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The Soul of the Italian Shoe

The Soul of the Italian Shoe

Published: September 17, 2015
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In Venice, Italy, a city built for endless walking, a determined young woman named Daniela Ghezzo has mastered the rare art of simultaneously beautifying and comforting the human foot.

Story and photography by ERLA ZWINGLE

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Daniela Ghezzo--master shoemaker--doesn't mind washing the windows on her shop, the Atelier Segalin. ''Usually I think when I'm cleaning,'' she says.

“Maledette scarpe! said Daniela Ghezzo, to the unruly materials in her hands. “Damned shoes!” And you can’t blame her. Every artisan who has ever lived has occasionally sworn at the thing he’s making, and Daniela, master Venetian shoemaker, certainly deserves her moments of frustration. Materials are never born to be used in all the ways that artisans manipulate them. And shoes—the one piece of our attire that is made from something that was once alive, yet is now asked to withstand years of punishing abuse—seem to pose special challenges.

Shoes have captivated us for a very long time. The walls of Spanish caves show figures with feet in furry bags painted in 8,000 BC. A frieze in the tomb of Rekhmire, governor of Thebes (c. 1479 BC), shows a shoemaker in the company of shipbuilders, goldsmiths, scribes and sculptors. Even Plato waxed poetical about shoemakers.

Daniela not only understands this quandary, she seems particularly well suited to overcome it. She is what’s called a cordwainer, a shoe artisan who does it all from scratch, creating shoes that are made-to-measure, entirely constructed by hand, and custom fitted. Now on the cusp of 40, Daniela began to learn her craft half her lifetime ago from the late Rolando Segalin (seh-gah-LEEN), a cranky, eccentric master who was known for his often-flamboyant creations, which occasionally (a shoe shaped like a gondola, for example) were scarcely wearable.

She came to work at the Atelier Segalin in 1995, right out of high school. In a shop, and a profession, dominated by men she nonetheless persisted for seven grueling years. When Segalin finally retired, in 2001, Daniela was only 25 years old. Yet he offered her the shop; she immediately got a loan and bought it. Nonetheless, she still answers the phone “Segalin,” because she also bought his name. “If an artisan leaves his name to someone,” she says, “it means he has confidence in them.”

Shoe fantasies, made real(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

Daniela not only kept the name, she kept all the tools and the laborious traditional techniques, but Segalin’s flamboyant style soon disappeared. In its place, shoes of a classic elegance began to appear—diabolically simple, impeccably constructed. The women’s shoes might have touches of decoration, but most often the accents are mere whiffs—a neatly twisted bow, or some pink lining folded outward to peek over the top of a gray boot. The shoes for men, on the other hand, are textbook examples of style through simplicity. When you see a pair, if you are capable of detecting any of the myriad minute details she has learned from masters who were three generations her senior—the immaculate seam across the back of an oxford, the proportion of a shoe’s “throat,” or the infinitesimal difference between the inner and outer edge of the heel—you can probably guess they are hers. She takes her mania for infinitesimal perfections so seriously she jokingly calls it her “sickness.” (For a real treat, look at what her “sickness” has produced—in our photo gallery, “Shoe fantasies made real.”)

“When I started here I wanted to become the best shoemaker in the world,” she told me. The best in the world? She smiled slightly. “What a dimwit.”

DARK HISTORIES

From all indications, shoes have always held a major place in our consciousness. The walls of Spanish caves show figures with feet in furry bags painted in 8,000 BC.; a frieze in the tomb of Rekhmire, governor of Thebes (c. 1479 BC), shows a shoemaker in the company of shipbuilders, goldsmiths, scribes and sculptors. Shoes even inspired Plato to simile when, in the Symposium, he described the creation of man. When Zeus “spoke and cut men in two,” he wrote, “Apollo was bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he… pulled the skin… and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last.”

More recently, when mass production made shoes widely available, and at a reasonable cost, footwear began to express status. (For more about its evolution, read our sidebar.) And now people, especially women, love shoes with a passion that everyone recognizes but no one can fully explain.

When Net-a-porter’s sale site, The Outnet, hosts a Christian Louboutin flash sale, a pair of shoes is sold every nine seconds until they’re all gone. These shoes cost at least $500, yet “It’s the fastest shopping we see,” says the site’s director, Stephanie Phair. “Women really do sit on their computers and have insane trigger fingers when it comes to shoes.” It’s not just designer shoes. Women’s shoes account for 60 percent of the $40 billion worth of shoes sold in the U.S. each year, and many are impractical and uncomfortable. Yet women don’t seem to care. “I love shoes, desire and lust after them,” wrote professional counselor Alyssa Siegel. “Sometimes when I think about the things I would scramble to grab if my house were on fire, I think about my shoes.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

From the Ponte dei Fuseri, the Atelier Segalin is the second shop on the right, just after the socks and underwear.

