In search of the shoemaker

My search for a shoemaker started in India right after graduating from design school, in Italy. Before I left home to study in Milan, I had worked with a couple of artisans, creating leather accessories. It was a hard task to look for shoemakers, although I did find one craftsman who made men’s shoes – oxfords and brogues. With his help we worked together on a couple of women’s shoes for a Japanese craft exhibition. It was a small scale project, but an important part of my learnings.

When I moved to London, it seemed like an obvious choice to look for a craftsman within reasonable vicinity. After a lot of searching, I learnt that in the UK, shoe craftsmanship in particular was limited to men’s shoes. There were a few niche exceptions, a few craftsmen who made women’s footwear, but a lot of their components and suppliers came from Italy. Similar to the shoe artisans in India, there were a number of limitations when it came to experimenting with designs, lasts, heels, materials and achieving a certain quality of the craftsmanship.

During my search, I had a few leads from contacts via Linkedin, who advised me to look into Italy. Having studied in Italy, I was quite aware of the quality and history of craft with shoes, but I had no idea of how to locate and liaise with the artisans there. While studying in Milan, I did get a chance to visit factories, as part of our school curriculum, but these were the grand scale manufacturers producing for the big luxury brands. It was daunting, almost unachievable to contact these giant scaled factories – since they would expect established brand names and large production quantities. The only solution for me was to look for small scale factories or niche artisans. At that time there were no lists or database on the internet for factories and artisans. One of my contacts, suggested I look into the Marche region, which seemed to have a huge production of shoes and factories of all scales from small, medium to large. We flew down for a week, rented a car, drove around the area, literally knocked door to door asking for help and guidance in broken Italian. Magically, we did manage to meet this small factory, almost towards the end of our stay.

Once we did find this family-run factory, I expected that it would be much smoother from then on, which was not the case. It took me time to understand how things work culturally in Italy. At the same time, I was new to the Italian process of shoemaking. We managed to work on two sample collections, plus one round of production semi-successfully. However, the relationship between us and the manufacturer was a bit out of balance, which lead to a disastrous new sample collection. Things that went wrong were mutual. To start with, my lack of understanding of details and technicalities. Language and culture were additional obstacles for us to understand each other. The factory expected me to grow rapidly, with high volumes in a short time. In hindsight, this should have been one of the first conversations between us. Unfortunately, my naive understanding of running a business and liaising with a factory became apparent. The quality fell drastically, delivery times went completely wrong and the relationship got worse. During this time, I learnt more about the manufacturing industries in Italy and understood how different regions focused on different types of skills and scale of manufacturing. The kind of brand that I was building and the work I was creating was not ideal for this type of factory. I realised I had to take a step back and take a break from designing. I took time to learn and understand what sort of manufacturing I needed, who I should be working with, the kind of skills and quality I need for the shoes.

All this research took time. So, when I was ready I had identified two small scale factories (or artisans) in Veneto that I wanted to explore working with. The Veneto region in Italy is known for small scale, yet very high quality shoemakers. We flew down and met with each of them. After these meetings, there was a lot of back and forth before we decided to go ahead with either of them. I thought it was best to make things very clear at the start of the relationship, from design technicalities, quality, costs, delivery times, brand vision, growth of brand, etc. Once we understood each other and it felt right, we decided to go ahead with our current manufacturer – Galb.

Galb is a small family run business. The father is the lead shoemaker. His daughter, who is actually an architect, helps her father on certain projects with the translation and management of the samples and production. Part of their team is their cousin and 4 to 5 other artisans focussed on a particular skill or detail of the shoes. We also work with a skilled pattern maker, who helps me translate my drawings and paper models to patterns on the last (foot). Other than the in-house Galb team, we work with other suppliers for leathers, lasts, heels, soles, buckles and other accessories.

We have been working with them since 2013. Although, we have faced a number of challenges, but on either sides we have been able to understand each other and resolve the issues. I am sure that there are a lot more hurdles to come our way, but with time and experience, I have learnt from my mistakes and to foresee where issues could arise. Some of the challenges are inevitable to avoid, and are meant to be dealt with. Finding the right factory not just means quality and technical skills, but to share the vision as a designer, and for them to be on the same page as you.

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