Mechanics of a Sole

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2011, 12:00am


Almost every shoe is different. The leather is hand crafted and laser-cut, and some are delicately hand painted and polished by aged artisans, like the white-haired man who has been working at the factory for more than 30 years.

Welcome to the Fratelli Rossetti factory in Parabiago just northwest of Milan. For almost 60 years, Fratelli Rossetti has crafted footwear here with fine leathers and meticulous quality control. Founder Renzo Rossetti had his sons Diego, Luca, and Dario take over the running of the company in 2003, with extra investment in research and international expansion.

Traditional artisanal products are central to the history of Italian fashion, but now modern customers are increasingly fickle. Fratelli Rossetti, founded by Renzo in 1953, puts craftsmanship, comfort and quality in the foreground. Business has been steady, with an iconic status in their homeland. Now the three Rossetti brothers are looking to conquer international markets with their honest blend of creativity and craftsmanship.

In the past, the label has had fashion giants such as Giorgio Armani and Manolo Blahnik design their shoes, and has made footwear for the likes of Hermes, Pierre Cardin and Bill Blass. Renzo was a pioneer in more ways than one.

'This is one of our iconic styles,' says his eldest son Diego, dressed in an impeccable dark suit as he shows me a gorgeous vintage-style tasseled loafer in their showroom. 'My father was the first to do tassels on shoes. It was unusual, and he had a hard time selling it because 40 years ago men's shoes were only black lace ups in four styles. But we liked it, so we did it.'

Now Fratelli Rossetti is regaining a reputation for daring designs after a period of Italian classicism. Helping them along is guest designer, maverick American shoemaker George Esquivel, who aims to capture the more contemporary and international markets. Washed effects popular in the Autumn-Winter collection, Diego explains, are 'actually put it in a washing machine for a look popular with younger or American clients'.

This project was introduced by Esquivel, who has been working with the company for a few seasons due to an opportune introduction by fashion's most powerful woman, Anna Wintour, whom Diego calls 'one of the nicest people I know'.

'The woven technique is the big thing for next Spring-Summer season,' says Diego. 'And we do it in many different ways...This weave is something we do by hand, every single leather strip has to be woven and inserted by hand.'

This hand weave, beautifully resurrected from their classic 1960s Brera Moccasin, is big, and the classic-laced Oxford featuring perforated detailing is also popular. Soft materials like nappa in vivid colours such as brick red, blue, and olive green contrast with more classic shades.

'For the last shapes, I've developed a couple,' says Esquivel, stroking one particularly handsome shiny brown loafer. 'But they do such beautiful lasts that there is no point in changing it. Look at this one,' he lifts it so I get a better look, 'It's a traditional loafer but we did all the stitching on the inside. How beautiful is that?' Esquivel is making inroads, with more daring styles coming into stores, balancing his quirkiness with the Italian preference for perfection: 'I love things that have a bit more character; leather is supposed to be a little raw,' he says.

Diego Rossetti has learned a lot from his father. He has been at the company for more than 30 years, controlling and coordinating communications on the global scale, and heading the Asian and Anglo-American markets. Even if production and manufacturing are managed by his brother Dario, Diego is intimate with the production process, peppering conversation with technical know-how as he walks me around its central Milan showroom just off the sunny Piazza San Carlo.

'The time that the shoe stays on the last is very important,' Diego says. 'Once you put the shoe on the last, it needs time to make the shape. For the most complicated shoes, you can go to as many 150 phases to make the entire shoe, from the way you treat the leather to the way you put it back as a shoe.'

Ironically it was a poor boy, who in a humble childhood often went around barefoot, that sparked a label known for elegant, beautifully made leather shoes. Renzo was a quiet industrialist whose innovation would set the tone for his industry, with a label synonymous with luxurious footwear in Italy. What began as a niche company specializing in sports shoes in the 1950s, grew into a traditional men's label, but not without its ups and downs.

If it is the softly spoken elder brother Diego who guides me through the Milan showroom and talks passionately about the family business, it is the younger brothers Luca and Dario who take us through the tour of the factory. We visit every stage of the making of a Fratelli Rossetti shoe, from idea inception and design, to the leather cutting, buffing and polishing. Hands work at their stations, often decorated by worker's kitsch religious iconography and gaudy pictures of the Virgin Mary.

Luca - the more casually dressed younger brother - is in charge of finance management. Middle brother Dario Rossetti shows us the different gargantuan rolls of leather hides at their disposal in what can only be described as the air-controlled company vault. He manages the design and production cycle, ensuring an infallible high quality. Their father was a strict man who decided their roles in the company based on their personalities.

When it comes to traditional men's shoes, there is no denying that heritage is a big selling point, especially in Italy and for the more discerning customer. Labels such as Alden's of New England, Church's of England and Crocket and Jones all command respect. Craftsmanship and quality are important too, so the likes of Frenchman Pierre Corthay is also able to muscle in on the luxury men's footwear market.

