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Sunday, March 20, 2005

Rolando: King of Venice Footwear

If Manolo is all the rage for shoe-shoppers in America, in Venice, there is really only one footwear fenomeno: Rolando.

Working in an age when made-to-measure shoes are a rapidly dwindling commodity, supplanted over the decades by mass-produced ready-made wear, Rolando Segalin is trying to keep tradition alive.

His father Antonio opened a small shop in Venice in 1932 where he handcrafted footwear - a lucrative proposition at the time in a city where feet are by necessity the most common form of transportation.

In 1955, the son moved the shop to Calle dei Fuseri, between St. Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge. At 69, he is still there and working a full day.

His gentle manner and wire-rimmed seriousness bring Pinocchio's papa Geppetto to mind, as he stretches a piece of leather over a life-size wooden foot. For Segalin, designing shoes is a combination of creative passion and craft.

Actually, he thinks he has something on Manolo Blahnik, the eccentric designer whose flimsy if slightly threatening shoes are an out-and-out obsession for the thousands of well-heeled women who can afford them.

"There is really no difference between me and Manolo Blahnik or Andrea Pfister. We all design beautiful models," he said, with more collegial pride than envy towards his more famous colleagues. "But whereas I make everything by hand, their models are beautiful but mass made, and they're not very comfortable."

Blahnik claims that each one of his high-priced shoes is handmade by craftsmen working round the clock in four Italian factories and that he personally carries out spot checks to singe loose threads or glues soles in place. Still, it's hard to believe that one person could exercise quality control over the 100,000 plus pairs of shoes and boots he sells each year.

On the other hand, watching Segalin at work in his cramped workshop behind the store - stuffed with shoe molds, dozens of different leathers and oddly shaped heels and buckles - there's no doubt that each of the 250-odd shoes he produces each year has been meticulously handcrafted from heel to toe.

The models are highly original creations ranging from the staid to the whimsical to the outrageous. There are reproductions of the brocaded 18th century Venetian concoctions that Casanova would have shod, stilt-rivaling platform shoes, red and gold brocade Tudor-style shoes, even a shoe in the shape of a large red foot.

A popular style with men "with an outgoing personality," he said, is the Lord Brummel shoe, which uses a buckle made popular when the British dandy and trendsetter lived in Venice at the beginning of the 19th century. The shoemaker finds shoes to copy from ancient prints and paintings.

Segalin's conversation is peppered with the names of his more famous clients - princes, contessas and celebrities looking for something for a lark or a special occasion - but many of his customers are just plain Venetian folk who grew up during a time when buying custom-made shoes was not unheard of.

A woman in her 60s enters the shop and greets him warmly, using the tu form, the sign of a long-standing relationship. He tells her that her shoes are almost ready and she promises to return. Prices start at =420 and each pair of shoes takes from two to three weeks to make.

"At one time just about all of Venice came to have shoes made," he recalled wistfully. "And in the 1970s I became very popular because of my boots, which were the most beautiful in Europe." Women who bought them then still wear them today, he said, and come by his shop to visit.
His collection includes traditional favorites, pumps or mules, but he finds his thrill in constantly crafting new designs, trying to stay one step ahead of the fashion game. "I try to sense trends three or four years before they happen, because that is the sign of a good craftsman," he said.
But if few shoemakers still make one-off shoes, the Italian footwear industry as a whole prides itself on its handcrafted products nonetheless.

"Even though shoes may not be made to measure anymore, all high-quality Italian shoes are at least partly handmade," said Patrizia Curiale, the secretary of the National Fashion Federation, an organization represented by Confartigianato, the artisans lobby.

Segalin thinks that just isn't enough. Mass production, he said, makes for uncomfortable footwear. "I think of the comfort of my clients," he said.
Comfort, he added, only comes by following the traditional rules of shoemaking. "The key to the process are the wooden molds, which can be added to or modified, you can do anything you like," he said "It may take time but it is worth it."

Today he is the last of the made-to-measure designers left in Venice. When he first opened shop, competition was tough with at least 30 cobblers peddling their wares, one just down the street. He lashed out at the government's shortsighted political vision and lamented the absence of tax breaks or other forms of assistance for shoemakers who train young cobbler-wannabes.

He himself takes in apprentices and said he has never turned anyone down, but he thinks the trade's future looks bleak. "Unfortunately, nowadays parents want their children to work in an office and not to learn a trade," he rued. "Shoemaking requires study, time and creativity."
Currently, he has two young women working with him. One is Venetian and a recent graduate of the city's Fine Arts Academy, the other, Gabriele Gmeiner, is Austrian, and studied at the Cordwainers College at the London College of Fashion before coming to Venice to work in Segalin's workshop where she could get a lot of real hands-on experience.

In the nearby Riviera del Brenta, where 993 small and medium shoe business employ some 14,000 people in making high quality leather shoes, the local shoe factories association runs a school to train designers and hosts an annual design award. But they leave the hands on training to the individual factories who take in apprentices and teach them. "There's no school for the trade, they just learn from watching more experienced workers," said Laura Gerardello, who runs the fashion end of the association. "Artisans are disappearing, because most are elderly and retiring."

Segalin's greatest achievement, by his own admission, has been that he was able to go beyond the craft his father handed down to him. "My father wanted to be a great shoemaker but he died before he could achieve his dream," he said. "I'm here in his place."

What I do is kick them in the pants with a diamond buckled shoe!
~~Aileen Mehle~~

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