The global headquarters of luxury footwear
By ERLA ZWINGLE
Despite Italy’s economic struggles, “Made in Italy” is one of the most powerful phrases in international business. Of the top 75 luxury brands in the world, 23 are Italian – 30.7 percent, the largest share of any country. According to Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, “Italy’s prolific design talent and its reputation for tradition, heritage and quality underpin the cachet.” Italy is also the world’s third largest luxury market.
Shoes from the Italian peninsula were in demand for their style and quality centuries before a nation named Italy existed. “Italian taste was unknown in other parts of Europe,” Venetian historian Cesare Peris states, the implication being that while the rest of the Old World was still struggling through the iron age, the Italians, and especially the Venetians, were already eating with forks.
Paul Evans, who sells men’s shoes made in Italy, attributes the dominance of Italian shoes to a “national fixation on excellence.” On his website, he says, “While shoemakers everywhere were honing their techniques with regard to construction, it was the Italian cordwainers [who] focused just as precisely on the materials being used.”
For centuries the best Italian shoemakers have used leather from cows bred specifically for their hides. They then developed tanning processes that made the leather unusually supple, thereby improving its quality even further. “This, coupled with a millennium or two of artistry, is what led to Italy’s shoemaking expertise.”
For these reasons among others, a shopper can take it as a given that “made-to-measure” shoes, made in Italy, will be first-class. But the story of how Italy came to rule the commercial luxury-shoe market runs on a set of parallel tracks, with one rail being traditional expertise and the other being some very enterprising entrepreneurs.
There are three primary areas in Italy that specialize in the production of luxury footwear. One is San Mauro Pascoli, in Romagna between Forlì and Cesena, where 270 companies operate with around 4,000 employees. Every year, this area produces 15 million pairs of shoes, two-thirds of which are destined for export.
The second are the areas of Fermo and Macerata, in the Marches, where over 3,300 companies work, accounting for approximately 24,000 jobs. The largest section of their products is aimed at the medium-high sector of market, above all for women, and about 20% is specifically aimed at the luxury footwear market.
The third is the “Riviera del Brenta” in the Veneto, the 100-square-mile area surrounding the Brenta canal that flows from Padua to Venice. The small towns here–Fiesso d’Artico, Fossò, Vigonovo, Vigonza, Noventa Padovana, Saonara–dotting the 25-mile (41 km) stretch of river have made this area, small as it is, the world leader in the production of high-end luxury footwear for men and women. Almost all of the designer-label footwear on the market is designed, made, and marketed here.
THE POWER OF THE BRENTA
In 2013, the Brenta contained 88 footwear factories, 209 manufacturers of footwear components, 31 designers, and 24 commercial firms employing more than 10,000 workers, making some 20,000,000 pairs of shoes per year.
One reason for this primacy is the skill born of centuries of Venetian experience. Until the end of the Austrian domination of the Veneto in 1866, most of the wealthy patrician families of Venice maintained country estates along the Brenta River, where they would spend the summer months in villas that are treasures of 17th- and 18th-century architecture. And the Venetian calegheri, or shoemakers, would follow them. The shoemaking tradition here dates back to 1200, with the founding of the confraternity of the Venetian “Calegheri”, and the association of the Brenta master shoemakers still uses the ancient seal of the Venetian Calegheri Guild.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, Venetian tanners had long since left a city that is centered in a brackish lagoon and moved ashore for the Brenta’s River’s fresh water, an abundance of which was needed for their craft. Though slightly further afield, but still in the Veneto, are the cities of Verona and Vicenza, where the air is still ripe with the stench of the many tanneries at work. Clients, raw material, and craftsmen all on the same patch of land—a solid foundation for future success.
It is often asserted that the patrician families came to these villas to escape the summer heat of Venice. This has always puzzled me, because summer in the flat countryside that stretches outward toward Verona and Bologna can be even more suffocating, and swarming with mosquitoes at night.
