Santoni: Made By the Heart

Luxury brands claiming to blend today’s technology with yesterday’s artisanal methods are not uncommon. But it is hard to think of any that carry off this glorious duality more deftly than the Italian shoemakers Santoni.

Santoni: Made By the Heart

Viewed from the sky — notwithstanding the Marche region’s verdant, undulating patchwork terrain surrounding it — Santoni’s production facility, close to the rustic town of Corridonia, could easily be the H.Q. of a Silicon Valley mega- disrupter. The commodities created within, though, are far more fundamental to human existence than the frippery of what flows between transistors and microprocessors. Here, in this sprawling, brilliant-white, three-storey edifice, footwear of unsurpassed quality and flair — shoes that are worthy of the most exclusive retail hotspots, from San Francisco to Sydney via Singapore, Milan, Paris, London and Dubai — are produced by a company that is not just a custodian of Made in Italy flair but is reshaping the concept’s future. 

Santoni’s beginnings were humble. The company came into being in the mid seventies, when its eponymous founder, the late Andrea — a leather-cutter turned stitcher turned production manager for a major shoemaking corporation — set up as an independent maker with his wife, Rosa, in a garage next to the family home near the city of Macerata, close to Italy’s Adriatic coast. 

Half a century on (the 50th anniversary celebrations are next year), a staff of 700 people fashions about 2,000 impeccable-quality shoes each day for consumers in approximately 70 countries (82 per cent of items are exported). But it’s not the volume of production, in and of itself, that impresses here: it is how deftly Santoni have mastered the art of producing footwear en masse but with utmost adherence to centuries-old, high-precision artisanal methods. At Santoni, the phrase ‘mass-scale artisanship’ is completely relieved of its oxymoronic payload. 

Giuseppe Santoni checks the leather with a Santoni artisan.
Cutting out the leather using a pattern, a process known as 'clicking'.
Hand-welting using sewing awls.
Inspecting the leather on the last.
Attaching the sole to the shoe.

To tour the factory is to discover the sheer amount of artistry, thought, diligence, skill and expertise required to manufacture wares that are displayed proudly atop plinths in a gleaming white zone, resembling a hyper-trendy Hoxton gallery, close to the building’s entrance. Any master chef will tell you that excellence begins with the raw ingredients, and in Santoni’s case, finest- quality cowhide plus rarer skins (baby alligator, mainly, followed by ostrich and iguana) are all sourced with provenance and sustainability at the top of the priority list. 

As for what the brand does with those raw materials, one of the most striking aspects of a visit to the Santoni factory is the Zen-like concentration with which workers, in a zone filled with a cacophony of clattering, jackhammering, pummelling and piercing, apply themselves to tasks to which they’ve devoted their lives (from upper cutting and stitching to heel fitting, last making, outsole shaping and Goodyear welting ). 

Recent renovations to the factory, meanwhile, have facilitated a revolutionary new philosophy that ensures perfection reigns supreme at every stage of production. “We’re no longer using the traditional system of a Henry Ford-style production line,” says Chair and Executive President Giuseppe Santoni, Andrea’s son, who was seven years old when he began watching over his father’s workers in the fledgling company’s garage workshop in urban central Italy, learning shoemaking techniques by osmosis. “Each artisan checks that what they’ve received from the previous workstation has all the requirements needed to maintain quality. Before, all this was at the end of production.”

Correcting any deviations from perfection at every stage has a huge impact on output, Giuseppe says. “In normal ready-to-wear manufacturing of shoes, leather goods and accessories, between 2.5 and three per cent of products fail quality tests. In the automotive industry, it’s about 0.3 per cent, or around 10 times less. Here at Santoni, because of our processes, our figure is 0.6 per cent — so, worse than automotive, but that’s because we’re working with natural leather using our hands instead of working with metal using machinery, but still five times more efficient than our competitors.” The various manufacturing disciplines involved amount to about a week of total human endeavour per pair of shoes. Some of these disciplines are fundamental to all shoemakers’ production processes, while others — hand-sewn seams, for example, and the much-celebrated ‘anticatura’ finish, achieved by applying multiple coats of leather dye — are unique to Santoni.

Santoni's Intrecci leather weaving, evoking the skill and artistry of the Marche region of Italy.
Santoni's Intrecci leather weaving, evoking the skill and artistry of the Marche region of Italy.
The application of the dye to a pair of double-monks in the anticatura process.
The application of the dye to a pair of double-monks in the anticatura process.
The application of the dye to a pair of double-monks in the anticatura process.

Quality is not just about the product. It's about how you think, how you create, how you design.

The entire meticulous enterprise is replete with efficiency, but utterly devoid of haste. “If you want a masterpiece, you have to work in the ancient ways — you can’t sprint in pursuit of perfection,” Andrea, who sadly passed away two years ago, told this writer during a visit some years ago. His philosophy is as timeless as the shapes, forms and silhouettes constantly being tweaked and refined in the factory’s design department. 

As well as heritage and production diligence, the brand — in keeping with the Made in Italy concept’s constant evolution — is also known for its environmental credentials. “We use no chemical glues — only natural and water-based — and our factory is maintained almost 70 per cent by solar panels,” Giuseppe explains. “The leather we source is mostly a byproduct of the food industry, from tanneries that recycle skins.” Meanwhile, a wonderfully engineered system sees rainwater collected in underground basins and used for production. 

But sustainability here refers not only to environmental priorities: skills, according to the Santoni philosophy, must also be renewable, so that the craft tenets of fine shoemaking thrive and continue to bear fruit well into the future. Santoni’s Accademia dell’Eccellenza, which opened in March 2023, is, in Giuseppe’s words, “where artisans pass down their abilities to younger talent and become their mentors, also passing on the company values”. 

When defining exactly what those company values are, the word ‘quality’ alone is not quite adequate. At least, not when it is used in common parlance. To Giuseppe — a man who knew how to create a pair of shoes from scratch by the time he was officially employed by the company, aged 19, in 1988 — a deeper, more edifying and philosophical definition of the word is required. “Quality is not just about the product itself,” he concludes. “It’s about how you think, how you create, how you design, how you make shoes comfortable with methods concerning the last and the sole and heel. I like to think that with Santoni you’re not just buying a pair of shoes, you’re buying a piece of happiness: the feeling that you’ve rewarded yourself with something very unique and special, made by hand but also made by the heart.” 

Examples of before and after the anticatura finish.