So when Daniela makes a shoe, she is something of a wizard practicing a strange form of sorcery. The prospect of spending $2,000 for a chair might seem logical, but the same price attached to a pair of shoes seems to lose its meaning. Perhaps the chair selection belongs to the brain’s left side, while shoes belong to the right hemisphere, where music, fantasy, and feelings dwell—because a woman who sees a shoe she wants will always find a way to justify buying it. How did one woman, in an article in The New Yorker, explain an expensive transaction on her husband’s credit card statement? “I told him that Christian Louboutin was my gynecologist.”

THE WORKSHOP

“I love shoes, desire and lust after them,” wrote professional counselor Alyssa Siegel. “Sometimes when I think about the things I would scramble to grab if my house were on fire, I think about my shoes.” How did one woman explain an expensive transaction on her husband’s credit card statement? “I told him that Christian Louboutin was my gynecologist.”

The Atelier Segalin is at 4365 Calle dei Fuseri (the “street of the spindle-makers”). It is just one of the myriad narrow streets which, woven together, make up the tissue of Venice. Happily for Daniela, it enjoys a perfect position halfway between the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge, the city’s two primary tourist attractions. This means the street is always full of people, many of whom pause to look in the windows. Some always come in, a few become clients.

To reach the shop from the western end of the piazza is a mere five-minute walk, if there’s no traffic (by which I mean crowds). Walk up the Frezzeria, an ancient street that is only about 400 feet long and a mere seven feet wide. (This is actually an average dimension for Venetian streets, although some are even shorter and narrower, a feature that can leave them in shade all day long.) Turn right onto another, the Ramo dei Fuseri, and over the Ponte dei Fuseri, one of many bridges under which gondolas will be continually gliding, laden with tourists. The shop is the second door on your right.

Everyone has seen images of Venice’s palaces and canals—the Byzantine flourishes and arched window-frames, the gleaming water washing doorsteps and even windows. From many angles, the city looks like something that was imagined by strange titanic beings but which could never exist in the world we now call normal. Elaborate windows and little boutique balconies decorate many palaces, giving glimpses of luxury and splendor inside, even though many of those interiors have now been translated into the modern, often austere, language of style and are no longer the dwellings of outrageous aristocrats. Their ornate reflections in the water, dark at dawn or bright at sunset, give a glamour to these centuries’-old buildings that defies time.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Looking out toward the street, her shoes seem to be sitting in a theater, waiting for the show to begin.

But at street level the city gets to work, and the glamour is replaced by a seemingly inexhaustible succession of businesses: restaurants, bars, gelaterias, shops selling lingerie, clothes, leather goods. There are also innumerable shops glistening with glass, much of it from the world-famous artisans of Murano (although plenty of it isn’t), as well as fanciful masks destined for Venice’s celebrated Carnival. What’s most striking is not how similar many of these meandering streets are to each other (“Honey, didn’t we already go down this street?”….), but how much they resemble the canals: sinuous, slender, passing the occasional dark archway or what appears to be a blind alley. It is a small, dense city, made for walking slowly and making discoveries, and very easily concealing, so it seems, the way back to where you started.

In the great old days, when Venice was an independent republic that dominated much of the Eastern Mediterranean, some noteworthy event occasionally would bring the Calle dei Fuseri some attention. Judicial records from November, 1440, report that there was a house by the bridge of the Fuseri to which a certain Orsa Cantarella brought her pre-pubescent daughter to be deflowered by Antonio Filacanevo. For this he was flogged, imprisoned for six months, and required to pay a fine of 100 lire to the victim. A squalid story, but you have to respect a woman who can get money for selling her daughter’s virginity and then get more because the girl was damaged. Perhaps she was the one who turned him in—the Venetians weren’t some of the world’s greatest businessmen by accident.

The mere name of Venice still conjures that aura of opulence, and Daniela’s dexterity with expensive skins, and her awareness of how to express their innate elegance, must owe something to a city made of masterpieces of art and architecture. “In Venice there is the habit of beauty,” she says. “You breathe the art in Venice.”

There is no sign outside the Atelier Segalin (not unusual), not even the house number (a little unusual). But the street is fairly short, and when you walk over the bridge it’s the second door on the right adjoining a shop that once was also part of Rolando Segalin’s atelier but which now sells socks and tights and underwear. There’s no need for signs or numbers, anyway—the two spacious windows displaying an array of shoes of delicate imagination and obvious quality make it clear that you have arrived.