During the 1990s, many big fashion brands were buying up smaller independent companies in Italy. 'We were also in touch,' says Diego. 'And I was keen to have a big firm as our partner, but we didn't reach an agreement because they wanted to buy 100 per cent.

'In the end, we are the only Italian company of this scale to remain completely independent and family owned, but internationally distributed. This is something we are very proud of. It is really special.'

'Everything we sell is made by us,' says Diego, citing techniques such as 'specialised split leather stitching' as 'the level of workmanship we can reach'.

Diego believes the label's heritage is a main attraction of the Rossetti shoe: 'Even more now than before, especially after the financial crisis. I believe people are looking more and more for quality guaranteed products, and a company like ours has this reputation - we make everything ourselves - it's a sort of guarantee.

'You may or may not like our shoes, but what is undoubted is that the workmanship is there, the quality is there and the value for money is there.'

The story of this family business has fairy-tale qualities: the rags-to-riches figurehead, the succession of three very different sons, the worldwide expansion from a little Italian cobblers' workshop. However, things were not always so smooth. Major funding problems occurred at the beginning, and without big investors, expansion outside Italy was limited for some time.

Diego still vividly remembers his first job, as manager of Fratelli Rossetti Madison Avenue, New York - the first Italian boutique to open there. 'The beginning was a disaster,' he says. 'Because Americans were only wearing black lace-ups with no variations in style or colour, and we were putting brown suede shoes in the window. The first four or five years were a problem. China is still a little conservative like that now.'

In Italy, most fashion and accessories industry conferences have something to do with development in the China region, both a blessing and a curse to the Italian way. Diego himself has visited Shanghai for a luxury summit and also Beijing. Although the biggest concern in Hong Kong is finding a good retail space, the mainland holds a different story.

'The Chinese market is still more conservative than the rest of the world,' says Diego, who adds that traditional styles and black shoes make up almost 90 per cent of sales. 'You have to learn the market and what it needs. We are also working on the lasts because Asian feet are different so we already have special lasts of the Chinese market,' he says. 'We're looking to open at least 14 shops in the next three years in China with local partners. If China accounts for 10 per cent of our business in the next eight to 10 years, it will be a big result.'

The label's strength is not only quality craftsmanship and imitable style all made by the Parabiago factory; there is also a friendly price point in making these shoes an 'affordable luxury'. Since 40 per cent of Fratelli Rossetti's business is done through their own stores, they know how important retail price is. And on top of this, the family-run label doesn't have the giant marketing and advertising costs of other big firms. Without having to subcontract, Diego explains they can keep the prices competitive, especially when the 'Made in Italy' label has become increasingly important in a market flooded with cheap imitations.

The name of the company reflected the partnership of Renzo and his brother Renato starting the business, and still reflects the three brothers who have inherited the helm. But it is inevitable that the business must modernise. Down the road, Diego admits that the company will need to become more formal management structure as the third generation stands at seven children.

'Everybody in the company has to know how the shoes were made,' Diego says. 'Our staff of designers is very broad, from people who have worked for us for 30 years to young students.'

'We have a lot of enthusiasm for the collaboration with young creatives like George Esquivel,' he says, and also mentions the illustrative collaboration with unlikely young artist Rebecca Moses. 'We never look for famous celebrities or big photographers. Instead we like to look for people who love to do things with their hands.'

And at the factory, it is when you reach the knitted brows of those concentrating at their desks in the cutting department that a perfect allegory can be drawn to the label as a whole. There are hip young men with big jewellery and faux hawks working alongside grey-haired specialists. State-of-the-art computer lasers cut most leathers, optimizing consumption and lessening waste. But a group of artisans are still cutting by hand just like they did 50 years ago, mainly on ultra-expensive skins like crocodile and lizard.

'We look for the best balance between innovation and tradition,' says Diego with fingers intertwined, wearing a relaxed smile and, of course, impeccable shoes befitting a man at the top of his game.

Happy ties

While Los Angeles-based shoemaker George Esquivel has his own eponymous label, he's excited about his partnership with the Rossettis. He practically bounces around the Parabiago showroom showing off his favourite designs, despite being late for a management meeting. 'It's a privilege to be part of this tradition and this family,' says Esquivel. 'Diego Rossetti was looking for someone who understood an American and international eye and [US Vogue editor] Anna Wintour said she had the perfect guy.'

Esquivel (below) adds that 'Americans want things a little messed up and I think with luxury nowadays, it's less about the logo - it's more subtle. You need to add character to it, so I'm trying to update the look. ... I'm trying to push [Fratelli Rossetti] a little bit more. I have so many ideas,' he says, 'I guess I'm trying to design for that international guy and not so much for the Italian customer. I love the little details of the hand-stitching and I love hand burnishing.'