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The first thing that you notice about 49-year-old Silvano Lattanzi is his hands. Powerful and gnarled, they seem to belong to someone other than the immaculately suited man who greets me outside his shop on Rome's Via Bocca di Leone. It's the feast of the Epiphany, and the whole of the city seems to be out on parade in the late-morning sunshine, browsing through the windows along nearby Via Condotti and then gathering in groups like actors at a full-costume rehearsal debating (with the curtain still up) where to have lunch. Lattanzi ushers me inside through a decorated wrought-iron gate and introduces me to his current manager, Cecilia, a young Frenchwoman, who gallantly insists that she has had to come in to the small shop today—"for a stocktaking."
Lattanzi only has time to tell me, quite matter-of-factly, that he left school at the age of 14 before the telephone rings and he is called away. So I turn aside to inspect his shoes, although I don't know quite where to begin. For there are astonishing numbers of them—far more than at any other bench-shoemaker I've ever visited. They're in small glass-fronted lockers along the one wall, in the windows, laid out on every available surface; they compose a series of contemporary meditations on the classic designs of the 20th century—the full brogue, the half-brogue, the country shoe, the loafer—in calf, suede, and cordovan: some exquisitely light; others much heavier, with a double-welt, a midsole, and two rows of decorative bottom-stitching. The patterning, the shape, and the curves of handsewn detailing differ from pair to pair; there are variations in color, in patina, and burnish. These are the shoes not just of someone who has already foreseen every conceivable demand a custom-client might make of him, but of an experimenter, a man who is restlessly working his way through all the possibilities (for personal statement, for fashion) of traditional forms.
It's this restlessness—this constant need to get on, to do more—that's the second thing you notice about Silvano Lattanzi. In the end we spend a couple of hours in his shop, talking about his career: the long road that's taken him from his apprenticeship to the heights of Rome and Milan, where he has an outlet on Via Montenapoleone. But I soon sense that this elegantly laid-out store is not his natural environment, and that he's quietly uneasy talking about himself. He only seems happy, in fact, when he's involved in something practical, like bending low to measure me for the pair of shoes I've come to order, or explaining the intricacies, shoe in hand, of the double-welt or of reversing—the fiendishly complex process, forgotten now by many English custom-shoemakers, in which the upper part of the shoe is sewn inside-out and then reversed so that the stitching is barely evident. It's only when he speaks about his work that he becomes both personal and, in a simple, self-effacing way, almost lyrical.
"I produce about 50 new models a year," Lattanzi says, "and I take inspiration wherever I can find it—from nature, from my travels. It's important for me when I travel to see beautiful places, beautiful women, museums, fine carpets, and fine palaces—because I want to reach out to that whole world and absorb it into what I do. It's also important that I meet through my work men of intelligence and culture. When I go to the United States I like to take photographs of my custom-clients there, so I can remember and respect them. Without that memory, that respect, the soul goes out of the work: It does not come out well."
Later, over lunch at a nearby wine-bar, he adds: "Passion is another basic element in what I'm trying to do. You know, people don't appreciate what it takes to make shoes by hand. They don't understand it's physically tough work: dirty and exacting. They think that it's automatic, repeatable, a sort of instant magic. But I'm there every day, side by side with my workers—discussing, comparing, experimenting—and not only do we work very hard, we work with passion—we have to—we work with love. Hand-making must be perfect, absolutely perfect. You cannot do it if you are neurotic; you can't do it if there are other things on your mind. You have to have a happy atmosphere and total, total commitment." So it comes as no surprise to me when he announces as the meal ends: "You must come and see it for yourself!"
Soon after lunch, then, we jump into his Mercedes-Benz and spend the late afternoon driving across the spine of Italy, stopping only to gaze at a snow-capped mountain transformed into pink ice cream by the last flourish of the sun. And next morning, after a night in a hotel on the coast, I ring the front doorbell of the little balconied house on Via Mostrapiedi (literally Show-the-Feet Street) in the hamlet of Sant'Elpidio a Mare, about a half-hour drive from the Adriatic port of Ancona. I don't exactly know what I'm expecting—a place with the same sort of methodical, meditative calm, I suppose, that I've found in the custom-shoemakers I have visited in London. But what I find, though driven by the same craft imperatives, could be on another planet. The front door opens onto a stairwell; off to the left is a tiny office that's piled with papers and files; and beyond the office there's a buzz, a whirl, a hubbub of activity. Fourteen or 15 people are crammed into a relatively small space, along with tables and racks of finished shoes, antiquated machinery, and an extraordinary contraption of movable, tiered metal baskets filled with lasted footwear of every color, which snakes up and down one side of the room. Near the door, in a space of their own, two seasoned old "bottomers" are sitting on low stools, calmly stitching on welts, the thin strips of leather which hold the "upper," the lining, and the insole together. But everywhere else in the room workers, darting from station to station, variously pincer, staple, water, hammer, nail, and measure in what looks at first to me like organized chaos.
