Ugolini, Lasts and Welts

I am standing infront of my classroom, for a lack of better words, this is where i am daily learning the shoe making craft. So far i havent done much, so dont praise me just yet, still at the sole of the shoes for now. Shoe making is a very complex process, more so than any other craft that involves patterns.

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My teacher is Roberto Ugolini, a professional in the field, for about 20 years now. His client list includes Scott schuman, Red hot chilli peppers and Isetan Shinjuku. Mr. Ugolini is a true bespoke shoemaker from Florence, who operates out of his store in Via de’ Michelozzi near the Santo Spirito church. Although Mr. Ugolini has been in the trade for years, the family shoemaking tradition reaches much further back. His great grandfather, grandfather and father were all shoemakers. To commemorate their family history, you will still see a black and white picture hanging in the workshop today showing all of Roberto’s ancestors. Surprisingly, Roberto used to do all kinds of work on shoes, including ordinary repair, until 1995, when he decided focus exclusively on bespoke and custom shoes.

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Since making the transition to bespoke, Ugolini and his apprentices have created wonderful pieces of art in the Ugolini atelier. Roberto describes his shoes as Italian, but I think one can narrow this characterization down further to a very Florentine style. This means his shoes have a slightly carree-shaped, soft chisel toe, with a slim line that results in an elegant and lightweight shoe.

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Ugolini had his breakthrough as a shoemaker when he first began to host trunk shows in Japan. Subsequently, he was flooded with orders for his bespoke shoes. Despite global renown, Roberto Ugolini continues to do what he does best: bespoke shoes. The first step for each new client is to have their feet measured according to the the Ugolini method. Secondly, a raw last is carved out of beech wood, which is then refined, sanded or widened until it is perfect. Although many others use plastic lasts, Ugolini swears by his wooden lasts because he feels that plastic would not allow changes to be incorporated as accurately as with wood.

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Once the last is completed, a trial shoe is produced, a step that has been discarded by many other shoemakers. This shoe looks basically like the real one: same uppers, same heel, but the leather consists of scraps of cheap quality. The shoe is also glued instead of hand welted. If this is the customer’s first shoe, chances are he will be sent to town to walk around for a few hours. From the wear pattern, Ugolini can judge how the shoe fits and whether there is room for improvement. This process is repeated until the shoe fits perfectly.

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Ugolini maintains a growing Japanese clientele. In fact, the entire shoemaking scene in Florence is dominated by Japanese customers because they seem to appreciate true craftsmanship, unlike the marked decline of interest by western cultures. Ironically, the only Japanese shoemaker in Florence – Hidetaka Fukaya – apprenticed with Ugolini before he started his own business. If you should ever make it to Florence, you should definitely pay a visit to Robert Ugolini. I will be here until december when my masters ends.

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Ugolini offers a variety of different leathers ranging from standard box calf to caiman, alligator, stingray, carpincho, shark, camel and elephant leather. For the very first shoe, you should expect a year from start to finish, unless you reside in Florence – then it should take about 6 months. The process requires that you have one or two  fittings after the initial measurement process. Despite Ugolini’s high level of craftsmanship, his prices have remained moderate for a bespoke product.

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On a final note, It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done. The attention to details is the main focus, so bring a pen, take notes and leave a comment.