Italian Shoe Manufacturers: How Luxury Shoes Are Made
I have been in the apparel manufacturing industry for a long time. I went to college for Textile Engineering and have worked for nearly 15 years in mills and factories worldwide. I’m not saying this to brag, but I know a lot at this point in my career. So, when an opportunity comes up for me to learn about something I know almost nothing about, I grab it. Last summer, I got to spend a month traveling around Italy, learning all about different types of manufacturing. Today, I am going to share the two days I spent literally making my own pair of shoes. So, if you have been wanting to start your own shoe line, and learn about the world of Italian shoe manufacturers, you don’t want to miss this tour inside shoe factories in Italy.
HERE’S WHAT YOU WILL LEARN ABOUT ITALIAN SHOE MANUFACTURERS
- A little backstory
- History of shoemaking in Italy
- Shoe-making process
- The entire 35-step process
- A video of the process in action in case you aren’t in a reading mood
- So, what’s so great about handmade Italian shoes?
- Marche, Italy travel resources if you plan to visit and make your own shoes
- Additional resources
HOW I ENDED UP IN AN ITALIAN SHOE FACTORY
Portugal, Portugal, Portugal (Yes, that’s a Brady Bunch Marcia, Marcia, Marcia reference) – it seems like everyone in the fashion industry is in a mad dash to establish supply chains in Portugal. While Portugal is its own thing that we can talk about another time, I thought there were a ton of missed fashion manufacturing opportunities in Italy.
So, I got to work emailing Italian manufacturers and made a plan to spend the month of August in Italy, traveling the entire north side of the country and visiting all sorts of different supply chain experts, including a couture sewing workshop, a leather goods factory, a knitting mill, a dye house, and a luxury swimwear brand.
Thanks to Italian Artisans, btw you can reach out to them for their Italian shoe manufacturers list, the leather shoemaker Mauron was the first stop on my trip. I got really lucky and was able to make my own shoes from start to finish. It took 2 full days for us to complete, and that was only 1 shoe; I didn’t even make a full pair.
Wow, I thought making clothes was intense; starting a shoe brand is a whole other level.
I am excited to share this experience because it gave me a lot of perspective. Because, I have been in the apparel industry for so long, it all feels second nature to me, and I forget all the little things that newbies don’t know or understand. Getting to learn about shoes made me see what learning about all this manufacturing stuff feels like from a fresh perspective.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHOEMAKING IN ITALY
Welcome to the Marche region of Italy - land of Italian shoe factories. Like many other global supply chains, Italy is divided into specializations by region. In Marche, the village of Montegranaro is known for men's shoes. Porto Sant'elpidio is where most of the country's women's shoes are made. And, Monte Urano specializes in children's shoes.
So, now you might be wondering, why, out of everywhere in the entire country, are all of the top international shoe lines flocking to this one little remote region in the hills?
Well, the story goes, a very, very long time ago, a pretty famous priest came through the town. At that time, the town did not have a church (which was kind of a big deal, considering Italy is the home of the Pope). So, they struck a deal. The priest would invest money into the area and build them a church; in exchange, every time he came to visit, they would give him shoes. So, everyone in the area started making shoes, and they still make them to this day. And that is why you will find the best italian shoe manufacturers here.
AN INSIDE LOOK AT ITALIAN SHOE MANUFACTURING
And, one quick note before I break it all down.
You’re about to see firsthand, how many very specialized (and, extremely expensive) machines are needed to make a single pair of shoes. Because the machines cost so much (tens of thousands of dollars in some cases), it is very hard for one small workshop to afford all of the necessary machines (space is a whole other issue). So, it's common for groups of smaller workshops will work together symbiotically in shoe production, sharing their machines, to get the job done.
So, let’s get to it. This is the crazy long 35-step process to make a luxury pair of Italian Shoes.
NOT IN THE MOOD TO READ - CHECK OUT THE VIDEO
STEP 1 – CUTTING THE LEATHER
The first step in the Italian shoe-making process is cutting the leather.
In the factory I visited, they use leather from both Italy and France. And, the secret scoop I found out while on my trip is that the very best leathers actually come from France. The thing is, the LVF Group (Louis Vuitton and all those other luxury brands) swoop up most of that premium top-tier leather, so smaller brands are left with tier two. Honestly, the average consumer can’t tell the difference between them. But, I thought this info was super interesting, especially considering how much I talk about luxury fashion and whether it’s worth it or not.
Now, I want to quickly mention the leather dyes. Because, if you didn’t know, conventional leather tanning can be extremely harmful to both people and the planet. The good news is, at the factory I was visiting, they only use vegetable-based dye in their tanning processes, which has a lower environmental impact.
