In a region of Italy well known for its shoe manufacturing history, the Santoni brand stands out as an extraordinary story. Since the turn of the twentieth century, the hilly region of the Marche has been known as the “Shoe Valley” of Italy, where dozens of small, family-owned workshops produced handmade footwear for their own brands as well as for those commissioned by shoe companies around the country. Traditional handcraftsmanship was an assurance of quality, yes, but the shoes made in the factories of the region often lacked originality in their design and appeal beyond utility.
The Santoni difference
In 1975, Andrea and Rosa Santoni, both natives of Le Marche, set out to change that with the establishment of a small workshop in Corridonia dedicated to constructing handmade products for shoe connoisseurs. Their formula would entail a combination of old-fashioned techniques of handcraftsmanship and a new approach to shoe design and aesthetics. Above all, the Santonis were committed to using only the highest quality leather they could get their hands on.
The obsession with quality paid off and by the mid-80s, Santoni found its niche in the luxury retail scene, at first with upscale clients in the United States and later, through word-of-mouth, with dandies and shoe connoisseurs all over the world. Quality, but also rarity was key. The limited amount of handmade shoes that could be produced at the small Corridonia factory worked for the brand’s image, as did Santoni’s ability to customize shoes for clients. Having achieved similar cult status as heritage brands like John Lobb and Alden in just over a decade, Andrea Santoni went on to differentiate his shoes by offering features the more conservative competition could not, or would be slower to introduce: a wider choice of leathers and an unusual range of colors.
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Apart from offering pairs
in exotic skins such as ostrich, stingray, and python, Santoni shoes also featured a hand-colored patina that only elite shoemakers like Berluti of Paris were known to have mastered. The use of patina, both genuine and artificial, has since been adopted by high-end and mass-produced shoe brands alike, though each company applies a different technique to achieve the uncommon antique effect. The most efficient way is by machine, of course, but Santoni insists on painting every pair by hand—up to 15 layers by a single artisan over a period of four hours. While a handful of artisanal brands do the same, Santoni develops its own tints and paints in-house with colors exclusive to the brand. This trademark veladura technique has been widely copied but few are able to achieve the same quality.
The company is currently run by the second generation, with eldest son Giuseppe at the helm. The family still prefers to call their brand artisanal, but it’s difficult to hide the fact that Santoni is now a global player with a workforce and factory immensely larger than it was during its founding 40 years ago. Giuseppe now commands a team of over 500 workers and a retail empire that spans the globe. But the second generation Santoni is committed to keeping the brand small—if not in size, then at least in philosophy. Rather than outsource production, he keeps the entire workforce in Corridonia—in the very same location of the original factory. To face the challenge of scaling up, Santoni built a new state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly facility, although instead of more machines, the company chooses to train and employ more workers—organized in small teams to keep quality high and the production process artisanal.
The other challenge facing Santoni is staying true to the brand’s artisanal traditions. Due to global demand for its footwear, Santoni has slowly, but systematically, introduced machinery to assemble certain components of their shoes—particularly, those that don’t require the skill of artisans. Nevertheless, even for their basic ready to wear models, handcraftsmanship is critical. The wooden-mold of the shoe—called the last—is still constructed and shaped by hand. The last is the all-important starting point for every pair and traditional techniques are applied to achieve a three-dimensional product that conforms to the wearer’s foot with just the right amount of space to achieve comfort.
Crafted by hand
Despite the precision and efficiency of modern machinery, Santoni still relies on the hands of artisans to cut the pieces of leather used to construct the upper and lower portions of the shoe. Since some parts of the leather are softer or finer than the rest, only an experienced cutter can assess the skin’s surface and identify the parts that need to be cut and used for the key components of the pair.
For Santoni’s limited edition and made-to-measure shoes however, each pair is crafted entirely by hand, and, in the case of special custom orders, by a single artisan. These pairs embody the Santoni philosophy of perfection through hand stitching and hand painting techniques reserved for only the most exquisite shoes. The final production of every limited edition pair is supervised by Giuseppe Santoni himself before they’re given its own serial number and signed by the artisan who created it. Clearly, it’s attention to detail and respect for tradition such as this that help keep Santoni on the leading edge of the luxury footwear industry.
Photographs by David Celdran and Santoni
This article originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 16 No 4 2014.