Today there is a trend of calling things “artisan” or “handmade” that honestly speaking are not. Advertising that form of work organization raises the market value of the items. The true mode of production may then have nothing to do with it, thus harming the artisans and their potential customers. When it comes to footwear, it would help to have a few simple tricks to tell when a shoe is handmade. However, distinguishing with the naked eye an artisan shoe from another produced in a factory can be difficult. This does not mean that the qualities, durability, or comfort are the same. The superior qualities of artisan footwear are largely unknown. Helping the public recognize them is part of our job.
If it is not so easy to tell if a shoe is handcrafted, it is because several of its best qualities are not visible, but inside. The “chassis” with its internal reinforcements —the insole, heel counter, toe cap and shank —is what provides a robustness beyond the reach of machine manufacturing. In the handmade shoe, these pieces are made of leather, a material that breathes and makes the shoe breathable. Factories almost always incorporate cardboard or synthetics that are cheaper and easier to handle.
To confirm if a shoe has the artisan chassis, it will have to be dissected with a blade, something that is obviously not allowed when buying. But the fact that these parts are hidden does not make them imperceptible. Once worn, the artisan shoe is better armed, it adapts to the foot accompanying the user when walking and gives a special solidity.
More tools, less machines
The craftsman is the one who controls the production process of the piece from start to finish. A few raw materials —basically leather— enter through the door of a shoe workshop and, from the hands of the artisan, shoes come out. This requires mastering the handling of tools such as the hammer, the blade, and the pliers. Because of factories—where machines have replaced tools—these skills have been dying out.
Family businesses that are strictly small factories are sometimes called artisans. In them, from generation to generation, the expert handling of tools has been abandoned to specialize in a different art: logistics and assembly. In these cases, factory workers skilfully handle machines such as presses and die-cutters, each limiting themselves to a part of the process decontextualized from the whole. The inputs come from different places: the cut may have been made in another nearby factory, the sole in another country and the heels in another continent. This organization system has allowed the creations of a famous designer or a prestigious brand to reach a mass of consumers. It is precisely to this industrial specialization that denominations such as “made in…” or the logos of luxury firms allude.
However, down this road, some of the best qualities of the shoes are lost. The tensions of the skin that are achieved with the pins and pliers are very precise. So are blade cuts. Thanks to working with tools, handmade shoes allow nuances, warps, and complexities in the execution of the design that cannot be achieved in any other way. In addition, the treatment of the materials throughout the manufacture gives these shoes a special shine by keeping them more oiled and always hydrated. Once finished, these shoes stand out with a perfection different from serial reproduction. Each piece is not identical to the previous one but has small, almost imperceptible differences that give it a distinctive presence.
That expert handling of tools is especially visible in the heels. The heel of a handmade shoe is raised layer by layer with razor-cut sheets of leather. The craftsman then shapes it in an almost sculptural manner. Finally, it is sanded with glass to achieve a finish reminiscent of shiny wood.
In constrast, the weak point of the serial shoe is in the heel. Factories cannot perform the process just described. They can but place a solid piece of wood. In the best of cases, finally, a glued veneer is added imitating the finish of the handmade shoe.
The atelier versus the shop
True craftsmanship is not bought in a store but is ordered from a workshop or atelier. The impulse to carry something that has just been seen in a shop window in a bag is repressed in this case in exchange for a slower purchase process. The idea of stocking is alien to the method of organizing the work of an artisan workshop. Especially when it comes to a sizing product like shoes, it is not possible to have many pairs for each foot size available. More than limitations, this system has several advantages. The handmade-to-order allows dialogue with the client who can make contributions to the design. The possibilities to customize to suit your foot needs or the level of customization that can be achieved are inconceivable when it comes to a factory.