What is it about Italian shoes that make them so superior to those made in other countries? Quite plainly, it’s the history. Italian shoemakers have been refining their technique for many, many centuries.
In order to fully appreciate a pair of fine Italian leather shoes, one must explore the history of shoe making in Italy. Fortunately, no one has to buy a plane ticket or scrounge up three quarters for the Trevi Fountain to learn a few facts about footwear. Here’s a quick breakdown of the essentials that will help illuminate the path from average cordwainer (don't worry, we’ll get to that) to virtuoso.
In the Beginning
Shoemaking started in Italy as it did in all countries, in the village. Working by hand with readily available materials, a local craftsman – called a cordwainer, not a cobbler, who is someone who repairs shoes – would produce footwear for the entire community, adapting them to fit children and adults, blacksmiths and cooks; whoever came calling. Materials were usually animal skins (in cold areas) and vegetation before the advent of leather tanning (which, like many great things, including Velcro, Penicillin and Viagra, was likely an accidental discovery). Since one man often created all the shoes for one village, he developed a great mastery in the field.
While shoemakers everywhere were honing their techniques with regards to construction, it was the Italian cordwainers that focused just as precisely on the materials being used. Most nations have cows (or pigs, ostriches or goats) that “produce” leather. But Italian leather is different; it is a thing of beauty. It is soft, supple and richly hued.
Italians have been working with leather for thousands of years, and their treatment processes result in a stunning diversity of products, all of the highest quality and mainly crafted by hand. This national fixation on excellence coupled with a millennium or two of artistry is what led to Italy's shoe making expertise. But, there was one other essential ingredient: the willingness and ability to adapt.
Before WWI, Italy’s shoe industry was relatively unknown, except to the Italians of course. It was thanks to pioneers like Guccio Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo (perhaps you’ve heard of them?) that Italy’s shoemaking prestige was finally getting some exposure. Once WWII finally blew over and the world saw peace again, international audiences took notice of Italy’s burgeoning fashion scene. Italian shoe designers adapted to changing (and growing) demand by devising entirely new shapes and styles buyers had never seen, and they did it without sacrificing an ounce of quality. The era of casually elegant footwear had arrived.
Italy leads the global shoe making industry, and it’s due to their emphasis on quality from start to finish. Italians spent thousand of years working to perfect the design of shoes and the craftsmanship of leather while other countries slipped onto the easy path of cheaper, faster manufacturing. Taking the road less traveled, shoe making-wise, cemented Italy’s title as world leader in fine footwear.