Lattanzi, who is now wearing a grubby white coat, introduces me to his workers and then says, "All right. Today—just to show you—we're going to do something that we normally wouldn't do: We're going to make you a pair of shoes in only twenty-four hours!"
The tan leather town-shoe that I have chosen, a model called Barkin, combines utter simplicity—the minimum of sewn decoration—with supreme elegance of form. Once more Lattanzi measures me, carefully turning my feet into two outlines and a series of figures. Then, with a set of pre-made patterns in hand, he leads me past the buffing machine and a group of "finishers" to the cutter's, or "clicker's," bench.
What follows over the next few hours is a virtual master class in the art of shoe-making. While the clicker is busy selecting a skin, Lattanzi explains the fundamentals of hide preparation. For ordinary leather he uses the top layer, which has a grainy texture created by the animal's pores and the bases of its hair follicles; the layer beneath it, made of collagen fibers, is napped into suede. Most of his calfskin, Lattanzi says, comes from England ("absolutely the best in Europe"), and the leather used to make the soles comes from Düsseldorf. Cordovan—which is made from horse muscle—"comes from Chicago; crocodile, lizard, ostrich, and snakeskin we import from all over the world."
The skin that the cutter finally brings down for my shoes is handed to Lattanzi who turns it over and pulls at it. "First, it has to be the right color, of course," he says, "to take the particular coloration I'm after. But it must also have—in the parts that we use of it—a fine texture, a good grain. It must be elastic," he says, stretching it again, "and it must have a uniformity of thickness. If the skin is too thin, I won't use it at all."
He nods at the cutter, who lays the patterns down on the skin one after another and cuts round them with his long "clicking" blade (the name comes from its sound), sometimes leaving space at the pattern edge and sometimes adding through the pattern what seem to be chalk guidelines for the stitcher. When he is done, he repeats the process with a thinner piece of leather for the lining, and then he hands the pile of cut shapes across his bench to a young woman sitting at a punch press below him.
Her first task—which she starts without pausing for breath, it seems—is to chamfer down the under-edges of some of the leather pieces, a process called skiving, "so that wherever they are put together for stitching there will be only a single thickness," says Massimo Bizzocchi, Lattanzi's American agent, who has joined us. Then she takes other sections and punches out a line of holes, the eyelets for the laces, and carefully fits metal rings in some of them. Finally she gathers together the pieces, puts them in a plastic bag, and takes them upstairs. Lapsed time so far: 35 minutes.
Bizzocchi and I follow her to a room overlooking a garden planted with lettuces, herbs, and arugula; farther down the hillside we can see the beginnings of the huge new workshop Lattanzi is building. For the next hour we watch as his sister, Fabiana, painstakingly assembles the incoherent pile of leather snippets into something that finally looks like a shoe. She goes downstairs once to replace a section spotted by wax from the candle she uses to burn off loose fibers. She twice unravels a whole section of stitching because she is not satisfied with the line. ("Silvano is a very tough critic," Fabiana says.) But by the time she's done we have a finished lining and upper—which resembles a shoe in the same way a face would if it were peeled off and laid down flat.
Downstairs, we introduce ourselves formally to Lattanzi's mother, Delia, a quietly cheerful, bespectacled woman who is finishing off shoes for Jil Sander and Brioni (while outside, her husband, Angelo, hoes and weeds the garden). Lattanzi himself we find crouched on the floor whittling away with a piece of broken glass at a last, which he's already built up at the sides with what looks like plaster. "No machine can do this," he says, looking up at me. "Only hands—knowing where you want to add and where to take away." What he's been doing, he says, is creating the shape of my feet out of standard-size lasts. (Normally Lattanzi makes a custom last for each client.) He's even added a bridgelike leather prosthesis—to represent my high arches. "There," he says, standing, satisfied with his scraping. "Now we can begin."
He briefly inspects the uppers for any sign of blemish. Then he splashes water on them and—using two different brushes—glues the uppers and liners together in preparation for the lasts. "Regular glue and mastic glue," he announces. "The mastic dries quickly and becomes soft where you want it to be soft, while the regular glue takes longer to dry, so that you can manipulate the surface of the shoes on the last." He puts temporary laces through the carefully aligned eyelets and ties them tight. Then, one after the other—using no more than pincers, a hammer, and nails—he forces the two upper-liner assemblages down onto the lasts.
