Four years ago, Betina Yang packed her bags, got on a plane, and put all her faith in Daniel Day-Lewis. See, none of her friends had ever heard of a bespoke shoe company called Stefano Bemer in Florence, Italy. So the only confirmation that she was not headed to a scam was the fact that the Oscar-winning actor had been an apprentice in the same company.
In case you’re planning to elope to Florence with your John Lobbs and Berlutis, you’ll be glad to know that Stefano Bemer’s school now holds two courses a year (reservations need to be made a year in advance). And it’s known as the only purely handmade shoe making course in the city. Betina has kindly shared her pros and cons list to help you on your decision.
1. Location. Location. And the fantastic view.
The building that houses the workshop and store faces Piazale Michelangelo’s ramp, has its back to the Arno, and is a hundred steps away from one of Florence’s famous towers.
2. Sleep in everyday.
Work starts at 10am and continues until 7pm. In a day, she’ll make shoes, plan and delegate production, talk to clients, and sometimes even make a delivery or two (on a bike).
3. From the produce to the people, Florence is everything organic and artisanal.
Besides the obvious shoe making, in November, Betina volunteers for olive harvest. Her landlord is a fresco painter. Friends make bags, furniture, and even paint their own shutters.
4. Your Fitbit would be happy.
The entire city is a UNESCO heritage site and it’s small enough that you can walk to anywhere. Convenience with one hell of a view.
1. Bodily Injury.
Yes, she’s had her share of wrist injuries and gruesome cuts from errant cutting tools.
2. The tourist waltz.
Peak season is the whole year minus the two cold and rainy months. So ten out of the twelve months, one must dance around lost tourists and sunflower tour guide markers. But she would never trade it for a constant office job. There’s nothing like the honest but challenging work of turning a flat piece of leather into a beautiful pair of shoes.
3. Heritage homes come with heritage plumbing.
In the historical centre, one must remember to schedule cooking, blow-drying, and laundry. Do everything together and electricity goes out. Hello candlelight carpaccio dinner! Living in Florence is like having access to a time machine. All the modern technology in an Apple store does not hide the beauty of the Renaissance building that you are standing in. Steps away from a hipster rubber ducky store, paper and leather are still created the same way they were centuries ago. It’s all the conveniences of the modern world with the pace of the old days. Now that we’ve convinced you, what exactly will you be learning (besides Italian of course)?
A handmade bespoke shoe maker needs to learn how to build a shoe from the ground up with very little mechanical assistance. A pair of these shoes from measurements to completion takes four to six months. In that time, a wooden last is made specifically for the client. Then a fitting shoe is built to test the volume of the last before making the actual shoe.
If this all sounds incredibly exciting, we must warn that becoming a proficient shoe maker is a process of repetition. Lots and lots of repetition. After all, it’s not easy to make right and left look similar on the outside when the feet they cover are so different on the inside. In a company like Stefano Bemer and and many like it in Florence, it’s not about buying and discarding. Purchased items are cared for by the artisan and the client.
There is a sense of fulfilment in a job well done and appreciation in a purchase well made. Like the saying goes, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.” Learning to be a shoe maker takes years, making a shoe takes months. But when you’re training to make shoes that will last a lifetime, a few months is but a speck in the history of that shoe.