Crafted footwear is highly valued. This is proven by two brands that follow different paths: the tradition of Carmina Shoemaker and the innovation of Norman Vilalta. Their shoes are sold online to stylish people around the world.
The social media and the proliferation of blogs have revolutionized the world of crafted footwear. Information is accessible, master shoemakers share their work on Instagram, and customers are better informed than ever. They’re demanding exclusivity, beauty, quality, durability and personalization –all of which converge in crafted shoes.
The making of this type of footwear involves a complex process that may take months. It begins with the wooden last, which is painstakingly sculpted to ensure superb ergonomics. The model is usually drawn on the last, transferring its lines to a pattern which indicates the cut of the various pieces. Next, the pieces are cut one by one, their thickness is evened and they are sewn together, going on to adjust them on the last so the leather will adopt its forms and volumes. The shoe is left on the last for several days to acquire its final shape.
Afterwards the welt is sewn and the space thus formed is filled with materials that let each foot create its own insole. The contours are evened, the heel is nailed on and then the shoe is painted, shined and finished with waxes and creams that give the leather its many nuances. This is how the world’s best shoes are made.
The Carmina tradition
Carmina Shoemaker embodies the leatherwork tradition of the town of Inca, in Mallorca. The company was born in 1866, when Matías Pujadas opened a bespoke shoe workshop, beginning a line of craftsmen that still continues six generations later. Today, Carmina Shoemaker makes crafted shoes of matchless quality, with shops in Palma, Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, Singapore and New York.
Marlene Albadalejo is the brand’s creative director. An industrial designer, by family tradition she has ended up working in the footwear field. For Marlene, the key to Carmina’s success is the use of “excellent materials, meticulous patterning and lasts made with exquisite care, which translates into a unique style that sets us off from the English brands, our most direct competitors”. Several of Carmina’s models are authentic objects of desire, such as the Chelsea (an ankle boot with elastic) or the Jodhpur buckle boot.
Nowadays, when quantity usually prevails over quality, crafted shoes are winning favour. “The vast supply of low-quality articles, often from the East, leads people to appreciate craftsmanship and to want to know how and where these extremely durable products that grow more beautiful with use are made”. In contrast to the uniformizing effect of sports shoes, crafted footwear adds a personal finishing touch to one’s image.
Internet sales have multiplied the demand. “At first we thought our products weren’t suitable for online business. But we were in for a big surprise because, in a few short years, the Internet has become our number-one shop”. Indeed, this system allows customers to personalize their footwear, selecting the last, type of leather, and colour: “With our bespoke service, you can get a truly unique pair of shoes”.
50% of Carmina’s production is for export –or even more since many customers at its Spanish shops are visitors from abroad. Every country has its own tastes– “in Asia people like more stylized shoes with lighter soles, while in the U.S.A. they prefer sturdier footwear”.
The constantly changing fashion shows stand a world apart from crafted shoes, although lately the fashion industry is paying them more attention: Barneys New York has given Carmina a place of honour in its Madison Avenue flagship store, and Vanity Fair USA magazine dressed today’s hottest screen stars with Carmina shoes.
These shoes can last a lifetime... or even two! “Some young customers tell us they’ve inherited ‘Carminas’ from their parents, while others who are younger still confess to borrowing them from Mom or Dad, which goes to show these shoes are tough!
Norman Vilalta is considered to be one of the world’s top creators of men’s crafted shoes. Born at Puerto Madryn in Argentina’s Patagonia region, Norman was a practising lawyer until he discovered that what he really wanted was to work with his hands. So he went to Florence to learn shoemaking at the workshop of Stefano Bemer. Today, at his Barcelona workshop store, he continues to look at his work as a form of learning, making constant discoveries in the process of creating superb bespoke footwear or his ready-to-wear lines.
To make a pair of customized shoes, this bespoke shoemaker holds a personal meeting “because my shoes are not only made to the measure of my customers’ feet –I also try to grasp what my customers want to say. It’s almost a joint project”. With his broad experience with feet of different sizes, tastes and shapes, and with a deep understanding of men’s shoe production, in 2014 he began to work on his ready-to-wear collection. This is where he feels the freest: “With bespoke the idea is my customer’s, but with ready-to-wear the idea is mine”.
For Norman, the most important aspect of craftwork is what can’t be seen: “When you sew you know the stitching won’t be visible but it has to be beautiful, because what’s beautiful is good”. He also considers it essential to innovate and he has dared to do so with the English classic Oxford. “I realized that its beauty lay in the harmonious proportions of its pieces, which are based on the golden ratio, so if you touch that, you ruin it. I changed things by making the patterns asymmetrical, something that doesn’t alter the harmony or proportions”. This asymmetry has become his personal signature.
Some of his shoes are now genuine icons, like the Decon Chelsea boot, which is on display at the Footwear Museum of Portugal and is set to become a new classic. He invents patinas, puts mountain soles on elegant shoes, transgresses, and transforms. “The foremost qualities of craftsmen are knowledge and love –philosophical love, changing things to make craftwork advance”. That’s why he’s known throughout the world.
He never stops learning. “My goal is to transform classic footwear using the latest technology. A craftsman doesn’t have to work with his hands alone. If Salvatore Ferragamo were alive today, he’d be working with 3D printers. We’re not museum pieces: with the technology at our disposal we can make a different shoe”.
What is a shoemaker’s training like? “It involves many years of acquiring experience while learning to think like a shoemaker and learning how things are made so you can improve them. At our workshop the apprentices’ desks have the words WHY and PREPARATION in front of them. If you understand these ideas, you can do anything”.
The crafted shoes of the world’s most prestigious firms usually feature Goodyear welt construction. This consists in stitching a welt (a strip of leather) with sturdy thread to the insole (the shoe’s internal base) and to the upper (the top part of the shoe). When these three parts are sewn, the stitching remains hidden between the upper and the welt, following the shoe’s contour. Then the excess leather is cut or polished to apply a paste of materials that adapt to the shape of the sole of the foot. A piece called the shank is added to strengthen the structure and the sole is sewn to the welt. The stitching may be done by hand or with the machine invented by Charles Goodyear in 1872.
Patina is the artistic colouring of footwear, which craftsmen use to play with shadows, tones and colours. Its invention in the 1990s is attributed to the Italian shoemaker Olga Berluti, who some experts hold to be the best maker of men’s footwear of the 20th century. Patinas have been used to give new shoes a vintage touch, to lend new life to worn shoes, or to personalize footwear. In the process, which calls for great skill and subtlety, the bare leather is impregnated with essential oils, natural pigments and waxes. Each master has his own method and secrets, so the details are usually confidential.