Just inside the door, left open in the summer heat, a piece of beige suede strung on a slender strip of leather bars the entrance to the shop; Daniela has carefully written “Per favore suonare il campanello per entrare” (Please ring the bell to enter). The bell in question is hanging from the suede, and it makes the most twinkling, Tinker Bell sort of sound. At which point a woman’s voice, pleasant if somewhat high-pitched, tells me to come in, so I duck below the symbolic barrier as she comes out through the narrow interior door that leads to the workshop.

Daniela—tall, slender, often with a smile that springs as much from lively attention as from good humor—gives the impression that it’s a pleasure to be interrupted by a stranger with a batch of questions. For someone whose work is basically solitary, she has a particular charisma—part calm and part energy—which tends to draw people in, and entice them to linger. I’m sure I overstayed my welcome several times.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Several shoes she displays are intentionally left unfinished, in order to demonstrate to inquisitive visitors some aspect of the work. The classic inner sole is cork, the outer sole leather. She has never put a rubber sole on a shoe, though she has occasionally conceded the use of velcro for a diabetic client (to make the pressure on the straps more adjustable).

I dimly recall visiting Segalin’s shop some 20 years ago, when he was still there; I don’t recall it being so chic. Daniela has obviously re-thought everything, because my memory of the place isn’t anything like this. The floors and walls of the modest showroom are now black; this can be a hostile color, but here it seems the perfect shade to emphasize the rich colors of the shoes. The light from the street, and from hidden sources around the edge of the ceiling, warm the dark walls, and a few reading lamps add a soothing, sitting-room vibe. Old wooden lasts—the form created of each client’s foot, around which the shoe is constructed—hang in festoons above the shoes in the window, like chrysalises from which the lustrous creatures of leather have emerged. Between the lighting and the quiet luxe of the shoes, there is something velvety about the shop’s atmosphere. “No rush,” is the message, so you don’t.

The workshop, visible through a central doorway, is even smaller, glaring with light and crammed with spools of thread, rolls of leather of myriad types and colors, boxes and tools and leftover bits of every other thing. Strange, that work of such precision can spring from this primordial chaos. Daniela must have noticed my perplexity. “You can’t do this work and be organized,” she said nonchalantly as she rummaged for something on the desk. “I’ve always seen workshops in this condition. Always.”

26 BONES, 33 JOINTS

A little girl is drawing shoes. She will go on to study art and painting, have a few exhibitions, and even give some thought to art as a career. Artists are obviously keen observers, deeply attuned to the visual world. Daniela Ghezzo, born in Venice in 1975, saw shoes.

Like any little girl, she looked first at her own, the more extravagant, the better. But unlike most children, she also saw feet, and what she saw changed her ideas about shoes. “My father’s brother had polio,” she says, “and my own brother was born with a lack of Vitamin E.” It turned out that he had a genetic deficiency that causes muscle weakness in the legs, loss of coordination, progressive staggering or stumbling, and frequent falling. “I have a sensitivity to feet because I grew up with people with abnormal feet,” she said. “It made me more attentive to the way people walk.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

The “vamps” for a pair of white boots await the moment of being stretched onto the last, and then soled.

An average person might have responded to this experience by wanting to design orthopedic footwear; the observing artist wanted to make a shoe that was both comfortable and gorgeous. For unlike many shoe designers, Daniela has never believed that beauty and comfort have to be at war.

“The beauty of my shoes is in their functionality,” she once told me. “They don’t need ornaments to have style. For me, harmony is everything. To make an object of style, classic, that has characteristics of elegance and charm, is much harder than to make pagliacciate.” (A pagliacciata is something done by a pagliaccio, or clown.) To illustrate her point, she took down a classic woman’s pump and said, “I don’t do many copies of shoes, but I did this one because it’s an intelligent shoe.”

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

A few of a cordwainer’s raw materials: “pelle” (Italian for skin), bits of lining to go inside a shoe; and a collection of chamois in assorted colors.

And what would be an unintelligent shoe? “A shoe that doesn’t have respect for the foot,” she replied. “You could make it, but you couldn’t wear it. I don’t like games with shoes. It has to be a serious thing. Rolando liked to play games with shoes.” True enough, his shop window almost always contained something startling; I remember seeing a shoe shaped like a foot, toenails and all, the color of dried blood. “It’s easy to do pagliacciate if you’re a master,” she said, with a shrug. “But it’s really hard with only a few lines to make a chic shoe.”

I mention that the currently trendy Christian Louboutin, notorious for his extreme stiletto heels, has said that he hates the whole concept of comfort. Her reply was a scornful look. “The important thing is how the foot feels. Where you really express yourself is inside the shoe.”

Not surprisingly, her favorite part of the entire shoemaking process is making the last—the form that must be shaped to perfectly match the client’s foot. “That’s where you put your own touch,” she says. It’s painstaking work, adding and subtracting material, usually pieces of leather, to the standard plastic form that comes from the factory. It requires a subtlety of sight and touch and instinct that produces what could reasonably be called sculpture.

