I met Tommaso Melani, CEO of luxury handmade Italian shoemaker Stefano Bemer, at a trunk show in Vancouver last summer. If you search online, or YouTube, you’ll find him hosting fashion seminars around the world, with the world’s tastemakers in men’s couture. Melani is from Florence, and his personal, perfectly-tailored style echoes the timeless beauty of his birthplace. He wore a lavender linen blazer, a casual button-down, chinos, and a pair of suede loafers that looked as comfortable as house slippers. He confirmed later that they were, in fact.
I had worked in men’s shoes at Nordstrom during college, so I thought I knew a thing or two about Italian dress shoes. I was even sporting a pair from one of the major Italian fashion houses. I soon came to realize there are levels to luxury and fashion, craftsmanship and design.
Before he measured me up, Melani asked me, “What do you like?”
I said, “I want to look like you.” He laughed, modestly. It was funny, but I wasn’t kidding. His loafers were made of a soft light brown ostrich leather, with a subtle pattern in the grain.
Melani smiled and picked out a pair of loafers similar to his, made of tobacco-colored suede with tassels and a round apron on the toe. The curved apron—the stitching on the toe box—was slightly more round and lower, away from the elegant toe. The design was only subtly different, yet perfectly balanced. It reminded me of the Tempietto in Rome—the Renaissance’s architectural jewel of perfect proportion.
Oftentimes, when Italian shoemakers try to modernize their look, the design becomes glaring, gaudy, or even clownish. But the suede loafer Melani handed me held a harmony of classic and contemporary design. This shoe was art—wearable art.
“I don’t design these shoes because I think they will sell. I design these shoes because I like them, so this is the expression of my personal taste,” Melani says. He says his sense of style developed naturally growing up in Florence, the birthplace of the golden ratio, where balanced design permeates the city.
Before buying Stefano Bemer in 2012, Melani’s family had owned and operated the Florentine handbag and leather-making school Scuola del Cuoio for four generations. Melani literally grew up inside a leather atelier, absorbing the simple beauty of Florentine design and artisanship. But with that refined style ingrained in him, so too came a distaste for cheap mass production trends now adopted by famous Italian fashion houses.
“When I see quality, even if it’s not my style, I always like it,” he says. “It’s the obvious lack of [quality and refinement] that really bothers me.”
Popular fashion houses aren’t cutting small corners, either. Melani says one famous Italian shoemaker, for example, has 95 percent of its shoes made in a Vietnamese village exclusively working for this brand.
The “Italian” shoes are cemented together at high temperatures. But in the U.S., since many consumers don’t know what determines quality shoemaking, this brand is revered as an excellent, luxury Italian shoe.
“The stitching is ornamental, so it’s fake, “Melani says. “[Consumers] don’t connect the fact that it’s roughly a sneaker that’s been glued together.” The retail price can be over $1,000. This brand, and other similar global Italian brands, can give steep discounts during sale season or at outlet stores, since the markup is 13 to 20 times the cost, Melani says.
“They sell at between 50 percent and 70 percent off the regular prices, and they still make a ginormous profit,” Melani says. “But it’s like drinking a bad wine. Bad wine is bad wine. The fact that it was cheap doesn’t make it better.”
‘Made in Italy’
Melani says the “Made in Italy” label stands for nothing today. As long as the shoe or garment undergo minor changes in Italy—such as adding a buckle or button—it can legally carry this title. Italian fashion houses have, unfortunately, abused this loose regulation and have outsourced manufacturing to Asia.
He says no one entering his store in New York City knows this well-kept secret behind the “Made in Italy” label. The marketing engines of the major brands ensure that it stays secret; word-of-mouth can only travel so far when the major Italian fashion houses occupy affluent shopping areas and fill the pages of fashion magazines.
