Walk this way

En route to Paris fash­ion week from Mi­lan, we make a quick pit stop (20 hours to be ex­act!) in the heart of Italy’s most revered shoe­mak­ing re­gion to find out how a French lux­ury brand cre­ates its shoes.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - MACHINERY - Words by Ian Loh

We ar­rive in Venice at dusk; the city looks as pic­turesque as a Monet paint­ing. Ah, it’s love at first sight, even though you’re sink­ing. In fact, artist Lorenzo Quinn has cre­ated a sculp­ture of a giant pair of hands ris­ing out of the Grand Canal to high­light the threat of cli­mate change at the lux­ury Ca’sagredo Ho­tel, once a 15th-cen­tury palace, where we spend the night be­fore head­ing to Fiesso d’ar­tico.

Sit­ting on the banks of the Brenta, Fiesso d’ar­tico is an an­cient heart­land of man­u­fac­tur­ing and art that has spe­cialised in footwear since the 13th cen­tury. To­day, there are ap­prox­i­mately 200 shoe-man­u­fac­tur­ing work­shops in town—but one is un­like all oth­ers.

When I think of a shoe man­u­fac­tory, the im­age that comes to mind typ­i­cally in­volves a grey-haired shoe­maker with horn-rimmed glasses, hud­dled in a cor­ner of a tiny room piled high with shoe lasts and leather bun­dles as the scent of tan­nin wafts through the air.

That is not quite the sight that greets us when we pull up at Man­u­fac­ture de Souliers Louis Vuit­ton. For starters, the build­ing is ul­tra-mod­ern. With its grey con­crete walls and stream­lined cor­ri­dors, it could eas­ily be mis­taken for a lab­o­ra­tory or a movie set for the next JJ Abrams sci-fi block­buster.

De­signed by ar­chi­tect Jean-marc San­drolini, the work­shop (not fac­tory, the brand in­sists) is shaped like a shoe­box. It might seem a lit­tle cliché at first, but there’s some logic to it: the build­ing is de­signed in such a way that its con­tents re­main hid­den from the out­side world—much like its in­spi­ra­tion. It’s no-non­sense ap­pear­ance aside, the struc­ture is a blue­print of en­ergy con­sump­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism in man­u­fac­tur­ing. An open court­yard brings nat­u­ral light into the four work­shops, plan­ning

de­part­ments and QC ar­eas. There are enough so­lar pan­els to heat 56 per­cent of the work­shop’s hot wa­ter; a geo­ther­mal heat pump pro­vides the rest. Rain­wa­ter is col­lected and re­cy­cled.

At the centre of “the box” lies a giant 4.7m-long woman’s pump made of pots and pans called “Priscilla”. On the other end is a 2.7m-long sculp­ture by Nathalie De­coster dubbed “L’ob­jet du désir”. Both are tes­ta­ments to Vuit­ton’s pas­sion for art and mod­ernism.

Once in­side, though, we soon find our­selves at the centre of the ac­tion. Shoes be­ing de­signed, ma­te­ri­als be­ing tested for qual­ity con­trol—these are some of the rigours that a shoe has to un­dergo in or­der to be aligned with a mai­son like Louis Vuit­ton. We slip through the four work­shops named af­ter clas­sic Vuit­ton ma­te­ri­als and pieces like Alma, where women’s shoes are made; No­made, where they make moc­casins; Speedy, the work­shop for sneak­ers; and Taiga, where the men’s shoes are fash­ioned.

At ev­ery work­shop we visit, the crafts­men are more than happy to stop and show us what they are do­ing, ea­ger to im­press with their work­man­ship, whether it is leather im­mac­u­lately cut by hand;

ham­mer­ing minute holes onto ex­otic leather to make a pat­tern; hand-stitch­ing and skiv­ing soles; wax­ing and brush­ing the sur­face of the leather; or sim­ply pack­ing the shoes in boxes to make sure they are not dam­aged in tran­sit. The level of ex­per­tise and metic­u­lous­ness is sim­ply as­ton­ish­ing.

Of all the work­shops, it is at Taiga where we come alive. At the men’s made-to-or­der sec­tion, we chance upon Roberto, a shoe crafts­man of the high­est or­der, hand-stitch­ing a Nor­we­gian welted sole. Watch­ing him rapidly dart a nee­dle into a crossstitch that will cre­ate the most durable fas­ten­ing known to the craft is sim­ply a plea­sure to be­hold.

Vuit­ton’s hand­made, made-to-or­der ser­vice al­lows cus­tomers to choose from over 3,000 pos­si­ble de­sign com­bi­na­tions. And Roberto is one of only two crafts­men who have ac­quired the skills to stitch these well-crafted soles. He is cur­rently men­tor­ing a pro­tégé, Pier­paolo, as part of the ap­pren­tice­ship scheme run here where ex­pe­ri­enced ar­ti­sans can pass on their knowl­edge to the next gen­er­a­tion.

The City of Waters might be sink­ing, but the tra­di­tions of shoe­mak­ing and crafts­man­ship are def­i­nitely not dy­ing. And this is per­haps the world’s most ex­clu­sive shrine to the craft.

Hugh Jack­man.

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