When one thinks of classic shoemaking traditions, one's mind easily leaps to the cobbling Meccas of Northamptonshire, England, or the 'Riviera del Brenta' in the Veneto region of Italy. Of the former's genesis, it was a burgeoning tanning industry in 15th-century Northampton that drew cordwainers from around the country to set up their cobbling shops, while the latter's emergence as a shoemaking hub grew from a 17th-century migration of cobblers who followed the wealthy upper classes to their villas along the banks of the River Brenta. What rarely gets spoken about, however, is the Spanish tradition of shoemaking, which focuses most notably on the island of Mallorca. We have an aphid infestation of the island's vineyards to thank for the rise of Mallorca's zapateros - the devastation of the vines forced many a Mallorquin to move into the tannery trade and hence spun off a shoemaking industry which still flourishes to this day. Naturally, the shoemaking expertise that evolved on the island spread to the mainland as the insular zapateros sought bigger markets, leading to many highly skilled leather workers forming a buoyant shoemaking trend throughout Spain. Today, one of the most prestigious of Spain's bespoke shoemakers is the Barcelona-based Norman Vilalta who has made a name for himself among the world's shoe cognoscenti for beautifully patinated leather and unique styles such as the Deacon Chelsea boot. Werecently caught up with the former lawyer turned shoemaker to get under the skin of his ethos and process, the results of which you can now buy on TheRake.com.
You stepped off a legal career path to pursue your passion for shoemaking. How and where did you start on this new journey?
My shoemaking apprenticeship began in Florence under the tutelage of different Master shoemakers. I learned to prepare each tool, and myself, for the implementation of each one of the processes; to take foot measurements, to sculpt the wooden last, to transfer the design to the last, to cut the leather, to last the shoe, to prepare the handmade threads for the needlework… to fulfil each one of the hundreds of steps which all follow rigorous rules. Within these steps, I made room for my own personal expression and style to appear.
The search for perfection of technique is intrinsic in the hand-making of each piece of work, though the essential is often invisible to the eye. I found that searching for perfection of technique was not enough. Quickly, I learned what bespoke meant for me, I understood that there had to be another kind of perfection to go after. My search led to capturing the personality of my clients to create a pair of shoes that express them. There are no limits, as a result, I build personal collections of shoes for each one of my clients.
Tell us about how the Norman Vilalta brand came to be and your transition from lawyer to shoemaker?
My being a shoemaker is the result of a long personal search. I was working as a lawyer in Buenos Aires and found myself at the crossroads of advancing my law education or choosing the option of being happy at 40 and really being who I am. Since I was a child I have been able to create. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a brand with meaning, a brand that is different and breaks the rules, a brand that changes and innovates. In order to change the rules, first you have to learn them, that’s why becoming an artisan was my best option. Almost 20 years ago I opted to leave the law profession and move to Florence to learn with several Masters of shoemaking.
What does it mean to be an artisan?
When I opened my workshop 14 years ago, I started to understand who I was as an artisan shoemaker and what it meant for me to be an artisan. For me, being an artisan is not only to work with the hand (the hand is a very important tool), but more than that we artisans are the ones who have received knowledge from our masters (the tradition) and have the obligation to add things to the “metier,“ in my case, to innovate in shoemaking. It is to change things and be creative. That’s why, since the beginning of my brand, I changed classic pattern-making, I invented patinas (such as the 3D patina), and experimented with the structure of our shoes, and also with the perception of colours, as in the ¨Black Collection¨ patina. My philosophy is that to be an artisan you have to innovate, just like great artisans from the past: John Lobb, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Olga Berluti, just to name a few.
Speaking of the Norman Vilalta Black Collection, what was your inspiration and what did the process look like?
Fifteen years ago, when I opened my House, the market had enough black Oxfords. Don’t get me wrong, I love the style but a black Oxford, more than being a shoe that you love, is one that you need, it serves a function. Most likely you won´t buy a pair because you love the colour black (unless, of course, you are buying one of ours!), but because you need it to dress for a certain etiquette or set of sartorial codes. When customers used to come to me to buy a pair of black Oxfords, I would often refuse that commission and refer them to another shoemaker. But then I realised that I could accomplish the function of the black Oxford, making a dark shade that instead of absorbing the light (which is an optical particularity of the flat black colour), would actually emanate light. We make that dark shade with different “lights,” so that a “Black Collection" Oxford could actually be brown, grey, blue, or green from certain perspectives. Black is not just black anymore and the black Oxford has become modern with this new variation.
What are the distinctive craftsmanship qualities of Norman Vilalta shoes?
We have different lines of products with varying degrees of exceptional craftsmanship. There is, of course, the completely bespoke option, but we also produce two lines of Norman Vilalta RTW: a bench-made version and a completely made-by-hand “bespoke quality” RTW, which is probably one of the most sophisticated RTW on the market, which we call the 1202 Heritage Collection. The Norman Vilalta bench-grade RTW line of shoes is a product I love. I had two main ideas when I started to work on my RTW line of shoes: firstly to change some things I didn’t like from the more traditional RTW shoes. It never made sense to me, in this age, that you would have to break in a shoe, or worse yet, that it would break you in. Some shoes are too stiff, too heavy. And secondly, to bring as much as I can from the bespoke feeling to a RTW shoe. Achieving success in these two ideas took me two years; to develop a last that has the advantages of a bespoke last that can fit different types of feet really well while the structure is very durable and lightweight, and which is comfortable from day one. As I said before, being an artisan is about knowledge and applying that knowledge to all aspects and parts of the shoes that you don’t see when the shoes are finished. Those innovative details are the ones that make the difference.
What is it that sets you apart from other bespoke and high-end RTW shoemakers?
When you are an artisan, first of ALL things, you take care about what you don’t see in the shoes when they are ready; those parts are the last and the structure. We are dedicated to taking care of the parts that are inside or hidden, what is invisible to the eyes but essential to the shoes' being. Then, that quality and beauty (I consider these the same thing) come outside. If our shoes are to be beautiful on the outside, it is because the inside is beautiful. That feeling is perceived when you wear a pair of Norman Vilalta shoes.
Another distinct characteristic of my design is the asymmetric patterns. I broke the unspoken rule of having to have the sewn seam at the back of the heel. Since day one I’ve tried to change the classic patterns but wanted to preserve their innate proportional harmony (if you measure the parts of an Oxford you will find that they have the Fibonacci proportions) that gives them that atemporal beauty. In order to change that classic way of making the patterns, I made mine seamless at the back (heel) of the shoe: the outside part of the shoe goes around the back to the inside of the shoe, while the inside part of the shoe wraps outside, forming a beautiful embrace that uses more leather to make, but is visually superior to the seam at the back. The lines created with this asymmetry move the eye around the shoe without stopping at that line at the back of the heel.
How has technology evolved your approach to shoemaking?
As I say, craftsmanship is not just about the hand, the knowledge is the most important matter, the hand is driven by one´s knowledge. These days we can add amazing tools to our work, which is technology. That´s the reason why innovation is so important in my work. Some things have to remain and some things have to be changed—harmony, elegance and quality should remain while the materials and the techniques should change. I´m always asking myself what Salvatore (Ferragamo, the man not the brand) or John (Lobb, idem) would have done today if they had had these new tools. The idea is to change something so nothing (important) changes.