Another point of contention for Melani is the farce that blake construction is high quality. Introduced during the Industrial Revolution, blake construction requires a machine where the stitching goes from the sole to the inside of the shoe. Since the stitching is inside the shoe, water can seep in, and, to sensitive feet, the stitching can be bothersome.
I see many direct-to-customer online brands selling “authentic, high-quality Italian dress shoes” for decent prices—around $500. But, in retrospect, now I know why—they all use the economical blake construction.
“Shoemakers, bespoke shoemakers, do not use blake construction because it’s not a standard for quality,” Melani says. “It’s not my personal opinion. It’s a fact.”
The standard for luxury shoemaking is hand-stitched Goodyear welting, which was developed in the 16th century. The stitching goes around the shoe, connecting the welt—the strip of leather on top of the sole running along the outside perimeter of the shoe—with the sole on the bottom of the shoe. The cork resting between the insole and sole molds to your foot over time, which is why well-made men’s dress shoes do become as comfortable as house slippers.
However, most famous brands that claim to use Goodyear welting, actually, do not. They use a cheaper, machine-made process called Goodyear gemming. They glue the welt onto a piece of canvas, and then they stitch the upper leather into the insole and the welt together with a machine.
Stefano Bemer, on the other hand, is one of the very few remaining shoe brands in the world that still makes every single shoe and boot completely by hand as it was done centuries ago.
“There are very few shoemakers that take the time, energy, and effort to [make shoes by hand], because it takes a man to hand-welt a shoe while you can buy unlimited machines to do it by machine,” he says. He says he could literally count on one hand the companies that still use traditional, handmade shoemaking methods.
“[We’re] preserving something that’s coming back, which is the craftsmanship involved in the making of shoes… the old way,” he said.
When Melani bought Stefano Bemer, one revolutionary approach he took was to offer three lines of shoes that are all of handmade, artisanal quality: ready-to-wear, made-to-order, and bespoke.
The same master Florentine shoemakers, with the same amount of care and detail, craft each line, giving you truly bespoke quality for all Stefano Bemer shoes. The ready-to-wear and made-to-order collections are based on seven standard lasts—the blocks of wood shaped like a foot. Melani says he fits comfortably into three of the lasts, for example. For the bespoke line, the only difference is that a wooden last is cut and shaped to your specific foot, and is stored in the Stefano Bemer atelier in Florence.
The ready-to-wear shoes have already been made, and can be bought directly in store or online. For the made-to-order line, once you choose all of the style details—such as the leather type and color, and the kind of the sole, like a fiddleback waist, for example—your order is then sent to Florence. It takes eight weeks for the made-to-order shoe to be crafted and delivered.
“There is no volume in the production,” he says. “It’s just one-of-a-kind.”
The beautiful suede loafers from the trunk show were made-to-order, so I couldn’t buy them on the spot.
Melani began measuring my feet, but not with the typical silver shoe Brannock. He scribbled notes and measurements on the paper underneath my feet, like some formula or sketch of a new invention you would find in da Vinci’s workspace.
Melani emphasized that shoes are the one piece of clothing that can actually improve your health, or, deteriorate it, if they’re made poorly. It’s true. I knew from studying acupressure and reflexology that your entire body is mapped out on your feet.
When he finished, I ordered the exact same loafer he had brought to the trunk show.
Eight weeks later, the loafers arrived at my house. They came in an old wine box, with the gold Stefano Bemer seal on the top, and my initials “J.W.” branded on the front. As I lifted the hatch, and opened the box, I carefully took out each shoe placed inside wool houndstooth bags.
Since I have wide feet, I was curious, and somewhat worried, to see if the measurements would be accurate. I slipped them on. Unlike any other pair of Italian dress shoes I had owned—and I did have many—these suede loafers fit perfectly out of the box.
From the softness, harmonious aesthetic, detailed artisanship, and even the packaging, Stefano Bemer had exceeded all of my expectations. It was like owning a rare piece of art, but even better. This art I could bring with me everywhere I went.
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.