The rise of sportswear in the fashion world is seeing Italy’s leading artisanal shoemakers dip their toes into sneaker culture. Many of the nation’s most talented footwear specialists are now creating luxurious, high-fashion yet sporty shoes, made with the same skill and care as more traditional footwear. We take a look at some of the best brands and sneakers on the market
The artisanal footwear industries of Italy grew and prospered in the second half of the 20th century. With its distinctive model of local family businesses promoting local production, Italy crafted its own style to export to the world. The Marche region has been synonymous with excellence ever since, boasting a network of artisans and factories that produce high-end footwear, from covetable leather creations to made-to-order pieces.
Italian houses offer a luxury leather take on the streetwear staple
Sneakers – a high-street essential that was once the reserve of sportswear brands – are now becoming a staple of any fashion collection. The potential for luxury brands to turn their hand to sportswear has become more and more apparent, and the rigid demarcation between two design spheres is disappearing. This is creating an emerging market in Italy’s footwear landscape and a shift in the country’s shoemaking tradition.
In this new chapter of shoemaking, Italian houses offer a luxury leather take on the streetwear staple. Corridonia-based Santoni, which started out as a local workshop specialising in made-to-order footwear, has turned its unique savoir faire to creating this sports item.
Alongside loafers, double buckles and brogues, the sneaker is now a firm fixture of its collections. Ermenegildo Zegna – synonymous with luxury mens tailoring – has also introduced a smart-casual version of the sporty footwear. The Tiziano trainer has become a go-to style that combines luxury finishing with streetwear codes.
This delicate balance of heritage and innovation is slowly becoming the defining factor of Italy’s fashion scene, with old and new techniques being combined to create a new shoe-making process. For Alberto Guardiani, whose eponymous company has existed since 1947, turning to sportswear was the change that propelled the expansion of the line: ‘I understood the importance of sneakers already in the early 2000s, when we launched our first unisex sneaker, Somerset: tapered with a big G on the side, according to the taste of the time,’ says the designer. ‘The success was so great that the company grew exponentially in very little time.’ Guardiani sees this transition as being ‘linked twofold to the binary of tradition and innovation, insofar as I’m firmly convinced that without know-how, no innovation is possible.’
Considering how luxury formal footwear involves a great deal of specialised skills regarding the processing of leathers, producing sneakers in the same factories is no mean feat. First of all, the materials used in sneakers call for an overhaul of the leather traditions of the Le Marche region, which is where Guardiani’s footwear designs are turned into reality.
‘Using textiles as opposed to leathers requires that the checking process is more advanced,’ he explains. ‘When we work with a textile, we have to predict its future behaviour when it is at first simply assembled on the upper sole and then later when it comes to being worn. So, it represents more work, whether that be in terms of research or of production.’ But the work on materials, as with the traditional craft of the cobbler, is just as refined. Added details include modern touches from the latest special treatments to new lace styles and, most importantly, rubber soles.
Above all, it’s in response to a discerning customer’s desire for luxury in the sneaker field that Italy has jumped into action. For Fratelli Rossetti, a family firm founded in 1953 and now run by brothers Diego, Dario and Luca, the key is the combination of new models with traditional shoemaking. Production methods are still anchored in craftsmanship in the brand’s factories in Parabiago, near Milan.
‘Heritage is very important for us and modernisation cannot compromise product quality,’ they explain. ‘Although the factory boasts the very latest equipment and organisational style, our shoes are still artisanal. Our skilled artisans colour them by hand and then enrich them by adding signature inserts such as tassels or fringes.’
In view of this alliance between traditional handcraft skills and the new models of production and design, Fratelli Rossetti launched the New Artisan Project in 2016. The project supports professional up-and-coming creative talents, celebrating the history of handmade products while giving them a contemporary twist. In the resulting ranges, leather variants on sports footwear emerge, and basketball, rugby and football models form part of the collection.
It is in this characteristically distinctive way that Italy’s shoe-making industry is forging its own path into the future: sneaker lovers will discover a new style of footwear with its own special seal of excellence.