The Bontoni brand is relatively young, dubbed as such only in 2004. However, the traditions and techniques used to power the brand have been around for at least two generations prior. Bontoni is helmed by Lewis Cutillo and his cousin Franco Gazzani. As an unlikely start, the pair was in the pharmaceutical industry up until Gazzani mentioned that his father made unlabeled shoes for friends and family in a laboratorio in Montegranaro, an idyllic hilltop village in the Marche area. The pair recognized the potential involved in transforming what was essentially a hobby into a lucrative business.
At the workshop, long-established methods in constructing the shoe are still used. For instance, the shoe features two distinct stitchings, never glued, in order to ensure durability. There are, however, two glaring differences that came with formalizing the business.
The first is that labels were produced (as such, Bontoni was born). Another important development is that ready-made shoes were to be placed in specialty retailers. However, those retailers would have to be located outside Italy, such as in the United States. This is a strict stipulation made by Gazzani’s father in order to protect the bespoke tradition of the brand.
Although Italians would be hard-pressed to find a Bontoni in a window display, it does have one great advantage. They have convenient access to the workshop for made-to-order and custom shoes. Despite retailing at shops, the quality of Bontoni shoes is guarded by making sure that no more than a dozen pairs of shoes are produced each day.
The company relies on the original collection of shoes created by Gazzani's grandfather over the years. Many of the collections offered by Bontoni still carry the lines created in the 1960s. Such is Bontoni's confidence in the market that the colors and styles of the shoes were not significantly altered in preparation for going into retail in the US. In fact, the shoes sold at shops are all reminiscent of Bontoni shoes make use of techniques employed for three generations. The process from last to finished shoe takes about 300 steps. Shown here is a completed Bontoni Ambassador the primary models created. There are some innovations that have been introduced, such as offering the style of a triple-buckled shoe, but these developments are more of a response to shifting styles than anything else.
Aside from being faithful to the tradition of making bespoke shoes, Bontoni is also true to the Italian style. Their signature design is characterized by being quite understated. Bontoni shoes consciously steer toward modest outlines, such as the classic lace-up or oxford. The colors are neutral, staying within the family of browns and blacks. Aside from the aesthetic philosophy of Bontoni, the fact that craftsmen use traditional, handmade dyes in staining the shoes ensures that the colors are kept natural.
A painstaking process
The production of the Bontoni shoe is an exercise of patience and skill; a shoe can take as much as 300 individual tasks to complete. The shoe requires hundreds of stitches that are put in by hand in order to be assembled.
Before any of these steps can begin, however, the bespoke Bontoni shoe begins with the unlikely start of a meal. In order to fully understand the expectation of the shoe, the maker of the shoe has to get to know the client and their preferences. Sometimes, this is done over lunch complete with homemade wine. Once the design is finalized, the measurements of the foot are taken in order to create a last. The lasts are hand-carved and made from scratch.
The assembly of the shoe begins with the stitching of the material to be used for the upper of the shoe. The leather used in Bontoni shoes is the catalyst for its fit and quality. The leather is selected after careful inspection of even minute details such as the uniformity of pores found on the skin. The leather should not crack or crease easily.
Once the leather has been stitched, the upper is placed on the last in order to compact the fibers into shape. The upper will stay in place, or sleep, on the last for at least 25 days before it is taken out for stitching.
The leather is hand-stitched and then burnished and painted in order to create the proper finish. Finishing the shoe to achieve the desired color can take as long as three hours, at least. Bontoni does not reveal the exact process of how it creates its rich luster. What is revealed is that the process works, as evidenced by the varied hues that the craftsman can coax from the leather. Clients can choose from a variety of hues that range from smoked black to rosa. Since the shoes are hand-painted, including the soles, no two pairs are exactly the same.
Additional details, such as hardware, can be added to the shoe, at the option of the client. Bontoni has over 200 different buckle styles, some of which were designed with the help of the clients themselves. Another detail unique to Bontoni is that a pair typically does not come with a rubber sole, unless requested by the client. The reason for this is that the soles are painted and etched with the name of the client. It would be a shame to cover them up.
In order to perfect the fit of the shoe, the client fits a prototype of the shoe thrice before it is declared complete for finishing. The amount of work involved in creating a pair of Bontoni shoes means that there is no such thing as a fast delivery. On average, it takes about five months to complete a shoe.
Getting a pair
Bespoke Bontoni shoes require a trip to their workshop in Italy, where fittings are done in the basement. Since it takes more than one meeting to ensure the fit of the shoe, an extended stay is required. Bontoni also offers ready-made shoes, which is more convenient. Retailers that carry the brand include Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco, Mario's in Portland, Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Battaglia in Beverly Hills, Lawrence Covell in Denver, and Louis Boston in Boston. Bontoni can also be found Hamburg, Germany through retailer Ladage and Oelke.
For more information, visit bontoni.com.
Photographs by Philip Sison
This article first appeared in Vault Magazine No. 4, 2011