Whatever the reason, the Venetians didn’t come to the country just to enjoy a change of scenery. Even here the patrician families were engaged in making money — in this case, from their crops. They brought tobacco from Turkey and planted it in the plain where it was humid. They brought hemp from the Black Sea. There were grapes, olives, corn, and the “rice of Padua,” usually sold as “Vialone nano.” Visitors today can feast, much as they did, on duck and guinea-fowl, the prosciutto of Montagnana, and five different kinds of radicchio. A hectare of Venetian land produced three times what a hectare produced anywhere else in Europe. You can see that they didn’t deprive themselves of luxury even if they were out in the fields. And because luxury also meant shoes, even in the summer, the Venetian cordwainers would travel to the villas and stay for days—making, or repairing, shoes for the entire family.
Another reason for the flowering of the Brenta’s shoe industry is industrial. After Venice was freed from the Austrian occupation (1814-1866), the city’s economy faced collapse. No more wealthy aristocrats, very little trade, and its hinterland, as a result, suffered its own crises. Many of the heirs of the calegheri stayed in the Brenta area and managed to survive by doing piecework, usually from their homes. But they were skilled and they had taste, the distinguishing marks of Italian shoemakers today. Some of them had also inherited the Venetian genius for business.
HOW AN ITALIAN BEAT THE YANKS
Then, in the 1880s, the United States began manufacturing footwear, using technology it had been developing for around 20 years. Innovations in production comprised lasting (shaping wooden shoe forms), cutting, sewing, beading, and sizing footwear. This meant that sturdy, fashionable, fitted footwear could be produced for a fraction of the cost of its custom-made counterpart.
In 1896, Giovanni Luigi Voltan, the son of a shoemaker from Stra, went to America, where he spent two years working in a shoe factory in Boston. When he returned to Stra, he founded the Luigi Voltan Shoe Company. His was the first completely mechanized shoe factory in Italy, and it used American and German machinery. At first he made inexpensive shoes, amphibious shoes (today also called “water shoes”) for the military, and boxing gloves. By 1904 he employed 400 to 500 workers, some of them seasonally, who produced the then-spectacular number of 1,000 shoes a day. For the shoemakers of the Brenta area, the choice was clear: Work for him, or go back to farming.
As one would expect, the mechanization of some phases of the cycle allowed Voltan to cut costs, which lowered prices. He then created his own retail sales network, which allowed him to sell directly to consumers and thus undercut his English and American competitors. By 1914 he had opened shops throughout Italy. And by the end of World War II, Italy was near the top of the world market, producing more shoes than all the other European countries combined, particularly luxury shoes. Here was the fruit of grafting the Italian history of workmanship to the twin branches of advanced technology and materials of the highest quality. The word “traditional,” which had always carried a negative, subsistence-level connotation, was gaining new meaning as the epitome of quality, and the Voltan Shoe Company had become one of Italy’s most symbols of this ethic. The company is now run by the founder’s great-grandsons.
Today, 95% of the Brenta production is concentrated in the sector of women’s luxury footwear, including shoe factories, manufacturers of accessories, footwear components, pattern-makers, and sales agents. Exports account for approximately 90% of the overall turnover, particularly in the German, French and U.S. markets. Moreover, a large amount of work is carried out under license for major brands, such as LVMH, Armani, and Gucci. So now you know where a lot of those gorgeous items come from.
If you ever visit the Brenta, you may be surprised by how many buildings you see that are as imposing as Venetian palaces. with frescoes by the great Venetian painters and surrounded by marvelous gardens. Many of these villas, from the relatively small (Villa Foscarini Rossi at Stra, which now houses a museum of shoes) to the relatively colossal (Villa Pisani at Stra), are open to the public. The exquisite Villa Foscari, nicknamed the “Malcontenta,” designed by Palladio in the style of a Greek temple, is a small jewel set on the lushest greensward.
Some of these now house boutique hotels and are the perfect settings for elegant weddings, wedding receptions, and honeymoons. Some Michelin-starred restaurants are well within reach (“Nalin,” in Mira, one star; “Le Calandre,” in Sarmeola di Rubano near Padua, three stars). The romance of Venice still flourishes in what were essentially big farmhouses, with stables and barns, and they constitute a patrimony of art, architecture, and culture which would be hard to surpass for both quality and quantity.