The foot is made of 26 bones, 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated), and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. As you walk, it works as a lever and a shock absorber, joints locking and unlocking to move you forward. Forcing this masterpiece of engineering to accommodate a fancy design seems—how may I put this?—cuckoo.

To reach the shop, walk up the Frezzeria, an ancient street that is only about 400 feet long and a mere seven feet wide. Then over one of Venice’s myriad canals. Everyone has seen images of these canals—the Byzantine flourishes and arched window-frames, the gleaming water washing doorsteps and even windows. From many angles, the city looks like something that was imagined by strange titanic beings but which could never exist in the world we now call normal.

Many of today’s foot problems are caused by repetitive stress, typically the result of adapting to a shoe that isn’t right. And whatever happens to the foot will make itself felt over time—to the ankle, the knee, the hip, and the back. An American podiatrist once told New York magazine that, by age 40, about 80 percent of the American population has some musculoskeletal foot or ankle problem. By age 50 to 55, that number can rise to 90 or 95 percent.

There is a new line of reasoning that puts the blame on shoes, period; that they’ve become too protective, that the closer to barefoot we can come, the better for the entire body. Someone who typically spends a week or longer making a single pair of shoes couldn’t be expected to agree with this idea.

“Walking barefoot is fine when you’re walking on the beach, or on the savannah,” she said. “Are we walking on savannah?” Well, no, most of us are walking on an unnaturally flat, hard surface—concrete pavement. “The foot needs to be protected and supported by the shoe,” she says. Daniela readily acknowledges that people from hot climates who wear sandals have beautiful feet. But barefoot? In Daniela’s view, a shoe that’s good for the foot will be flexible, breatheable; not too tight, not too heavy.

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Clients can be demanding, but in Venice the non-clients – tourists – aren’t much better. In most locales, artisans work in relative privacy; in Venice, often he or she is working virtually in the street. Almost everyone who passes the shop window glances at the shoes, and many also stop at least for a moment. The most curious will come in, if only to ask a few questions and inhale the perfume of leather.

Daniela picked up a pair of slingback shoes with a modest wedge heel, which she had just finished. The shoe was dark blue, but the toe and the heel strap were a sumptuous red—and snakeskin, no less—anaconda, to be exact. “I made them for a woman who has polio, although she can still manage to walk,” she said with satisfaction. “The functionality is first, but having beautiful shoes makes her feel beautiful. These are people who have had to wear ugly shoes all their life. And they have to wear shoes, they can’t walk barefoot.

“People told me I shouldn’t use red, because it draws attention”—Daniela shrugged—“but this gives her a reason for joy.” The next time I was in the shop, I asked how the client had reacted to her new shoes. “She burst out crying,” Daniela said. “She kept saying ‘Che bello, che bello,’ how beautiful.”

A HABIT OF BEAUTY

Daniela is Venetian, a fact which until 1797, when the Venetian Republic fell, would have told you almost everything you needed to know about her. For a thousand years the island republic built a great part of its wealth by trading or producing goods that were either rare or of universally recognized quality, objects of international desire; some were state secrets, guarded and priced accordingly. “The Venetian product was the fruit of an enormous capacity,” explained Venetian historian Cesare Peris, “not toward big dimensions, but toward great value.”

The foot is made of 26 bones, 33 joints (20 of which are actively articulated), and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. As you walk, it works as a lever and a shock absorber, joints locking and unlocking to move you forward. Forcing this masterpiece of engineering to accommodate a fancy design seems—how may I put this?—cuckoo.

“Venetian scarlet” was a dye with a brilliance that was the envy of drapers across Europe. Murano glass could be blown to gossamer. Diamond-cutting began in Venice. In a city the size of a postage stamp there were 71 workshops devoted exclusively to stamping gold leaf onto leather to cover books, chairs, walls. Gold was everywhere: On the facades of palaces, in the glass tesserae of mosaics, on picture frames, on gondolas, embroidered on silk.

Tutte le citta’ del mondo sono di piombo/ ma Venezia e’ d’oro/ d’oro la chiesa/d’oro il palazzo dei dogi…” wrote Andrea Calmo, a Venetian poet and actor, in the mid-1500s. “All the cities of the world are of lead/ but Venice is of gold/ of gold is the church/ of gold is the palace of the doges…” (and it goes on, similarly gilding the altarpiece of San Marco, the sweetness of Venetian manners, the beauty of the women…)

The mere name of Venice still conjures that aura of opulence, and Daniela’s dexterity with expensive skins, and her awareness of how to express their innate elegance, must owe something to a city made of masterpieces of art and architecture. “In Venice there is the habit of beauty,” as she put it. “You breathe the art in Venice.”

