Norman Vilalta first caught our attention when he was introduced to us by one of his clients, affectionately describing him as 'the shoemaker of the future'. We were excited to find out more when we were able to catch the oft-travelling and energetic bespoke shoemaker for an interview at his workshop during a sweltering July afternoon.
As we entered the shop, we were greeted by the ever so friendly Fernando Nafría Ascolizaga, Norman Vilalta’s partner and manager who often accompanies him to various trunk shows and events. He proceeded to give us a brief tour of the showroom and bespoke workshop, all located at the same floor of their compact-sized Carrer d’Enric Granados atelier. Much like Norman, Fernando has a background in law, but became mesmerized by and eventually drawn into the world of bespoke shoes.
Two designs typical of Norman Vilalta's work: eye-catching and innovative while classic in essence
He explained that Norman was busy developing and overseeing the production of his new ready-to-wear line, thus spending much time elsewhere at the moment, so we were lucky to be able to sit down with him at this day. Soon enough, the passionate and eloquent shoemaker made his entrance, offering us drinks and a seat.
Located in the city centre just a stone's throw from Plaça de Catalunya, a wooden shoe last used as a door knob offers the only clue of what is to be found inside
Number five: the shop exterior has no signage but the street number
Mr. Vilalta, you have an intriguing background: born and raised in Argentina, learned the craft in Italy and finally set up shop in Barcelona. Please tell us your story.
I was born in Patagonia, in a place called Puerto Madryn. It’s a small port city, and that’s also where I grew up. I eventually left for Buenos Aires to study law, and then I worked as a lawyer until the week before I went to Italy to learn how to make shoes with the masters.
Excitingly subtle combination of side gussets and derby lacing
Let me tell you about a couple of events from my childhood that hold a special significance to who I am today. The first one was when I was seven years old and first realized that I could draw. The teachers made us draw a wolf, and all my peers drew like typical seven-year-olds: two circles, teeth and some hair. Meanwhile I naturally drew a detailed, lifelike wolf. So I realized: Oh, I can draw!
The workshop pinboard, full of inspirational photos and Norman's drawings
The second one was one of the most formative events in my life. I was in Patagonia for a vacation, in this most incredible place called Bahía Rosales, surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, lakes and rivers. I stood next to a stream, and I fell in love with the beauty of the landscape. I became the landscape, I was in communion with it. As I remember it, I couldn’t separate myself from it – I was integrated in the beauty.
Along the stream were two or three guys, older than me, building a dam. When they were finished, the stream completely stopped and with it went all the beauty of the landscape. I climbed a rock and started shouting at them, giving the most insane speech about beauty, how they were ruining it and that they didn’t understand what they were doing. My friends laughed at me, because here was this nine year old boy shouting about beauty, signs from nature and whatnot.
Norman Vilalta outside his bespoke workshop and showroom
It would take another 22 years before I climbed that rock again, but this time it was as a shoemaker. I realised that this little boy shouting about beauty was the true me. I’m always seeking beauty. I make shoes because of beauty, not because of any other reason. I try to create beauty with shoes and to really say something with every creation.
When I was younger, I wanted to go to medical school to become a neurosurgeon or a cardiac surgeon. Then I saw the injustice in society, and I wanted to help people as a politician, so that’s why I went to law school. There I realized that reality is completely different – it’s all about money and power, and this was not my path. It wasn’t my thing, I wasn’t happy with my profession while working in a lawyer’s office in Buenos Aires.
A side-laced wholecut and the unique asymmetrical oxford - both come with interesting custom patinas; even Norman's black shoes show subtle colour variations
I was searching for something truly purposeful, and then the opportunity to learn how to make bespoke shoes appeared in my life. I quickly understood that in bespoke shoemaking was the truth. At the time I couldn’t tell exactly what that meant, but half a year later, at age 31, I moved to Florence to learn how to make shoes, and I started to understand the greater meaning of it all. I have been making bespoke shoes ever since.
What you see here in my workshop represents my life during the past twelve years. I also consider my work a part of my background. I can’t even separate the seven year old me or the nine year old me from who I am and what I create right now.
Norman holding his driving loafer, one of his highly innovative designs
When I started my apprenticeship, I was already 31 years old and with a background of doing other things, so I was very focused and spent all my time learning. Learning how to make shoes is about acquiring technique after technique by constant practice.
At the time I was not drawing any shoes of my own or thinking about opening my own shop, I just tried my best to absorb knowledge from my masters. There were three main lessons that I learned from my masters: The first one is that you don’t know; the second is that you have to learn, and it takes a lot of time to truly learn something; the third was that of the technique itself, which forms the basis of our craft.
’There were three main lessons that I learned from my masters: The first one is that you don’t know; the second is that you have to learn, and it takes a lot of time to truly learn something; the third was that of the technique itself, which forms the basis of our craft.’
Why is innovation so important?
It took me five years to really understand what I was doing and what kind of artisan I am. For me that is the most important thing, because as an artisan, we are searching for perfection, and what you learn is the perfection of the technique. Then I realized that there are so many types of perfection that are just about technique – and we are not a museum.
The traditional technique is amazing, but you know, it used to not exist. It was once invented by skilled artisan shoemakers. So the most important thing for me is to not be a museum, not just reproducing the tradition. We have the tradition, and carrying it on is important, but we also need to evolve it. As an example, we have changed the traditional oxford pattern: we made it asymmetrical without changing the harmony of the classic design, and it has become a signature of our work.
