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2017.05.19

Tradition and Craftsmanship – the Mannina Way

Posted in Feature by Hannes Rebas & Keith Roberts

Since 1953, Mannina shoemakers of Florence, Italy, have been crafting the finest quality shoes for customers all over the world. Mannina is an artisanal shoemaker dedicated to using traditional methods and small-scale production. Their continually packed order book is a testament to their commitment to customer satisfaction and excellence in craft. Hannes Rebas paid a visit there to see how things are done the Mannina way. Shoemaker Giovanni Lorenzo showed him around the bespoke workshop.

Hannes Rebas, Antonio Mannina and Giovanni Lorenzo at Mannina's ready-to-wear shop.

Hannes Rebas, Antonio Mannina and Giovanni Lorenzo at Mannina's ready-to-wear shop.

Could you start by introducing yourself?

I am Giovanni Lorenzo and I have been working here at Mannina for six years. I come from the south of Italy and came here to learn the art of making shoes. I found Calogero Mannina’s workshop and he gave me the chance to learn how to make handmade bespoke shoes.

How did you find this particular shop?

I searched on the Internet for shoemakers in the south of Italy, but in the south it is very difficult to find artisans, so to find them it is better to look in the centre of Italy. So, eventually I found Master Mannina and I asked him if there was a possibility to come here to be an apprentice.

He invited me to stay here to see what the job was all about. To do well in this job, it is necessary have a passion for it, because it is very hard work. You need a lot of time to learn each step, and there are a lot of steps to learn to make shoes. From the beginning to the end, there are around 200 steps.

And it is Antonio Mannina who is the owner here currently?

Right now, Antonio Mannina is the owner of the Mannina brand and store. He is the son of the founder, Calogero Mannina.

Antonio Mannina, Hannes Rebas and Giovanni Lorenzo.

Antonio Mannina, Hannes Rebas and Giovanni Lorenzo.

How many are you working here in the bespoke workshop?

Now we have three guys, three shoemakers, but we also have three apprentices from a shoemaking school. They come here to learn and they help us do certain things.

We make Goodyear hand-welted, Norwegian construction, Tirolese and also Blake, stitched by hand. And we also make ladies shoes: boots, pumps and the classic men’s styles, but for ladies. The ladies’ shoes are cemented and also Goodyear and Blake stitched. It really depends on what kind of shoes the ladies want.

Two of Mannina's friendly and knowledgeable shoemakers.

Two of Mannina's friendly and knowledgeable shoemakers.

Using a lighter to lightly burn the edges of a recently cut piece of leather.

Using a lighter to lightly burn the edges of a recently cut piece of leather.

Do you have both ready-to-wear and bespoke services?

Yes. We have ready-to-wear because many people want our shoes, but often cannot wait five or six months for them. And also they cannot always afford to spend €800-€900 for a pair.

We have a wide selection of shoes and people can buy them directly from our store. But we also have many customers who come here to order custom-made shoes. Customers often have a problem when one foot is shorter, or wider, or narrower, than the other – this is why they require bespoke shoes.

There are also some people who just like our shoes because they are completely handmade. They come here and order one of our styles, or they ask for a particular style they desire. In these cases, we initially design the shoe on paper, so the customer can more easily visualise what he or she wants and so we can both agree exactly what it is the customer wants. Many people are not able to come back and pick up their shoes, so we ship them.

A two-tone bespoke Oxford shoe that has just been lasted by hand.

A two-tone bespoke Oxford shoe that has just been lasted by hand.

Recently hand lasted bespoke suede loafers.

Recently hand lasted bespoke suede loafers.

Do you do fittings normally as well?

Many people leave Italy after two days and cannot come back again after one or two months, which is when the test shoes are ready. So Calogero Mannina explained to us how to do a test fitting on the first day the customer is here.

Naturally, many customers have a very particular foot shape, so sometimes we do the test fitting and later ship the shoes to them. Then they tell me by email or telephone if the fit is good or if it needs a little more space on the left or right foot or whatever. I have to tell you that we don’t have many problems at all using this method.

And it makes us very happy when they order again, because we keep the measurements on file and then they can order again just by emailing me a picture and then we make the shoes and ship them out.

