Look Down to Judge the Man
From a small workshop in Florence to New York showroom, Tommaso Melani talks about driving legendary shoemaker Stefano Bemer forward
It is fitting that someone who admits they were imprinted with the saying ‘You judge a man by his shoes’ now finds themselves running a shoe business. However and by his own admission, Tommaso Melani was, growing up, never interested in leather shoes, preferring trainers and other more fashion conscious offerings and fondly remembers yearning for a pair of red and orange Nike trainers aged 10. How the world has changed for the CEO and owner of bespoke shoe company Stefano Bemer.
“Every company is an alchemy of elements,” states Tommaso who spent long years looking from the outside in to Stefano Bemer, at the time run by its namesake, then based at a location Tommaso affectionally describes as dusty and cosy. A native of Florence, Tommaso graduated Florence University in 1996 and then completed an MBA in Milan, before then working for three years as an auditor for the family business, the fine leather goods atelier Scuola de Cuoio. Despite this background, whilst at university Tommaso couldn’t afford nor was he interested in the products Stefano was producing. So what changed..? Smiling, he tries to translate the Italian word ‘popolare’ claiming that the direct English translation of ‘popular’ doesn’t do justice to the word which he explains includes a spirit of community and belonging to the people, something he believes is a Florentine phenomenon. Why else did Hollywood superstar Daniel Day Lewis spend eight months working as an apprentice for Stefano between 1999 – 2000?
Stefano, says Tommaso, had two incredible gifts as a person. Firstly, he was an easy going character who treated everyone the same. Secondly, and especially in regards to Daniel, Stefano protected him as a friend. Both had a mania for detail, they ‘connected on obsession’, recognising the trait in each other and pushing each other to higher standards. It is claimed that in order to lure Daniel to feature in his 2002 film Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese came and sat in the dusty and small workshop every day for a week, while Daniel worked in the next door room, only granting time to the legendary director at the end of the day. And even though social media was a dim and distant future medium, queues of fans waited outside the closed store trying to catch a glimpse of director and actor.
Following Stefano’s untimely death, Tommaso purchased the brand in 2012, seeing a gap in the potential. Wanting it to remain ‘popolare’ there was a drive to make Stefan Bemer, the brand, aspirational and include a range of products and add elements of presentation. At today’s address of via San Nicolo 2, much like visitors to a tailor see the cutter hard at work, the shoe makers of Stefano Bemer are front and centre with the shopping experience revolving around them. “I got rid of the dust, but kept the craftsmanship,” says Tommaso proudly, “with the workshop delivering the experience, style and quality and expressing the brand into a higher price range.” The same people use the same techniques and materials to make both bespoke and ready to wear offerings with the brand expanding from 400 units a year under Stefano to 3,000 units today. Tommaso sees fingerprints in the way shoes are made and thus insists everything at Stefano Bemer is done in-house to ensure style and standards remain consistent.
In order to achieve this growth Tommaso created capacity with a shoe school resulting in eight full time craftsmen after four years. After years of an annual intake of 12 trainees to the in- house school, demand is such that this year will see two intakes for the six month course. With 99 per cent of all their trainees coming from abroad it is no surprise English the official language of the school, though for those deemed worthy, Italian is a prerequisite for those who graduate downstairs to the shop floor. While you may be good enough to make a pair of shoes by the end of the course, the product won’t be worthy of the Stefano Bemer seal of approval for some time after with Tommaso estimating two to three years to learn how to make a bespoke pair of shoes. Training isn’t for everyone with the six month course costing €14,000 to spend eight hours a day with your elbows on your knees, followed by several years at minimum wage with Tommaso selecting only the best and most passionate for continuation training.
There is a house style at Stefano Bemer, but Tommaso is keen to emphasise the style is continually evolving as fashion and style change, but he is eager to pursue the Florentine sense of style which is “never too extravagant or boring but effortless and refined” and a balance between English (military) formality and the laid back style of Naples.
Unlike many brands today, Tommaso believes in his bricks and mortar, not relying on the internet for sales. ‘It is still a physical world, and e- commerce won’t become our mainstream’ and it’s easy to see why he believes sales are generated when customers come into the store and see his craftsmen at work. Following a three month pop up at the Four Seasons Florence which saw Stefano Bemer gain 21 bespoke clients, the brand has expanded into the USA with a showroom on East 67th Street, but Tommaso admits it’s a challenge to communicate the look, the feel and the experience of the Florence flagship. In an ideal world Tommaso would like to export the current Florence workshop aboard and use it as a template, but stresses the sky isn’t the limit for the brand, believing the maximum level of growth would be three times the current size. After that Tommaso believes Stefano Bemer would be too unwieldy and would find it a struggle to know the names of all his clients.
“The way you treat your shoes, it’s your business card,” says Tommaso. If that’s true, what do your shoes say about you?
Enquires: Stefano Bemer,
Via di S. Niccolò, 2, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
23 East 67th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10065, United States