What is it about Italian shoes that sets them apart from those made elsewhere? It is, without a doubt, history. For hundreds of years, Italian shoemakers have been perfecting their craft.
To truly appreciate a great pair of Italian leather shoes, one must first learn about the history of shoemaking in Italy. Fortunately, learning a few facts about footwear does not need purchasing a plane ticket or saving up three quarters to see the Trevi Fountain. Here's a rundown of the essentials that will guide you from mediocre cordwainer (don't worry, we'll get to that) to virtuoso cordwainer.
In Italy, as in all other nations, shoemaking began in the hamlet. Working by hand using locally available materials, a local craftsman – known as a cordwainer rather than a cobbler, who fixes shoes – would create footwear for the entire community, customizing them to fit toddlers and adults, blacksmiths and chefs, and anybody else who came calling. Before the invention of leather tanning, the most common materials were animal skins (in cold climates) and vegetation (which, like many great things, including Velcro, Penicillin and Viagra, was likely an accidental discovery). Because one man often made all of the shoes for a village, he became an expert in the field.
While shoemakers all around the world were improving their expertise in terms of construction, the Italian cordwainers were equally focused on the materials they employed. Cows (or pigs, ostriches, or goats) "produce" leather in almost every country. Italian leather, on the other hand, is a work of art. It's silky, supple, and vibrantly colored.
Italians have been working with leather for thousands of years, and their treatment methods produce a remarkable range of products, all of which are of the greatest quality and mostly handcrafted. It was Italy's obsession with excellence, along with a millennium or two of artistry, that contributed to the country's shoemaking prowess. However, there was one more requirement: the willingness and aptitude to adapt.
Except for the Italians, Italy's shoe industry was relatively unknown before to WWI. Italy's shoemaking prestige was finally gaining some attention thanks to pioneers like Guccio Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo (perhaps you've heard of them?). International audiences took notice of Italy's developing fashion scene after WWII ended and the globe returned to peace. Italian shoe designers responded to shifting (and growing) demand by creating completely new designs and styles that purchasers had never seen before, all while maintaining the highest level of quality. The era of relaxed-yet-sophisticated footwear has arrived.
It is due to their attention on quality from start to end that Italy dominates the worldwide shoe manufacturing business. While other countries slid down the easy road of cheaper, faster manufacturing, Italians spent thousands of years perfecting the design of shoes and the craftsmanship of leather. Taking the less-traveled path in shoemaking solidified Italy's position as the world leader in quality footwear.