Learning From The Masters: My Journey Studying Shoemaking in Florence - Part 3
After a long 24-hour flight with multiple layovers, I finally arrived in Peretola airport in Florence. It was around 2PM local time, Friday, 17th of January. Still, it hasn’t sunk in that I’m already living our dream of travelling to Italy to learn from some of the best shoemakers in the world. I took a taxi to my Airbnb, settled my things , took a shower and quickly got ready to go out. I open up google maps and searched for “Stefano Bemer store.” Definitely, it was the first thing I wanted to check out in my first moments in Florence. It was a 20 minute walk from where I was staying, but in my excitement, I remember getting there in 10 minutes. Upon entering the shop, I felt some chills run down my spine. It was a surreal feeling to finally see before my eyes all their magnificent bespoke shoe models displayed in their beautifully lit shelves. I’ve been admiring the Stefano Bemer brand ever since I got into the world of shoemaking back in 2014 and seeing the artisans make the shoes in the center of the space is also a nice touch. Customers and tourists alike are able to see the masterful process of making shoes up close and personal. Hundreds of shoe lasts of their existing customers are also displayed in columns. As I was walking around the shop, while the artisans were working on their projects, with jazz music playing the background, I was greeted by Betina - the first Filipina who underwent schooling under Stefano Bemer since they opened their classes to the public in 2014, and now works there as an artisan. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about our home country for a bit, and talked about the upcoming classes which start in a few days. The excitement was building up, I wanted to fast forward to the first day of school. After about an hour in the shop, it was time to go home and get some rest.
The rest of the weekend was spent navigating around the city center, buying needed supplies for my apartment, checking out the iconic places near me, and just having myself get used to my new home for the next months. Come Sunday night, I attend mass inside the Duomo of Florence, and as the choir sung the recessional, it has finally sunk in. I’m in Florence, Italy. Home of some of the best shoemakers in the world. Our dream has turned into reality.
Monday morning, the excitement within me was still bursting. Quick breakfast, quick shower, head out. It was a short 15 minute walk to Scuola del Cuoio (School of leather), where the classes will be held. Upon arriving, I see a couple of other students on stand-by. The facilitators and teachers then arrived, and the first day of school started. The first part of the day was spent touring us around Scuola del Cuoio, talking about the rules and regulations, history of the school which offers shoemaking (under Stefano Bemer) and leather good making classes, and getting acquainted with our teachers and fellow students. In total, there were 8 students in our shoemaking class, coming from different parts of the world. Our Maestro, Masako Bando was also introduced to us. She has been with Stefano Bemer since the ‘90s and has been one of the lead artisans in the Stefano Bemer workshop for decades. Masako proceeded in laying out the course outline, and what we are expected to achieve in the following months.
The Stefano Bemer shoemaking courses are broken into three levels - Apprentice, Artisan, and Maestro. The Apprentice and Artisan levels are 3 months each, but are usually taken together, with the objective of having the student create his own bespoke pair of shoes. All the aspects of shoemaking are taught in the Apprentice level, and everything learned in this level is practiced and refined in the Artisan level. Students who have great potential and have interest in learning much more, can then be invited by the school to participate in the Maestro level which is a 6-month intensive course where in the Maestro will work hand in hand with the student in refining his skills, finishing a final project. Since I cannot stay away for too long, I applied for the 3-month Apprentice level, which is more than enough to supplement what we already know about shoemaking in our own workshop. All the aspects of handmade shoemaking are taught in the apprentice level - last making/adjustment, pattern making, upper making, shoe making, hand welting, bottom making,
After the introductions, we were lead to our own desks, and given our own tools. First lesson: Skiving. Though this concept was not something new to me, the way they did was. The shoemaker’s knife that we were given allows for pull-skiving, where the knife is pulled towards yourself while slicing compared to the push-skiving knives that we use in our workshop. While each shoemaker has his own preference, it’s very apparent that the tools you use in shoemaking play a big role. The main take away that I got after the introduction of the tools was the difference in resources. They have much better resources for tools and materials compared to what we have back home, thus making their processes smoother. Their knives are built with long-lasting and sturdy metals, compared to what we have back home which get dull quickly. If you already have the know-how, having the proper tools will make the process much easier. The first day was tiring to the hands but very promising. I got to know more about Stefano Bemer and how they do things. It was also refreshing to be surrounded by masters who know a lot about shoes and have been making shoes for the most part of their lives. Conversations with them are very enriching to what I already know about shoemaking.
After the first day, my excitement built up much more because of the things I know I will learn from the course and from our Maestro. Despite the looming thoughts of living alone and far away from loved ones for the next months, I knew the experience was well worth it, everything was going great and according to plan. Back home, the Sapatero team was hitting above sales targets, production and operations were going smoothly, and here I was in Italy, learning from the Masters.