Health & Beauty


Secrets to Shoemaking
by Lauren Doyle

There are many theories out there as to why women are so drawn to shoes—but as it turns out, our love affair with an amazing pair of pumps isn’t nearly as complicated as actually making them is. Last fall, I had the opportunity to attend an intensive week-long course hosted by the Ars Sutoria School, the International Technical Institute of Art of Footwear and Leather Goods based in Milan, Italy. For five days, I—along with twenty other professionals in the footwear industry—camped out in H.H. Brown’s Manhattan showroom while trying to soak up as much information as possible about lasts, leathers, pattern cutting and how exactly to go about constructing some of the prettiest and most practical pieces in our closets.

The process is elaborate, to say the least, but what I learned can best be summarized below, where I took my new knowledge to answer a few of the burning questions women often ask themselves before indulging in a new pair of shoes. With help from the industry’s most knowledgeable instructor, Paulo Marenghi, we’ve debunked some common shoe myths and mysteries to make your next trip to the footwear department a more educated and successful one.


Pierre Hardy

To what extent is a “handmade” shoe really handmade?

It’s a word that’s thrown around quite often to create a sense of artistry, but in our industrial world, very few shoes are actually handmade. There are many steps in the process of creating a shoe from start to finish, beginning with creating the last (or form) of the shoe, selecting the materials, cutting the patterns and stitching the soles, just to name a few. When a shoe is labeled handmade today, this most commonly refers to a hand-finish on the leather. While human hands may touch the shoe many times throughout the production process—or not at all—they are often aided by machine. The general exception? The moccasin, which according to Paulo is still often entirely handmade and hand-stitched in traditional fashion.

The bottom line: The “Handmade” label can be used in reference to a particular step in the shoemaking process, but rarely means the entire shoe is handmade.

Reed Krakoff

Does the “Made in Italy” stamp actually increase the value of a shoe?

Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo…the shoes produced by our favorite high end labels wouldn’t be complete without the coveted “Made in Italy” stamp emblazoned onto the sole. As it turns out, this marking is more than just a bragging right. According to Paulo, the “Made in Italy” stamp is generally synonymous with quality and a tradition of shoemaking that dates back centuries. “We have a different culture of shoemaking. We try to really find out the best detail for every single component of the shoe.”

What this means is that the research on fit, materials and construction that has been conducted over hundreds of years has been passed on to artisans who produce shoes in smaller quantities, using higher end components and more traditional methods. Attention to detail speaks to the quality of the shoes, but everything comes with a price.

“The time to stitch a pair of oxfords in India is very slow, but it is 20 times cheaper than in Italy,” Paulo said on production differences across countries. “In Italy, it’s very quick because we know what to do, but it’s very expensive.”

The bottom line: As a rule of thumb, the “Made in Italy” stamp will likely indicate a better quality shoe with an exponentially higher price tag.


Brian Atwood


How genuine is “Genuine Leather”?

“Genuine Leather” sounds legitimate, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the word genuine does not necessarily denote quality. The best leathers are very expensive and are a huge cost for shoe manufacturers looking to produce large quantities of product.

So who determines which leathers are considered quality and which ones aren’t? Tanneries around the world take into account the texture, color and usable area of each piece of leather they produce and then “grade” them on a letter scale from A to D.

Manufacturers looking to cut costs may use a lower grade of leather, or an alternative called “bonded leather” which consists of scrap pieces mixed in with synthetic materials. Because bonded leather technically contains traces of leather, manufacturers can actually classify a product made of this reconstituted material as “Genuine Leather”. Unfortunately for consumers, there is no identification label that can be used to determine the actual quality of the leather of a product.

The bottom line: When shopping, use your best judgment. A “Genuine Leather” label does not necessarily mean that a shoe is made out of good quality leather, and it could be recycled or reconstituted.




Is leather truly that much superior to synthetic material?

