The city of Florence is built upon centuries of spirit, and it’s fitting that Stefano Bemer’s world-renowned atelier — where a spirit of perfection in craftsmanship and traditional values thrive — resides inside an old chapel in the city.
Tommaso Melani is CEO of Stefano Bemer, a company that makes some of the finest handmade men’s shoes. Melani believes in a spiritual intelligence in the universe, saying it “gave us wisdom and judgment to decipher what’s good and what’s not. There are values that are good… and you just absorb them if you’re raised in the right context.”
Melani grew up in Florence, naturally assimilating the city’s traditional values and impeccable style.
“When you are born and raised in Florence, some standards of beauty and refinement become part of who you are,” Melani says. “That happens to also affect the way you look at craft in general.”
He says it’s not by chance that painters, sculptors and architects all gravitated to this city during the Renaissance.
“They were not only influencing each other, they set the standard,” he says.
Melani’s own creativity and classical sense of beauty has also been inspired by those around him. He fondly remembers his stylish father and grandfather “never [being] too much put together, never pretentious,” he says. His grandfather would wear a white tuxedo in the summer, sitting in the garden for a drink before dinner.
“It wasn’t for guests, it was for his own pleasure,” Melani says. “It was that spontaneous enjoyment of something that makes you feel better.”
Chuckling, Melani remembers that as a young boy he swore to his elders he would only ever wear sneakers and never leather shoes like them. His vow was short-lived, however, as his sense of style naturally matured into that quintessential Florentine flair.
“It’s a chain of values, it’s been transmitted,” he says. “It has been passed down over generations, it is still part of what we do, and it’s reflected in the actions and products that we conceive.”
Stefano Bemer’s classical qualities, integrity, and authenticity have attracted loyal patrons such as the late Italian fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré and Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, masters of craft in their own right. Possibly eclipsing the shoes’ outward beauty is the inner one of the wearer — the invisible virtues of class and confidence.
Stefano Bemer shoes also personify the timeless enjoyment of customization — the freedom to showcase your own unique style IQ and hint of personal panache. The shoemaker helps us see the virtues of artisanship as more than simple surface beauty. It’s a marriage of art, self-expression, function, and life.
Artisanship is the art of experience.
More simply put, Stefano Bemer shoes show that artisanship is the art of experience. It often has function, and you experience it in a more tangible way than a painting or sculpture.
“An understanding of shoes is not just the shoe,” Melani says. “It’s a statement about how you see yourself.”
Birthplace of the Golden Age
Melani grew up in Santa Croce, a section of Florence renowned for its leather tanning, dyeing, and workmanship dating back to the 1300s. Even the local street names reflect its heritage — Corso dei Tintori (Dyer Avenue), Via delle Conce (Tannery Street), and Canto delle Mosche (Flies Corner, signifying the many insects attracted to the waste products of leather-making).
For four generations, Melani’s family has owned and operated the handbag company and leather-making school Scuola del Cuoio. His grandfather founded the company in 1949 to train orphans from World War II so they could earn a living and have a future. It set an example for Melani of how to take care of his city and heritage.
“It’s fair that you give back and do something for the community,” he says.
Melani’s grandfather partnered with the Franciscan Friars of Santa Croce and the mayor to establish an atelier inside what used to be the friars’ dormitory of Basilica di Santa Croce, the principal Franciscan church in Florence and burial place of Italian visionaries such as Michelangelo and Galileo.
“My playground was the monastery,” Melani says. “The bond with the city for me is very special.”
Spending lots of time in his grandfather’s office at the Basilica, and generally in the atmosphere of craftsmanship in his neighbourhood, Melani learned much, including the intricacies of leather-making, the ethic of the artisan, and a gentleman’s poise.
Stefano Bemer — founder of his eponymous men’s shoe brand, and Melani’s loyal friend — also grew up immersed in Florence’s beautiful culture.
“[Stefano] never travelled abroad,” Melani says. “He was a trained shoemaker, but his taste is the expression of Florence.”
Melani notes that there are subtle differences, nuances, that are different about a pair of shoes made in Florence versus ones made elsewhere in Italy. There’s more attention to fine detail and a greater sense of overall refinement, he says.
Since Melani understood the subtleties of Florentine workmanship and design, he was the perfect person to continue his friend’s mission to create the perfect men’s shoe when, sadly, Bemer got sick and passed away in 2012, at the age of only 46.
“Stefano Bemer’s team of artisans had an aura of genuine artistry about them, and that is what ultimately allowed me to ensure that the firm wouldn’t be dissolved at Stefano’s death, and that his alchemy — not of straw into gold, but of leather into the finest footwear — would be preserved.”
That year, Melani bought the company Stefano Bemer. But Melani didn’t simply want to preserve his late friend’s legacy, he wanted to build upon it, to further enrich the future generations of the city they both called home.
A new era
“Were it not for that friendship that started years before, Stefano’s vision and the magic of his footwear would have either disappeared or turned into a mass-market commercial product,” Melani says.
Stefano Bemer was a master shoemaker, who even developed his own techniques. Bemer’s handcrafted workmanship was aligned with Melani’s own standards for craftsmanship, which differed significantly from the existing commercial Italian brands.
Melani says the “Made in Italy” label is outdated, and it’s being misused by the Italian fashion brands. For example, fully manufactured shirts, leather handbags, and shoes are shipped into Italy from China missing only buttons and buckles. Once these are sewed on, the commercial brand gives it the label “Made in Italy.”