It takes no more than a few minutes. But it is an extraordinary performance—a combination of strength and an absolute certainty of eye: strength, to pincer the leather smooth and tight round the last's edges before nailing the fringes onto the base; and certainty of eye, to make sure that the alignment and symmetry of the shoes are not skewed in the process. When he's finished Lattanzi compares the two covered lasts with a pair of calipers, and he finds that they match exactly. I feel like applauding his accuracy. He simply gives a small grunt of satisfaction, and then passes them on to one of his workers, who splashes water on them and then begins to hammer out the leather.
"This is the next stage," Lattanzi says, standing over him, "the tapping in of the fibers, starting the process that is in the wear of the shoe. Water is very important here because leather is a living material. It absorbs water, and when it dries out, it will keep the shape that is being hammered into it. After this the shoes stay on the last for two more days, we'll water and hammer them again, and then they'll stay on the last—acquiring the memory of their shape—for another two to five weeks, depending on the humidity, the weather."
As I'm led through the subsequent processes—the heat-flattening of the base of the shoe, the setting of the insole, and the interposition of the shank, which supports the foot's arch—I begin to understand why the 4,000 pairs of shoes Lattanzi makes annually command such high prices—$3,000-$5,000 for the first pair (which includes the making of the last), and similar prices for subsequent ones, though selecting an exotic leather can make the cost even higher. And then I am led to the central mystery of custom shoemaking—the hand-sewing of the welt.
Most shoes made today don't come with a welt but are instead held together by being cemented or injected with hot plastic. The welt, by contrast, is stitched onto—and through—upper, lining, and insole. But in Lattanzi's hands, it becomes a sort of fugue. He is a virtuoso of the single welt; the double, which will be used for my shoes (with an extra midsole for strength); and even the triple, which when I get back to London is described to me by a custom shoemaker as "used only for rigid, waterproof ski-boots—and then not really worth the trouble." And yet Lattanzi shows me women's shoes of an extraordinary delicacy that are triple-welted. They are rigid, certainly, and as water-resistant as it's possible to be, but with the platform of the shoe a showplace for a variety of intertwining, decorative cross-stitching.
When evening falls, it is time for my first fitting. Lattanzi searches out my shoes from the racked baskets, unlasts them, puts a temporary sole and heel on them, and then, when I've put them on, bends down to feel my feet through the leather. "The lacing isn't quite right." Then: "Too tight," he announces. By the time I come back in the morning, on my way to the airport, both lasts have been changed; and a toepiece on one of the shoes, which had somewhere along the way been slightly discolored, has been replaced. The whole workshop now seems to be involved. Lattanzi is still not satisfied. He says that he'll change the last once more, and that I'll get my shoes—"Perfect!"—in six weeks.
After I say goodbye to everyone, to Lattanzi's mother, to his sister, to his father, who comes in from the garden, Lattanzi drives me to the airport. And I say to him that I've never seen a group of people work so hard together in my life. He's pleased. Then he says to me: "You know, in 1981, which was the year of the birth of my son Paolo, I realized that I was broke; my company, Zintala, was going nowhere; and it was then that I was forced to grow up. I understood that the cemeteries were full of undiscovered geniuses, and that if I really wanted to succeed, I'd have to work. Ten years later I opened the shop in Rome." And since then? "Whatever has happened to me, I think," he says slowly, "I owe to other people: to my clients, to Cecilia, to Massimo Bizzocchi, to people like you."
At the little Ancona airport Lattanzi buys me a coffee, and then we say goodbye, promising to meet again. Six weeks later, my shoes arrive. I unwrap them, take out the shoetrees, and put them on. They are like a second skin; and I finally realize the truth of something that all custom-shoemakers have always told me: "When you put on your first pair of bench-made shoes, you will never be able to wear anything else again."
Silvano Lattanzi ready-to-wear shoes ($1,400- $3,000) are available at Louis Boston, Boston; Ultimo, Chicago; Barneys New York, New York; Stanley Korshak, Dallas; Wayne Edwards, Philadelphia; and Scott Hill, Los Angeles. Appointments for bespoke shoes can be made during Lattanzi's bimonthly visits to the U.S. by contacting any of the above outlets or through the Milan (39-02-76023648) or Rome (39-06-6786119) boutique. www.silvanolattanzi.com
For further inquiries, fax the New York showroom of Silvano Lattanzi's agent in the U.S., Massimo Bizzocchi, at 212-702-9117. www.mbizzocchi.com