No particular style of shoe can be identified as Venetian apart from the celebrated chopine, a platform slipper once in vogue with noblewomen that could rise so high—one source says 11 inches–that she needed to steady herself when walking by holding onto the heads of her young servants. (And while we’re on the subject of extreme height, let us not be too amazed by Louboutin’s stilettos, considering that dandified eighteenth-century Englishmen wore 6-inch, or 15 cm, heels, so high that they usually walked with canes to be able to walk at all.) Venetians are drawn to the fanciful or frivolous, however, and their cordwainers were especially talented at making shoes with feminine flair. “It’s a sweet town, a town of women,” Daniela observed, “and it was also a town full of gays. Men’s shoes were from Naples, Rome, Florence.”

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These three hammers are strictly for hammering leather—never nails, because the surface of the metal must remain perfectly smooth. (Depending on the size, nails are often hammered with the pincers.) The peen of this hammer is most often used as a sort of spatula, for smoothing as needed.

There was so much work of so many kinds in Venice that the cordwainers’ guilds were rigidly divided and controlled. Calegheri used new leather for shoes and boots; zavateri made slippers of old, used leather; patitari made pattens, or wooden soles which were attached by strips of leather to the shoes as protection from the filthy streets; socholari made zoccoli, or wooden shoes; and solari cut out leather soles which the poorer people simply tied to their stockinged feet. At its peak of power, tiny little Venice was the most populous city in Europe, and the 1773 census counted 338 capomaestri, or master shoemakers, 181 garzoni, or apprentices, 653 workers, and 340 shops.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

The I.M. Singer and Co. introduced sewing machines for clothing in 1851, and by 1856 was producing leather-sewing machines, which made cheaper shoes more plentiful. This stately old Singer foot-treadle machine, which presides over Daniela’s showroom, was made for repairing and resoling shoes. It is still perfectly functional and is called into service as needed.

WEAR AND TEAR, AND TEARS

If a Venetian shoemaker’s great advantage is an environment that is 99 per cent beauty, an even greater one is that in Venice the foot is king. The romance of the magical floating city dwells in its rippling canals and iridescent lagoon, but the reality of the former Queen of the Seas is stone streets and walking. Everyday life is a sort of industrial stress test, like they do for airplane wings and fire doors, but in this case for shoes.

Veronique Magrini, petite, chic, French, a licensed tour guide and four-year client, knows this far too well because she walks several miles a day leading tourists around. When I came into the shop one day she had just brought in a pair of cream-colored leather sandals with a two-inch heel that Daniela had recently made. They looked like they had done the Annapurna Circuit, the leather stretched and loosening, the heel beginning to go off kilter, there was a tear in the leather covering the heel, and what was most annoying, the additional piece of fine leather lining directly under her foot had begun to scrunch up and irritate the skin.

“You know how old these shoes are?” Daniela asked me, lifting the stricken pair. “Three months.”

I looked at Veronica’s bare feet: Arthritis. Knobs. Inflammation. Here was Daniela’s ideal client, someone who valued style (perhaps too much—two-inch heels for walking on trachyte blocks all day?) but whose feet had special problems. Finding a way to marry the two challenges, especially for a client who isn’t especially well-off, is almost Daniela’s favorite thing.

“I wanted something pretty but that still would work with my feet,” Veronica told me, “and Daniela was very, very, very patient. And very kind.”

Daniela picked up a pair of slingback shoes with straps of a sumptuous red—snakeskin, no less, anaconda, to be exact. “I made them for a woman who has polio,” she said. “The functionality is first, but having beautiful shoes makes her feel beautiful. On my next visit, I asked how the client liked them. “She burst out crying,” Daniela said. “She kept saying ‘Che bello, che bello,’ how beautiful.”

Like many of Daniela’s clients, Veronica discovered her just by walking past the shop. “I never had shoes made, but I thought that one day she’ll be useful, and I needed her one year later. I can’t do otherwise now, I can’t wear shoes from the store.” Of course the atelier has a website and a Facebook page, but so far there hasn’t been any need to undertake what we’d call advertising. Word of mouth seems to be working just fine.

Why not buy some real walking shoes? “Because they’re ugly,” Veronica replies. “I’m willing to spend more to be more refined. If I had to start dressing like a little old lady….”

We drift onto the subject of her family, and her father who lives alone and calls her every night and asks her to come home. Tears well up, and she chokes them back, apologizing. “I’m used to it,” Daniela said later. “You know how many people cry here? From joy, from pain, from memories…..” Emotions and shoes clearly have a deeper connection than I realized.

WHIFF OF THE BEAST

When Daniela began to work in Segalin’s shop, her diploma in art didn’t count for much; shoemakers learned from their fathers and that was enough. What she really had to start learning was patience.