STEP 2 – MAKING THE SEWING PROCESS A LITTLE EASIER FOR THE WORKERS
After all the pattern pieces are cut out, the edges of them are beveled. This creates a thinner piece of leather where the stitching will go. Generally, the thinner the leather, the easier it is for sewers to work. Also, from a product standpoint, this step improves the overall appearance, quality, and comfort of the shoe, because it removes bulk (which can feel uncomfortable) from the seams.
STEP 3 – A LITTLE PIZAZZ
Next, they punch out some decorative designs to the cut leather pieces cut leather pieces – because, fashion.
STEP 4 – SEWING THE LEATHER
Next up, the leather pieces are all sewn together.
These leather pieces are going to form the top of the shoe. As you can see in the image, it is kind of starting to resemble what a shoe should look like. To me, it looks like a clown's shoe at this point. But, we still have a long way to go before anyone can wear it.
STEP 5 – REINFORCE THE TOE
For this step we move on to location number 2. A small factory about a 10 minute walk away.
This was the first step that I got to try myself (check out the video for more). Here I am gluing the reinforcement onto the inside of the leather.
Basically, the way the construction of a shoe works is that they have of 2 layers of leather. And, on top of that, in luxury quality shoes, between the two layers of leather, there is another secret leather reinforcement piece - that’s the part I did here.
In the world of fabric, we call this bonding. One of my favorite projects I ever worked on was for Burton Snowboards. We created a waterproof denim fabric and then bonded it to a fleece fabric to create a super cozy denim snowboard pant.
STEP 6 – REINFORCE THE HEEL
Anyway, back to shoes. Next they add a leather enforcement to the heel as well.
Is this step necessary?
But, it is one of the steps (along with the double reinforced toe) that will separate a well-made luxury footwear, from a cheap pair of shoes. This differentiator actually makes telling luxury from fast fashion very difficult for the average consumer. That is because a lot of what creates a quality product is hidding within the seams.
STEP 7 – MOLDING THE HEEL AND TOE
They put the shoe on a custom mold, and add heat. This will warm up the leather and allow the heel to mold into the correct shape.
This step was the most nerve-wracking of all. Even just a 1-millimeter mistake will basically make the shoe garbage. This right here, step number 7 is what seperates luxury italian shoe manufacturers, from fashion fashion shoe factories.
STEP 8 – GLUE ALL THE LAYERS TOGETHER
Once the toe and heel are molded, white glue is sprayed, and the two leather layers are glued together with the reinforcements sandwiched in between.
STEP 9 – FAUX LACES
Faux laces are laced up on the shoes to protect the holes from processes coming up next. The temporary laces also help hold the shape and structure of the shoe.
STEP 10 – MORE CARVING
The edges of the leather (remember we have 2 layers now) will again be beveled to thin them out and make the sewing process easier for the workers.
See the white line around the edge of the shoe in the photo? That the carved out part.
STEP 11 – WET
The shoe gets a quick spray with water which will make the leather softer, and again make the following processes of lasting (molding) easier.
STEP 12 – SHOE FORM
After wetting, the shoe is placed on a mold to give the shoe form, wrapping the bottom edges of leather around the form. This is where the shoe really starts to look like something you would wear.
STEP 13 – CLEAN UP
I think you get the idea of all the sanding and cleaning. Here is me with the factory pets!
They then sand the bottom of the shoe to remove excess glue and leather. There are actually two machines that do this. The first does a rough job and removes a lot of bulk, and the second machine is more fine-tuned. The surface of the shoe needs to be smooth and clean before the sole application.
After this step, we had back to Mauron’s.
STEP 14 – HEAT
The shoes are then put through what looks like a mini pizza oven, similar to the ones you see at Domino’s. The heat will make the leather easier to work with in the next steps.
In the photo the oven is the white and gray machine behind me with the orange writing.
STEP 15 – ONE MORE CLEANUP
This extra step of making sure to remove every last drop of extra leather and glue is what separates a luxury shoe from one that is not. This is a step that is almost impossible for a customer to be able to see in a store with their bare eyes. But, it’s what creates that indescribably luxurious feeling.
STEP 16 – GLUEING THE INNER SOLE TO THE SHOE
They apply glue to both the shoe and the sole of the shoe. Then, the two pieces are stuck together and pressed tightly with a custom machine. Once everyhing is secure, they can remove the mold.
STEP 17 – SEWING THE INNER SOLE
Time for factory number 3: Another location change, but that’s okay because the views were amazing. And when we arrived at this Italian shoe manufacturers workshop we got an amazing hello from a super friendly dog and cat who live at the factory.
The first step in this location is using a technique called big link stitching to attach the inner sole to the shoe.
What is interesting is how much extra bulk is on the sole at this stage. If you look at the photo you can see a wide tan strip around the toe of the shoe - all of that is extra sole!
STEP 18 – ADDING THE OUTER SOLE
Now, back to Mauron’s: Yeah, that was a quick trip.