We’ve all been there: debating whether a leather shoe or bag was worth that eye popping price tag when there’s an almost as cute version on sale for a fraction of the cost. There are pros and cons to both leather and synthetic materials, so, which is best for you? Ultimately, it depends on your needs.

  • Look: Synthetic bags take the shape of the backing or lining they are attached to, which loses its shape over time. “You can have a nice look, but to be honest, we can see from far away if a bag is made from leather or synthetic,” Paulo weighed in. “Put a bag in leather on a table and put a bag in synthetic on the table, the way the leather relaxes and creates pleats is completely different from the synthetic. Leather, even if it’s 40 years old or you don’t use your shoes for about a year, we’ll get a little bit of cream, some brushes, and they’re going to look new.””
  • Feel: One major con to synthetic materials is that they become sticky over time. Leather can be repaired and restored, while PVC and polyurethane cannot.
  • Price: Generally, synthetic materials cost much less than leather—but they can still be pricey. Take for example Stella McCartney who uses only “faux leather”, but still retails her products at premium price points.

When making a decision on leather versus synthetic, Paulo advises that the most important variable to take into account is shelf life. In the long run, leather is timeless and will outlast any polyurethane or PVC option.

The bottom line: In a pinch or on a budget, a synthetic option is much less likely to burn a hole in your wallet if you’re looking for a trendy, fast-fashion accessory. If you want your accessories to last, opt for a leather.



Is pony hair really pony hair?

Does your inner 5-year old start to tear up every time you spy a shoe clearly comprised of some sort of recognizable animal? While some animals are killed for their skins, the good news is that most shoes are made from animal by-products. In other words, no cuddly creatures were harmed just for you to look good.

Most leather hides (including calf, pig, goat and horse) are a result of the meat industry, and debatably, not using their skins would be wasteful. If you happen to have a soft spot for animal rights however, it’s in your best interest to avoid exotics. Shark, stingray, eel, fish, alligator, crocodile, ostrich, and even kangaroo are a few of the animals that are commonly hunted for their skins. Embossed leather (leather that has been impressed upon to imitate a design) is a good alternative for those who seek the look of an exotic shoe or bag, but are morally or financially opposed to the investment.

But what about pony hair? Paulo assured me that 90% of the time, pony hair is really calf hair discarded from traditional leather. The other 10% of the time, horse hair is used—but only as a discarded material.

The bottom line: Breathe a sigh of relief. Most leathers are animal by-products of the food industry—though exotic skins are often sought out solely for aesthetic purposes.


Nicholas Kirkwood

Nicholas Kirkwood

I’m a size 9 in the U.S., what size am I in Italy?

In a perfect world, we’d wear the same shoe size in every country. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While conversion tables serve as a guide, the results surprisingly vary according to different charts and the last measurements used by different factories. In our increasingly digital world, this presents a tricky problem, specifically when shopping online.

“The best way to find your size is to try it on and understand the way you feel,” Paulo says on sizing. But if that’s not a possibility, he suggests following the size charts of a specific brand rather than an e-commerce site or retailer.

The bottom line: Visit a shoe salon and try on several pairs of different styles from your favorite brands to determine your true size before purchasing anything online. Following a conversion chart can be hit or miss.


Sophia Webster

Measuring heel height—is this website lying to me?

Buying online is always a gamble, but have you ever ordered a shoe only to open the box and find that the heel height is not what you expected? I have—and I’ve measured to be sure. It may only be off by a smidge, but every millimeter counts, right?

As it turns out, designers credit the height of a style’s heel based off the height of the sample size. This size will differ for every brand, but is typically around a size 6 or 7. As sizes fluctuate, so must the measurements for each component of a shoe in order to maintain proportion. So, if you’re in the market for a 110mm Brian Atwood heel in a size 10, be aware that you’re going to get a taller heel—even if it’s just 112mm.

The bottom line: The heel height listed in a shoe description is more like an average. Expect the exact height to vary according to your size.



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