“‘Made in Italy’ doesn’t stand for anything nowadays,” Melani says. “If you count the number of shoes [an Italian fashion house] sells in a day, there’s just not enough craftsmen on the planet to handmake their shoes, so it’s a show. ‘Made in Italy’ should stand for ‘Made in Italy.’”
While Melani wants more honest, strict requirements for the “Made in Italy” label, he believes the mass-produced Italian shoe market provided an opportunity for him and good timing to buy Stefano Bemer.
“What was missing was a little more authentic expression of style, because these were brands made to please everyone on the planet,” Melani says. “What I admired was the possibility of creating your own, expressing your own taste in ways that no one else has done before. I don’t want to be told what to wear, I’d rather choose what to wear.”
He uses the example of wanting a larger lapel on a suit or a different colour sole on a shoe. These options simply didn’t exist, leaving him, as a customer, unsatisfied.
To offer the most freedom of choice and self-expression, Melani introduced three lines of shoes at Stefano Bemer: ready-to-wear, made-to-order, and bespoke. What’s clear, and unique, is Melani’s sincere adoration for each line.
“What I always say to a new client is that if you don’t need bespoke and you can fit into the ready-to-wear, save your money,” he says. “I’d rather give you three pairs of ready-to-wear than one pair of Sixpence bespoke.” His attitude reveals as much about his own down-to-earth demeanor as it does about the line’s craftsmanship. He explains the ready-to-wear shoes are made with the exact same level of quality and artisanal integrity as the custom pairs.
“We have created a selection of [shoes] we consider to be iconic and perfectly representing the house style,” he says of the read-to-wear line, which has shoes starting at 1,150 euros. “Some clients want instant gratification.”
The made-to-order program still uses the standard ready-to-wear lasts (a shoe last is a form in the shape of a foot around which the shoe is built). But it offers a seemingly unlimited number of choices for colours and leathers. The company sources box calf from France; horse, cordovan, cowhide, bison, deer, and alligator from the United States; elephant, hippo, kudu, camel, ostrich and crocodile from Africa; and snakes and lizards from Asia.
“Gives plenty of room to imagination,” Melani says of the made-to-order shoes, which start at 1,250 euros and take eight weeks to deliver.
The crème de la crème is, of course, Stefano Bemer bespoke.
The mould is made for the individual, so you can change the shape of the shoe and the thickness of the sole. You can also add accents that are challenging to make, yet equally beautiful, such as the symmetrical fiddleback waist.
“The reign of the bespoke service appeals to those clients that have been digging deeper in the expression of their ideas. A pair of custom-made shoes brings out the vision that we have of ourselves,” he says. Bespoke shoes range between 2,450 and 9,000 euros, and can take four to six months per pair, with an expected refitting or two.
Melani also notes the intimate bond crafted between the shoe brand, cobbler and client.
“The additional experience is knowing that there’s a couple of pieces of wood with your name on it that have been crafted to your liking, to fit you and only you, that are kept for you in an old chapel in Florence waiting for your next pair to be commissioned,” he says. “You know the guy that is making the shoes, [who] will help you with ideas on the next pair that we make. It’s very special. Regardless of the fact that they can easily fit in ready-to-wear, I do have clients that would not go back.”
There is one final criterion that every shoe, from ready-to-wear to bespoke, must pass.
“If I wouldn’t wear it, then we don’t make it,” Melani says, who sometimes needs to guide his clients towards a proper-looking Stefano Bemer bespoke shoe. “There has to be a taste throughout everything we do. It has to be the expression of the culture I belong to, an expression of the style that comes out of Florence.”
Passing it forward
Coming from the success of Scuola del Cuoio — literally, “The School of Leather” — Melani knew the importance of having artisans with the best training.
“We don’t hire craftsmen,” Melani says. No, he moulds them in a training program he established upon purchasing Stefano Bemer. The budding artisans first complete a six-month, full-time training. At the end of the semester, the two most talented students from each group of 12 are chosen for a one-year master training, one-on-one, master to apprentice.
“They need to practice, practice, practice,” he says. “Regardless of who makes them, they always have to be our shoes. I can’t just hire someone that’s coming from another company.”
Stefano Bemer shoemakers have mastered five different techniques to assemble the upper leather with the insole and outer sole. Each approach affects the style of the shoe, so it’s up to the made-to-order and bespoke clients to decide the techniques they want used.
Eight bespoke artisans work in plain view at the centre of the ground floor inside the Stefano Bemer store in Florence.
Melani describes his shop as “an open-space workshop where visitors can go beyond the product and grasp a sense of the commitment towards a higher standard of quality. I believe in authenticity, and I bring our own in front of each visitor.”
He will with a couple of his artisans from Florence to Vancouver, Canada, in June to bring this experience to guests at the Luxury Home & Design Show, hosted by our sister media, Taste of Life. They will set up an open workshop in the show’s venue, BC Place, which will be transformed to look like an Italian piazza, in line with the event’s Renaissance theme.
“Even a pair of shoes bursts with life: the making of it, the ideas of the shoemaker that engineered it, the fine touch of the patine artist that glazed it,” he says. “I would like to bring our visitors into the action and behind the scenes, to appreciate the dedication of our artisans.”
Melani says he’s most excited about the conversations he’ll have with inquisitive patrons, educating them at the show.
“It’s not how much you spend. It’s having nice quality and style, and really understanding the difference,” he says. “Our style gives visual definition to the man that we envision when we conceive our creations: elegant but never stiff, extravagant but never flashy, self-confident but never arrogant, and sophisticated but never pretentious. He understands the classic rules of dress but is never completely conformant.”