change. “I had him strapped on my back so he wasn’t scared riding on my moped. I had unstrapped him to get a bite to eat and get something for him. He ran off into a coffee shop.”

When Den Ly found him, he had latched onto the hand of a beautiful barista, a young woman whose background was French and Vietnamese. “She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.”

Her response? “You have to watch your pet. You have to take him outside.”

Den Ly hiking in Cambodia where he worked as a mixed martial arts instructor

Den Ly says he believes Gizmo had knowingly played matchmaker. “He had a smirk.” Den Ly had grown up in a Cambodian refugee camp, but after years in Florida, boxing and working in construction, he was no longer fluent in Cambodian. “I spent months going to the coffee shop before I asked her out. She would not date me until I met her grandparents got their approval.” 

Gizmo, the matchmaker

Finally an introduction was arranged. “We go into this shop that was full of bespoke shoes. Her grandmother hands me a broom. ‘If you’re going to follow my grand daughter around like a puppy, make yourself useful,’ she said.”

“They started helping me learn to make shoes. I would come every other day. I quit teaching martial arts. Cambodia is an inexpensive place to live. It’s a landlocked Hawaii. Hawaii with landmines.”

Den Ly was there for two years but left after a tragic accident. “She gave me a bigger reason to do shoes,” he says about the woman he had grown close to.

Den Ly’s design for a nontraditional footwear class project that combines inspiration from the Natural Museum of History and an iconic shoe (Doc Martins with Dino scales)

Den Ly had barely graduated high school. In Florida he had focused on surfing and music. “I picked up odd jobs doing construction. I was good at it because I was always good at math and had brute strength.”

What he didn’t have was the academic history to prove he could handle FIT.  So the first step was to spend two years at SUNY’s Hudson Valley Community College to get his grades up and get core classes out of the way. With his perfect 4.0 GPA, FIT beckoned.

Den Ly

Den Ly is still couch-surfing, saving as much as he can. Excuse the pun, but it does indeed look like the shoe FITs.  “That’s perfect. I’m a lovable, practical joker, a helpless romantic, corny guy at heart,” says Den Ly.

“Den has such a courageous and inspiring story,” says Juanma Peran, President of Pikolinos. “We’re so happy to be part of his journey.” 

Photos of Den Ly with shoe designs by Rachel Ellner

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