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Justin FitzPatrick – Stefano Bemer tribute

February 11, 2013

Stefano Bemer was one of the best Italian Shoemakers and there are not many shoe-lovers that never heard of him. His death was is a great loss for all of us. A Johnny Cash tune that keep coming in my mind over and over again said “I don’t like it/But I guess things happen that way…”.

I guess the only thing to do is keep his memory alive…

I knew from our previous conversation that Justin FitzPatrick founder of ShoeSnob spend time in Stefano Bemer workshop in Florence in order to learn how to make shoes. I asked him to share with me and my readers his memories about the time spend in Florence. He was very kind to reflect on those moments…

This is the story…

 stefano and myself

My time with Stefano Bemer

by Justin FitzPatrick

“The story of how I came to apprentice for Stefano Bemer, and the outcome that this opportunity created for me is probably the single most important step in my life. It all started with a vision, a vision to go to Europe and learn shoemaking from one of the 5 best in all of Europe. Thinking back on it, it really is funny (and miraculous) how it all unfolded. It all started by reading a magazine about men’s style called “MENSWEAR.” They had written this long article on Stefano, with pictures of the shop, Florence and the Italian lifestyle. After reading that article, I told myself, “I want to learn from that guy!”

florence
Less than one month later, I met a gentleman whose father was a good friend of Stefano. I told him of my aspirations and about reading that article. I knew that it was my opportunity to seize the moment so I asked him if his father could help me land an introduction with Stefano and help me acquire an apprenticeship with him. He told me that he would talk to his father and that it should not be a problem. A month or two later, the guy emailed me and said that I could come to Italy any time that I wanted for an introduction. I bought my ticket that very same day, to arrive in March 2008, meet with Stefano and acquire an apprenticeship with him.

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When I got back to America, I started planning out my life to just pack it all up and move to Europe, with the idea of leaving in October 2008. I was 24 at the time, with not much saved in my bank account nor any real connections in Italy outside of that gentleman and his father. Needless to say, while I was more excited than anything, I was also quite frightened by the thought that I would leave everything that I knew behind to go and chase my dreams in a foreign country where I knew hardly anyone. But I sucked up my fear, cashed out my pension money and just went for it! I arrived in Italy at the end of October, feeling a bit out of place, as I did not know any Italian nor did I know anyone to help me out. My apprenticeship did not start until Nov.1st, so I used that time to try and find a place to live.

My first day at Stefano’s seemed a bit odd really, at least for me. It was as if there was nothing for me to do, but thinking back at it, it seems to me now as if Stefano had his own way of breaking in apprentices to show them the ropes. That being, he took me out of the bespoke workshop and sent me over to his RTW shop where his brother worked, cutting out patterns, dealing with office stuff and shining and packaging the RTW shoes after having come back from the factory. He told me that I needed to start learning how to shine shoes as my first step. And it was there were my shoe shining abilities took birth. I stayed helping out Mario for about two weeks, shining shoes and doing various tasks here and there before Stefano brought me back over to the bespoke workshop to start really getting my hands dirty.

 Kumiko, Masako and Matteo

In the workshop there were three other makers: Kumiko, Masako and Matteo. They were the three that really taught me everything while Stefano supervised. This is the way apprenticeships are these days. It is not like the old days where you sit down and learn everything from the master. In this day and age, the master is busy handling the business side of things, so you get taught by his full-time shoemakers while he/she gives their input every now and then. Don’t get me wrong, in the beginning Stefano would show me things, but as time went on and I progressed it was up to me to figure things out without having to ask him, as this is what learning is all about. That being, the first thing that I started to learn was lasting over the toe-box, creating this sort of half shoe (see pictures).

 half shoe on my workbench

From there, he taught me how to hand stitch on the apron of a shoe, which is probably the hardest thing to do in all of shoemaking as it’s very easy to make a mistake and that mistake is in plain sight of the wearer…. After making a few of these, I was finally ready to make my first shoe, but just one side, not a pair. So I did, progressed from there and eventually went on to making my first full pair (the brown loafers).

 my first pair made for myself

My interactions with Stefano were not like one would think, meaning that we did not spend a lot of time together. Stefano was a true artist, in the sense that he acted and thought like one, and more often than not, was by himself, as the four of us took up all of the room in the workshop. Because of this, he spent a lot of time in his other shop where his brother was, cutting out patterns and making lasts. But it was also during this time that this health not was in the best shape, so sometimes he was not around until midday.

 half shoe on my workbench

While being insecure and selfish, as I wanted more attention, these occurrences made me often feel that Stefano’s lack of communication was cold. But looking back at it now, these were just my own insecurities and I know deep down that Stefano did care, but had his own personal problems that he was facing, not only in health, but in the struggle to keep the business running smoothly (as this period was the beginning of the last recession). I later realized that in his artistic nature, while he may have sometimes been very much to himself, he was a very generous person with his own things and had his own way of showing so. While I was there, I made around 5 shoes for myself, using his materials, i.e. the leather. These things are not cheap yet he never hesitated to allow me to use them for my own personal gain. And even when I wanted to buy a pair of his RTW shoes, he told me not to be silly and put my money away. These things, while might seem trivial, showed a sense of caring and selflessness.

 My first shoe, just the left side, not pair

While I would probably never live in Florence again, I loved my time there and would not trade that experience for anything else. It was however very much a struggle for me to be there, especially in the beginning, as I did not know anyone and was spending all of the money that was to my name as well as building a mountain of debt by using my credit card. I was also often very insecure about my future and where it would lead me and this is what frightened me most. But it wasn’t always like this however. I quickly became very good friends (more like brothers) with the other shoemaker Matteo. And it was through Matteo that I met my wife, something that makes my trip Florence worth it for that reason alone. This allowed me to feel more secure, as I now had people that I could be around to support me mentally and emotionally. These were not the only good things though, as I did make many other beautiful friendships with people that I still communicate with today. And they were all lovely people who were kind, caring and selfless.

 the bespoke workshop

This is why I loved my time there, for the many wonderful and caring people that I met, including all of my friends, my wife, as well as Stefano and his brother Mario. It was a beautiful experience that I will never forget and even better yet, it was an experience that I was able to go through in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Florence, Italy.”

Thank you Justin on behalf of all my readers.

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