Leather sole with a beveled waist and a shape reminiscent of early 1900s spade soles, repeating the curved lines of the upper
The famous "3D patina": a distinctive 3D-like effect is created by hand-colouring and polishing grain leather
For me, to be an artisan is not just about working with your hands, it is about working with the heart. It’s about having love for the trade, and also trying to pull the stone farther. It is about daring to take risks, and inventing new things. I like working with technology. I am an artisan and know how to use all the traditional tools, but it is also important that I try to understand which tasks can be done just as well or even better using modern technology. There has to be a union of tools, heart and mind.
What is driving change in the global classic men's shoe market today?
When I started my workshop here thirteen years ago, the landscape was completely different. There are many more makers today than 20 years ago. I think one of the main factors driving change is the evolution of social media and the blogs, making information accessible for everyone. For me, that single factor is revolutionising handcraft and shoemaking.
Bespoke samples on display - the starting price for a bespoke pair is 3500 €
See, I’m making a shoe here in Barcelona which I can post to social media, and in a second, they can see my work in Japan – everyone can see anyone’s work. 10 or 20 years ago, it wasn’t like that. People only knew of a few famous makers in England, Italy, France and possibly someone in Japan. But then the technological revolution came, and suddenly everyone could get connected and share their work.
Skilled shoemakers Alfonso Caicoya and Krysia Janiurek at work in Norman Vilalta's bespoke atelier - Krysia has decades-long experience at John Lobb Ltd, St. James's Street
That has a downside, since people now see things and think ’I could make that,’ but it’s not true – bespoke shoemaking takes a long time to learn and is not for everyone. But now, our clients know a lot more about shoes than before. They may not understand exactly how the shoes are made, but they understand quality. Customers are more informed, more concerned about the quality of their shoes. This is good news for us, since we are producing an artisanal quality product. The interest for quality shoes has really increased.
Alfonso Caicoya trimming leather soles ...
... on a bespoke last for a certain Mr. Crompton
What can you tell us about your newly launched ready-to-wear collection?
Some people have been concerned that going from a completely bespoke operation to also introducing my own ready-to-wear collection would compromise my values, but for me, ready-to-wear is very important. I have spent ten years training my hands, heart and mind into that of a bespoke shoemaker, and now my path leads me to bring it all to ready-to-wear. I am bringing everything I know and that I have learned, and I will always keep on learning new things.
Hand-antiqued chukka/chelsea combination that has become an iconic Vilalta style
Of course, ready-to-wear is different from bespoke – but not as different as people tend to think. When I make bespoke shoes, I make a unique design for each client. I design the structure of the shoe, I design the shape of the last, I design the style of the shoe. But it all belongs to that client. It is incredible work, but I am limited by the choices of my client.
Ready-to-wear allows you to create freely. It is an opportunity to add things, to change things. I can take risks in ready-to-wear that I cannot take when making bespoke shoes. I consider creating quality in ready-to-wear a challenge. You can make it in so many ways – I could just create a few designs and send them off to a factory for production, but that is not my way. I started off my ready-to-wear collection with a feeling. How should the shoe feel? It’s all about beauty, design and innovation. My approach to the ready-to-wear collection is a Vilalta bespoke approach.
Decon Chukka boots from the Savile Row Meets Rock 'n' Roll Collection
Our ready-to-wear line is aggressively priced and starts at 800 €. Our prices could be higher, but we are trying to spread the word on how we think and how we make shoes, so we need to be humble.
Some of your styles are quite unconventional, like the ones found in the Wabi Sabi Collection.
I came from classic shoemaking, and what my master passed on to me was a tradition of making classic, conservative shoes. That was my main emphasis in the beginning. But working here in Barcelona made me understand that there is an additional type of perfection. It is about a personal search for beauty. That is where I am aiming with all of this: I am interested in beauty, not just tradition.
An alternative approach to beauty: these raffia palm fibre shoes are worn to the point of tearing, but Norman loves them just as much
I eventually started to experiment with shoes that do not belong in classic shoemaking. Wabi sabi is a Japanese concept that I knew of before becoming a shoemaker. It is about an alternative type of beauty, that of imperfection and impermanence. I like to remove things, trying to simplify.
I realized that using very humble materials, by not trying to reach perfection of the quality of the materials or the technique, I can actually get a stronger result. It is beauty without the highest quality of the materials, the handwork, the technique or the tools that I’m using. It is just about beauty.
The Raffia derby, part of the Wabi Sabi Collection
I have made shoes out of raffia palm fibre, but shoes in the Wabi Sabi Collection could be made out of paper, or practically any material. It is just about using a humble material, and the beauty of something that is not perfect, unlike porcelain or box calf leather. It is about using imperfect materials to create perfect beauty, and I am in love with this concept.
One of Norman's conceptual designs, handmade using only the bare minimum of shoemaking tools
We also have the Savile Row Meets Rock ‘n’ Roll Collection, which combines classic patterns with materials and elements that do not belong in the world of classic shoes. We have had great success with it, because we make things like shoemakers and artisans, not designers.
I always have in mind what is good design and what is superficial design. I am aiming to incorporate good design elements from all parts of shoemaking history. We will always innovate, but the shoes have to keep the essentials of classic shoe design.
3D patinated oxfords from the Savile Row Meets Rock 'n' Roll Collection
Meticulously crafted bespoke button boot
Bespoke workspace wall full of shoemaking tools and leather dyes