The materials of course require patience. The real challenge, though, was the five men working in the shop: the cutter, the assembler, the sewer, and the repairman, plus Rolando. They were something like 50 years older than she and had been making shoes all their life. If her shoes are distinctive, in part, for their imperceptible perfections it’s because she learned really old techniques from really old men the really old way.

The Art of Alcohol | Craftsmanship Magazine, Fall 2015

Technology changes in most industries, but not much in a cordwainer’s shop. These tools, which Daniela uses regularly, aren’t terribly different from those used by shoemakers centuries ago.

“It wasn’t that I was entertained by these old men, but I understood it was the only way to learn,” she said. “If I’d gone smoking and hanging out with my friends, they’d have died in the meantime.” The apprentice system practiced by Segalin and his team was less a method of instruction than a Darwinian system of culling the weak and the lazy. “The method of that epoch was humiliation,” she can now say. “There was never a ‘thank you,’ ‘well done.’ For them you’re not capable of doing the things they do. They can destroy your life, but it gave me tenacity.”

Steps to perfection(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

Designing a shoe may have glamour, but to make one is hard labor. The physical exertion required, not necessarily by any individual task but in the repetition of it, can be intense. And when you’re learning, everything is more strenuous. “My friends made fun of me because it was a low kind of work,” she recalls. “People don’t realize how hard it is.” Even as recently as 20 years ago shoemaking still brought to mind the image of the ancient, apostrophe-shaped hobbit with black grime stuck permanently under his fingernails.

It’s hard for many reasons, but I was surprised to learn how much work goes into just preparing the leather. The first step is soaking it in water, then hammering it for hours to soften it. Then there is scraping, to reduce the piece to the desired thinness for the contrafforte, or counter (the extra reinforcing piece inside the shoe behind the heel). While we talked, Daniela was scraping leather with the edge of a piece of window glass, pressing down with each stroke, in small measured movements, at just the angle necessary to shave away curling little tendrils of hide. It looked tiring and somewhat boring; but like every step it must be done carefully, which means slowly. Skimp on one phase and you create problems for yourself in the next. Then you must do it over, and that’s really boring. (For more detail, read our sidebar about how handmade shoes are really handmade.)

Almost everything a cordwainer does takes muscle—cutting, hammering, rasping, burnishing. It’s like working in a body shop. “Handmade” sounds wonderful until yours are the hands in question. “I went home at night and didn’t even feel my hands. I spent a whole year learning how to pare the leather, paring, paring… My entire shoulder swelled up. It took months to heal.”

She mentioned paring because she’d just begun to pare strips of orange-red kangaroo skin half an inch wide, which she had placed on a piece of glass to protect the blade of the knife. Her goal was to produce strips of a near transparent thinness. This required slicing the leather horizontally, removing layers in narrow ribbons. The depth of each slice had to perfectly match the preceding slice, whose thickness could only have been measured in microns.

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“Every workshop I’ve ever seen has always looked like this,” Daniela says. Always.”

The fragrance of leather floats in the air, wafting from myriad rolls stashed on her shelves. In Italy, there are two basic words for leather—cuoio, for the thick pieces of hide used for a shoe’s sole and heel, and pelle, for the thinner and softer “skin” taken from calves, goats, sheep and pigs, and many kinds of reptile.

Pigskin is the oldest leather known, but there is also, to name a few at random, ostrich, manta ray, lamb, anaconda, and horse. Horsehide, in particular, is wonderfully strong as well as pliable—thicker than calfskin but just as soft, and usually referred to as “cordovan.” The word is derived from Cordoba, Spain, which was famous for producing this leather. (“Cordwainer” in turn comes from “cordovan,” by way of the French term, cordonnier.)

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Daniela leaves this oxford unfinished to demonstrate the moment to “meter tre ciodi,” or drive the three critical nails that position the vamp perfectly on the last.

As for that fragrance – which never fails to raise phantom images of wealth and opulence, the fashion equivalent of the “new car” smell – it doesn’t suggest opulence to Daniela, it suggests animals. Good leather has to smell “like a beast,” she said. (Another shoemaker once joked that she felt like she was working in a stable.) Chemicals are added in the tanning process to combat bacteria, but there are still small tanneries that use chemicals quite sparsely, and those that specialize in vegetal tanning use tree bark. In any case, “It has to smell like a wet dog,” she says “not chemicals.”

The exception to the minimum-chemical rule is reptile, for which chemicals are a must, largely to make the leather pliable. “I really, really love crocodile,” Daniela admits. “But normal people can’t have crocodile. It’s a shameful thing, I won’t even tell you what it costs.” For any reader who might be dead to shame, fashion designer Carla Behrle can tell you what it costs. “In 2013, a top-grade crocodile hide 19 to 21 inches [wide] would run over $2,000.” This, for a piece that’s smaller than a card table.