Do you make your own lasts?

We have a standard shape in many sizes, and we can modify it according to the measurements we take. In this way, we can tell if it is necessary to enlarge the foot space or whatever else needs to be done.

We can modify the original last by putting on pieces of leather or by removing part of the last itself. Often, especially for Japanese customers, the back is very narrow, so we reduce the back of the last.

Customers' lasts hanging from the wall.

Customers' lasts hanging from the wall.

The workshop is very compact in size.

The workshop is very compact in size.

So you save every last for each customer so it can be used later?

Yes. All customers have their own box containing their lasts, which we keep for five to ten years. After two or three years, the feet can become enlarged. When customers contact me to order again, I ask them whether the shape of the shoes is still good, or if it requires some modification. Many customers come back here to give new measurements, but most of the time the foot stays the same. It just depends on the customer.

So the bespoke shoes are made here, but do you have a bigger factory for the ready-to-wear shoes?

Yes. We have a factory that works for us. It’s not our factory, but they come here with some styles and we select the leather, the colour and they make them for us for spring, summer, autumn and winter. Because we are very small, we cannot make all the shoes we sell in the shop.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

Bespoke suede Chukka boots in the making.

Bespoke suede Chukka boots in the making.

Just look at the stitching; it’s beautiful. So many stitches per centimetre!

Yes. The more stitches there are, the stronger it is. It has to be very high-quality leather to be able to do that kind of tight stitching. We use leather of the highest quality – especially the calfskin, which is the very highest quality. We also use it for the lining inside. Also, the stitching cannot be too wide because the shoes must be elegant.

The lady that you saw this morning, she does the closing [the stitching of the shoe uppers]. She comes here every three days to collect the pieces of leather and then later she returns them stitched and ready for lasting.

The wife of late founder Calogero Mannina still works at the shop. Calogero's portrait is hanging on the wall.

The wife of late founder Calogero Mannina still works at the shop. Calogero's portrait is hanging on the wall.

So how would you describe the style that you usually make?

The style of Mannina is a classic style, because classic shoes never go out of fashion. Calogero Mannina told us that it is better to make very light shoes, not too heavy, and that the shoes must fit like socks. Fit is at least as important as style. It is better not to have too much space. The foot shouldn’t move around inside the shoe because it can damage the leather.

So how long does it take to learn how to make a pair of beautiful, well-fitting shoes?

For me, to learn every single step is necessary. It will take 15-20 years. There are many steps and to learn each one perfectly takes a long time. This job you cannot learn in two years. And every year there is something new – a new way to make the shoes, or a new technique to do a particular step.

How long is your waiting list?

For June, we are full of orders. So, if a customer orders now [in January], he or she will have to wait until July or August. Since I have been here, every month we are full with orders from many old customers and also new ones. Every month, around 10-15 people come here to order custom-made shoes. We are also in a particular part of Florence, where there are many tourists who come in and order our shoes.

A closed upper awaiting lasting.

A closed upper awaiting lasting.

Interesting two-tone oxford shoe that has just been pulled onto its last.

Interesting two-tone oxford shoe that has just been pulled onto its last.

What is the price for the bespoke service?

It starts at €850 for the Blake construction. And for the Goodyear it is €1500. This price also applies for Norwegian and Tirolese stitch. It takes us about five months to make them, depending on the style. The price of the ready-to-wear starts at around €300 up to about €600.

We have a website, but we don’t sell online, because often Italian sizes are different to other European or Japanese sizes, and we don’t want to handle returns. Many people have also asked us to open a store in New York or Japan, but we want to remain a smaller business, because that’s just the way we work.

What percentage of your customers are foreigners compared to Italians?

I would say around 90% of our customers are tourists. They are mainly Japanese or American – both men and women. One American woman came here and ordered five pairs because she couldn’t find the right size for her in the US. But we have customers from all over the world.

The shop is beautifully decorated  and has a charming old-world feel to it.

The shop is beautifully decorated and has a charming old-world feel to it.

Giovanni Lorenzo discussing with Hannes Rebas at the shop.

Giovanni Lorenzo discussing with Hannes Rebas at the shop.