They apply glue to the inner sole and outer sole of the shoe. After the glue sets for about 5 minutes, the two layers are again pressed in the machine to bond them together.
STEP 19 – STITCH ON THE OUTTER SOLE
Back to our furry friends again: Yes, again.
This time we are stitching the sole and insole together.
STEP 20 – CLOSE THE STITCHING
A machine closes up the stitching, giving the shoe's bottom a more polished look. It is basically a piece of metal that helps push the stitches into the leather. This is another step that only luxury brands do.
STEP 21 – SHAVE DOWN THE SOLE
At this point, if you look at it from far away the shoe looks done. But, if you get up close, you will see it doesn’t look great. The next step is to shave down the edges of the soles. Again, there are two machines in the process. The first machine does a rough job and removes a lot of the excess sole, and then a more second machine creates a smoother finish.
STEP 22 – CLEANUP
They brush the sole of the sho with water to remove any dust.
Now, it’s time to go back to Mauron’s again: This is the last trip, I promise.
STEP 23 – MORE SMOOTHING
The edges of the sole are still a bit too rough for a luxury finish. So, at the original factory, they sand edges and smooth them once again, this time with a very fine sandpaper. Again, this would be a step that fast fashion brands would skip.
STEP 24 – STAIN
Next, they paint the soles of the shoe with a stain to give them a richer, more uniform color.
STEP 25 – WAX AND SHINE
They add wax to the edges of the sole, and shine them with a special buffing machine.
In the photo they are apply wax to the buffer.
STEP 26 – BUFF THE BOTTOM
The bottom of the sole is buffed and cleaned to get it ready for color.
STEP 27 – COLORING THE BOTTOM OF THE SHOE
All of the little details really matter here. Even though most consumers aren’t inspecting the bottom of their shoe, this step is really important to a luxury pair my by Italian shoe manufacturers (think red-sole Louboutins).
STEP 28 – SOLE DETAILS
Decorative designs are punched into the bottom of the sole with a special machine. There is no purpose to these designs except fashion and craftsmanship.
STEP 29 – CLEAN UP, YET AGAIN
Yet again, they will buff the edges and bottom of the shoe.
At this point, I was like, “Are we done yet?”
STEP 30 – INNER INSOLE
You know that comfy cushioned part inside the shoe? Next, we add that in with a little bit of glue.
STEP 31 – ANOTHER CLEANING
I want to see this shoe shine like the top of the Chrysler Building (Annie reference). More cleaning.
STEP 32 – FINAL LEATHER POLISH
They apply a final leather polish that has a slight tint. This will create a deep, uniform color throughout the entire shoe.
STEP 33 – BUFF AGAIN
A final buffing. I promise this is the last one.
You can see in the image how the shoe is starting to look shinny, and the leather more supple.
STEP 34 – LACING THE SHOE AND QUALITY CONTROL
As they lace it up, they inspect the entire shoe to make sure every last detail is perfect.
STEP 35 – PACKAGING
They pack up the shoes, and they are ready to ship to customers!
IS THE PRICE JUSTIFIED?
I was really blown away by how many steps go into making a pair of shoes. It felt like every time we were close to being done; there were 5 more steps and a change of location we needed to do. There is so much detail, and care put into each step. They feel more like custom shoes than mass production (even though they are).
Interested in Mauron’s manufacturing services (he can help you with private label, or your own unique designs), check him out here, you will be in good company!
PLANNING A TRIP TO MARCHE TO MAKE YOUR OWN SHOES? THESE ARE SOME MUST-SEES.
A few tips to help you plan your trip.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed in Fermo, a quiet little village with winding streets. Because the town is located on top of a hill, the views are amazing. And if you plan your trip in the spring, you can see the peach blossoms!
FUN THINGS TO DO
We spent the weekend renting a boat, riding up and down the coast of the ocean, and enjoying some amazing seafood. The beach was about 30 minutes away in the coastal village of Ancona.
BTW, renting a boat was surprisingly easy!
WHAT TO EAT
And one of my favorite foods was Ascolana Olives from Piceno. They are stuffed with meat and cheese (I obviously got cheese only). Then, they are then breaded and deep-fried, and are freaking amazing. They are one of the most famous foods unique to the region of Marche.
And, I, of course, recommend hitting the outlets! Tod’s, Prada, and other luxury brands make their products in the area, and you are sure to get a good deal.
And, there are just Italian shoe manufacturers here - there are also a lot of luggage manufacturers. I ended up getting 2 suitcases, 1 carry on and 1 checked! BTW, you can claim them as duty free at the airport when you leave.
So, what do you think about Italian shoe manufacturers? Do you have a whole new respect for your shoes? Do you want a pair or want to design your own Italy made shoes? Let me know in the comments.