Another reason a crocodile shoe will be expensive is that only a master cordwainer can handle it. When Daniela showed me a crocodile sandal, deep red and shiny, I could see the raised plaques, the reptile equivalent of chain mail. To cut this mass of bumpy material without any mistakes requires a neurosurgeon’s control. “If you can cut crocodile, you can say you’re a shoemaker.”

THE ELEGANCE OF ROME

As her apprenticeship at the Atelier Segalin evolved, Daniela saw that it would not be enough. So she enrolled in a three-year course at the Politecnico Calzaturiero, the shoemaking school at Stra. (This is a town between Venice and Padua in an area celebrated for shoe production. See our sidebar about Italy’s thriving shoe industry.) She wanted to learn how factories made shoes, and earned her diploma in a single year.

During her schooling, she took the train to Rome to spend two or three days a week in the shop of the late Tony Gatto, legendary specialist in men’s shoes whose clients included King Alfonso XIII of Spain and film director Vittorio de Sica. (King Alfonso once famously stated that “There are two miracles in Rome: the Sistine Chapel and Gatto’s shoes.” At some point after this dictum, Gatto’s shop was ingested by a large commercial company.)

“In Rome I learned what you couldn’t learn here about male elegance,” she recalled. “Segalin didn’t know how to do men’s shoes. He did it because it was business, but he didn’t have the style to make them stylish.” She shows me a 70-year-old slim black oxford made by Gatto, an almost weightless shoe, with the most subtle concavity in the arch and an almost dainty heel.

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Daniela takes a certain pleasure in festooning her shop with garlands of wooden lasts. Some of these belonged to Segalin's undoubtedly-deceased clients, but she finds them too beautiful to throw away.

KEEPING IT TOGETHER

At one point, I asked Daniela if there was a stage in the whole process that she liked best. She didn’t hesitate: “Assembly.” Not surprisingly, the process is not easy. In the old days, the assembly was considered a specialized skill, reserved for a montatore.

The montatore’s job is to attach the shoe’s sole to the section above it, called the upper. The process is called “welting” because these two parts are attached by a piece of leather that often protrudes, like a welt, between the sole and the vamp of the shoe. There are thousands of workers in factories, and even in some small shoemaking shops, who do only this. One of the four old men in Segalin’s shop was a montatore and did nothing else.

If there are specialists in each stage of the process, why take the trouble to learn how to do every single step? “When you accept a commission, you already have to see the shoe inside yourself,” Daniela says. “You have to know it’s 100 percent doable. If you’re not able to do everything, you can’t say it can be done.” That is what makes a cordwainer. “Complete shoemakers,” Daniela says, “very few of us are left.”

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This is how the Atelier Segalin appears if you pass it as you’re walking toward the Ponte dei Fuseri, in a moment of early morning calm. No name, no number. The shoes speak for themselves.

But wait a minute. The most superficial riffle across the Internet reveals young shoemakers at work in all sorts of places: Orvieto, Toronto, Warsaw, Alice Springs, Oslo, Akure, Nigeria. One article referred to women who were tired of “run-of-the-mill designer shoes” who are turning to made-to-measure shoes to have something nobody else has. The irony here is that many designer shoes cost at least as much as Daniela’s. And the shoe trade is not unusual in this regard. For many consumer goods today—hats, hand-bags, fine pottery—artisans toil in relative obscurity, hand-making a much finer product than brand-name factories do. Yet the designer version is often just as expensive as its artisanal counterpart, and sometimes even more so, largely to cover marketing and other overhead costs. In the case of shoes, then, does this mean the craft is enjoying a resurgence? Maybe.

Having shoes made used to be very common two or three generations ago. “There used to be many, many shoemakers,” Daniela said. “Italy used to be made up of artisans and farmers. Even a butcher could have a pair of shoes made.” And not only in Italy. Shoemakers were once so common that when it’s pouring rain the Danish say “It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices.” In Ireland they say “It’s throwing cobblers’ knives.”

Is the craft indeed enjoying a resurgence? Maybe. But Daniela isn’t convinced.

“It’s a fad,” she says bluntly, one that’s driven by a current need for exclusivity. Daniela has clients who have never had anything but made-to-measure shoes in their lives, but they are the exception. New people with money want to have something that sets them apart from other people with money, so some of them have latched onto having their shoes made. Most of them won’t be able to grasp what makes the best shoes so good, it’s enough that they’re different and expensive. But Daniela is reaping the benefit, all the same. She showed me her list; at this moment she has 27 commissions. If everything went perfectly (unlikely) a pair of shoes you ordered in August still wouldn’t be on your feet before New Year’s Day.

