No one pays more attention to shoes than Giuseppe Santoni

The Santoni CEO believes the blend of old and new is the foundation of the Italian family shoe brand’s success.

Robert Chilton June 22, 2016

EDGAR is sitting in a boardroom inside the award-winning HQ of the luxury Italian shoe company Santoni that looks like it was designed in the year 2134.

In walks Giuseppe Santoni wearing a beautiful three-piece navy pinstripe suit, shirt and tie, and navy leather monk strap shoes. “Every man today is getting more casual – except me!” he laughs. “When I dress casually I don’t feel comfortable and I don't look nice.”

Santoni believes this marriage of old and new underpins the success of the brand, which was founded by his father in 1975.

“The culture of this company is a mix of my father's tradition and my passion for innovation,” he says. “I always respect and keep the tradition of the brand but try to innovate the product.”

A perfect example of this is Santoni’s luxury leather trainers. “When I started to make the sneakers in 1998 my father was not happy, neither was my mother. They said it was not Santoni,” he smiles. “But we made the sneaker very high quality, using the same leather as the classic shoe.”

What does Papa think now? “Now he wears them every day,” laughs Santoni the younger. “He walks home from work for 5kms wearing the sneakers.”    

Our conversation is taking place at Santoni’s HQ in Corridonia, a small, quiet, modern sort of town on the east coast of Italy about 250km north east of Rome. Next door to the futuristic boardroom is the factory where both men’s and women’s shoes are made using machines run on solar power. 

Graduates from the local art school sit hunched over men’s loafers and lace ups, carefully applying layers of paint. Around the corner, a cheerful man in jeans and Nike trainers named Luigi plucks a metal nail from between his lips and hammers it into the sole of a shoe. Nearby a man wearing a leather hand protector uses brute strength to force a needle and thread through a piece of leather. The concentration is impressive.

“Our workers are artists,” says Santoni proudly. “But making shoes is physical work; you go home tired. Your hand has to be connected to your brain, and you have to concentrate. In the manufacturing process a pair of shoes is being touched by 100 people so if you don't do your job correctly you ruin the work of 99 other people.

"Working at Santoni is not easy. The stitching has to be very precise. If you make the hole 0.2mm out of place, it will look very bad. Your eyes have to recognise those kinds of sizes. When I see a pair of shoes I know who stitched them – it’s like recognising handwriting.” 

In a different part of the factory stands Silvano, a grey-haired gent in his 50s who makes the lasts, the wooden moulds upon which Santoni’s shoes are based. “Silvano is an artist, and he's very important,” Santoni says. “He's the guy I always complain to about the shape of our shoes. I drive him crazy but he likes it. He says when it's too easy he doesn’t have fun.”

There are more than 25 stages in making a shoe. One pair might have between 28-30 hours of direct work but it takes 4-6 weeks to complete because the shoes need resting time. You cut the leather, make it wet and then wait a day for it to dry. The leather sits on the last for two to three weeks. Each layer of colour needs 4-6 hours to dry.

What’s driving Santoni crazy right now is the leather supply. A dry summer means the animals didn’t drink enough and the skin is ‘disidratati’, a wonderful Italian word meaning dehydrated. The veins of a dehydrated animal rise to the surface of the skin and spoil the look of the shoe. Last week 40 per cent of the leather was wasted. Usually it's more like five to eight per cent.

Santoni tries on every pair of men’s shoes before they go into production - “My dad used to do it but he's 77 now and when you get older your feet tend to be wider” - but he has no input into the design of the shoe. “I can’t sketch anything,” he laughs. “When I pick up a pencil everyone starts to laugh. But I have an eye and I know what looks right and what looks wrong.”

His eye for detail comes from working in the family factory from age 14 to 30. “I grew up with shoes and the factory was my playground,” adds Santoni. “To lead a company you need to know what you’re taking about or people don’t respect you, especially in the shoe business.”

He points to the factory next door and smiles, “We are a family here and I am one of them.”