Despite Italy’s economic struggles, “Made in Italy” is one of the most powerful phrases in international business. Of the top 75 luxury brands in the world, 23 are Italian – 30.7 percent, the largest share of any country. According to Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, “Italy’s prolific design talent and its reputation for tradition, heritage and quality underpin the cachet.” Italy is also the world’s third largest luxury market.
Shoes from the Italian peninsula were in demand for their style and quality centuries before a nation named Italy existed. “Italian taste was unknown in other parts of Europe,” Venetian historian Cesare Peris states, the implication being that while the rest of the Old World was still struggling through the iron age, the Italians, and especially the Venetians, were already eating with forks.
Paul Evans, who sells men’s shoes made in Italy, attributes the dominance of Italian shoes to a “national fixation on excellence.” On his website, he says, “While shoemakers everywhere were honing their techniques with regard to construction, it was the Italian cordwainers [who] focused just as precisely on the materials being used.”
For centuries the best Italian shoemakers have used leather from cows bred specifically for their hides. They then developed tanning processes that made the leather unusually supple, thereby improving its quality even further. “This, coupled with a millennium or two of artistry, is what led to Italy’s shoemaking expertise.”
For these reasons among others, a shopper can take it as a given that “made-to-measure” shoes, made in Italy, will be first-class. But the story of how Italy came to rule the commercial luxury-shoe market runs on a set of parallel tracks, with one rail being traditional expertise and the other being some very enterprising entrepreneurs.
There are three primary areas in Italy that specialize in the production of luxury footwear. One is San Mauro Pascoli, in Romagna between Forlì and Cesena, where 270 companies operate with around 4,000 employees. Every year, this area produces 15 million pairs of shoes, two-thirds of which are destined for export.
The second are the areas of Fermo and Macerata, in the Marches, where over 3,300 companies work, accounting for approximately 24,000 jobs. The largest section of their products is aimed at the medium-high sector of market, above all for women, and about 20% is specifically aimed at the luxury footwear market.
The third is the “Riviera del Brenta” in the Veneto, the 100-square-mile area surrounding the Brenta canal that flows from Padua to Venice. The small towns here–Fiesso d’Artico, Fossò, Vigonovo, Vigonza, Noventa Padovana, Saonara–dotting the 25-mile (41 km) stretch of river have made this area, small as it is, the world leader in the production of high-end luxury footwear for men and women. Almost all of the designer-label footwear on the market is designed, made, and marketed here.