When Daniela showed me a crocodile sandal, deep red and shiny, I could see the raised plaques, the reptile equivalent of chain mail. To cut this mass of bumpy material without any mistakes requires a neurosurgeon’s control. “If you can cut crocodile, you can say you’re a shoemaker.”

A pair of Daniela Ghezzo shoes for women costs 1,400 euros (roughly $1,600) and up; those for men start at 2,500 ($2,800). While her prices might seem considerable, they are not out of line in her craft, nor will that money be gilding any of Daniela’s lilies. After paying three employees; rent, which in the San Marco district can run as high as 8,500 euros (or $9,500) a month; utilities (high in Venice); and Italy’s phenomenal taxes, which can approach 50 percent of a merchant’s income (gross, not net)—what’s left brings her back down to earth with the rest of us. She doesn’t even live in Venice anymore. Like thousands of Venetians, she lives in Mestre, an ugly town just across the bridge on the edge of the mainland and part of the municipality of Venice, where the cost of housing and food is noticeably lower than it is in Venice proper. “If I’d wanted to, I’d have found a way to go abroad and design shoes,” she says. “I could have gone to China like many of my colleagues, and they’ve become really rich.”

But she loves Venice, and wanted to succeed as one of its artisans. She even turned down a job in city government to take the chance on her own shop—a decision, for someone who was young, unmarried, and untried, that shows an astonishing streak of hard-headedness. For many Italians, to snag a government job, however small or tedious, comes far ahead of many other mortal aspirations; until the boom of the Sixties, the majority of Italians ranged from respectably to catastrophically poor. “People talk about Bangladesh and India,” Daniela says, “but we were the same.” The people of the Veneto were no exception, enduring generations of deprivation and struggle that many people still remember. Today, their region is the third-wealthiest in Italy.

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The ''Scuola dei Calegheri,'' or guild of the Venetian shoemakers, had their headquarters in this building in Venice’s Campo San Toma'. Over the main door, a marble relief sculpture depicts the miracle of San Marco (the city's patron saint) healing Saint Aniano when he injured himself while repairing the evangelist's sandal. Saint Aniano subsequently became the patron saint of the shoemakers. The relief dates from 1737, when all the shoemakers in Venice were required to run to the scene of a fire with leather, tools, and thread in order to repair the firemen's hoses in case of damage. (The building is now used for small exhibitions and lectures.)

SHOE POWER

So what is it about shoes? They are the perfect symbol for so many things—status, style, sex appeal, power—but why? We don’t say you can’t understand someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shirt; that it’s going to be hard to fill the gloves of someone we admire. It seems as though there are thousands of aphorisms that we understand because they touch something we know about shoes.

That shoes make both women and men look better, feel better, and consequently—this may be a reach—sometimes even behave better is beyond discussion. When comes to high heels, though, scientists and social observers are still striving to discover why women continue to wear them even though everyone knows they are bad for you. While people have advanced numerous theories, one fact is clear: high heels subtly make a woman more desirable, inducing her to stand and walk tall, with a slight swivel of the hips. Paula Jacobbi, author of I Want Those Shoes, sums it up this way: “Shoes talk the language of sex.” Yet plenty of women don’t wear high heels, and still crave shoes. Where does this craving come from?

“Women love transforming themselves,” designer Manolo Blahnik remarked, “and shoes are the quickest and easiest way to achieve instant metamorphosis.” Coco Chanel said it even better. “A woman with good shoes,” she once declared, “is never ugly.”

Daniela has also thought about this, and believes she’s found the answer to why we’re obsessed with how we bedeck our feet: “Our feet are our roots,” she says. “The trees without roots don’t have life.”

Erla Zwingle has written for dozens of magazines over the past 30 years, primarily National Geographic, to which she has contributed 25 articles as well as its Guide to Venice.

If you want to see or know more…

Daniela Ghezzo’s website has more details about the business and (helpful) a map to her shop in Venice. Cordwainers of yesteryear might marvel at her Facebook page, which is updated regularly with photos of shoes in the works and completed.

For people who can’t look at enough shoes, the website of this museum is heaven – a vast, gorgeous archive where you can almost make yourself sick on the extravagance of beauty, imagination, and skill. Like many websites in Italy, this is only in Italian. But “La Collezione” (the collection) of shoes needs little translation.

Plenty of shoemakers spend their lives making shoes for today, but Graziano del Barco, in the province of Vicenza, goes back centuries, making shoes the truly old-fashioned way.

These two flowcharts on Cracked.com, a humor site, outlining the shoe-buying process for men and for women, are priceless, mostly because they’re totally true.

The website Head over Heels describes the fashions in clothing in each epoch and how they relate to the fashions in shoes (or vice versa, actually).

© 2017 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: September 17, 2015

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