I noticed you have Japanese-speaking staff in your shop. It’s interesting to see so many Japanese people working in shoemaking and tailoring and all these traditional crafts here in Italy. Why do you think that is?

The Japanese like handmade things, and their character is very suited to making things with precision. They do things with passion and they dedicate time to them. So, for these reasons, the final product they make is perfect.

Italians are very famous for bespoke shoes; we have a long tradition. But now, as you can see, there are many good Japanese shoemakers – they are probably the best in the world – makers such as Yohei Fukuda.

I see you use some exotic leathers, too.

Yes. We use alligator, python and ostrich, for example. At this time, exotic leather isn’t hugely popular, but the deerskin is quite popular because it is very soft but also tough. We have a chart that the customers can use to choose the colour and type of leather they want.

Where do you source your leathers?

We use different tanneries for our suede and our linings. We get the lining and the calfskin from a company in Milan. And the rest of it we buy from a company in Tuscany. We get a vegetable-tanned leather there and also our suede and deerskin.

Hand cutting the leathers.

Hand cutting the leathers.

Hand cut leather midsole.

Hand cut leather midsole.

Your shoes mostly have a slim, beautiful and light feel to them. Do you ever make heavier shoes with a double leather sole, for example?

Yes. Many customers request the double sole and we make sure they understand the shoes will be a little heavier, but they just sometimes want shoes that are stronger.

On some shoes, the customer chooses a fuller rubber sole because, like you, they live in places where there is a lot of snow. But most people want a normal sole – just leather and the welt.

Who designs your shoes?

Antonio Mannina is the designer. He selects the model and the style. And he selects the combination of colour and leather. I just proceed with the design and shape that the customer has selected and I draw every piece of the model on paper. I make the patterns, but Antonio selects the best combinations of leather.

What about when customers need a new sole for their shoes? Can they come here to get them repaired?

Yes, we can restore them. And they can send in the shoes and we would put them on the last and we would fix any problems and then we ship them back to the customer.

Not many do this, because it can be quite expensive to pay for shipping, too. Shoes from America can cost up to $100 to ship. And also there’s the repair costs. I think it’s better to repair in the same country you are in. There are many shoemakers that can repair them.

Building the heel of a bespoke pair.

Building the heel of a bespoke pair.

Several pieces of leather are stacked upon each other, glued and nailed together.

Several pieces of leather are stacked upon each other, glued and nailed together.

So if someone sent you a pair of Mannina Goodyear welted shoes, how much would you charge for repair and entire resoling?

Between €400 to €500, because we completely remove the welt and everything. In a factory, they have the machine to stitch the welt, but here we do everything by hand – even Blake. It’s very difficult, because we have to put our hands inside. In Italy, we remove the shoe from the last, and the stitches are 2.5mm.

What do you think the future has in store for Mannina?

We want to continue in this workshop, because Calogero Mannina did not want this workshop to close. Antonio, his son, never worked as a shoemaker but Mannina has been very lucky to find the staff that it has. And we are all very grateful to him for keeping this business going. We are very happy because we have lots of work and the customers really appreciate our shoes.

Bespoke punched wholecut oxford at the finishing stage.

Bespoke punched wholecut oxford at the finishing stage.

Another bespoke order in the works: a suede double monk strap.

Another bespoke order in the works: a suede double monk strap.

If you look at the trends, people are getting more and more interested in craftsmanship and sustainability, and I think you have a good future ahead.

Thank you. But we also want to thank our customers, because they have the patience to wait. When we ask them to wait four or five months for their shoes, they have no problem with it. All they want is perfect shoes and the only thing we really care about is that the customer is satisfied with the final product.

I just want to thank you so much for your time today. It has been such a pleasure.

Thank you for coming. It has been great showing you around.

Ready-to-wear shoes at the Via de’ Guicciardini shop.

Ready-to-wear shoes at the Via de’ Guicciardini shop.

Men's shoes to the left, women's to the right.

Men's shoes to the left, women's to the right.

Mannina has a shop and a workshop, both located just a stone’s throw south of the famous medieval stone bridge Ponte Vecchio in central Florence. The address of the workshop is Via de’ Barbadori 19/R, and the ready-to-wear shop can be found at Via de’ Guicciardini 16/R. The company can also be reached via email.

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