Interview: Giuseppe Santoni for Santoni

As the CEO of Italian shoemaker Santoni, Giuseppe Santoni clearly has a passion for shoes. He shares his philosophy with us

On a personal level, shoes are highly valued by the Luxury-Insider.com team, as you might guess from the wealth of stories we have pursued on footwear of all sorts. There is just something undeniably sexy about these very necessary accessories, from the lofty heights of bespoke to the temporal charms of high fashion. Our feet are, after all, subject to much abuse as we scamper about looking for stories to write everyday.

Be that as it may, we would never suggest for a moment that perfectly made shoes are absolutely necessary; that would take away from the unrivalled pleasure of the whole experience. Meeting a man like Giuseppe Santoni, the intrepid leader of an Italian shoemaking outfit called Santoni, reinforces this perception. Ten minutes with him and you will either be convinced of the importance of quality (a word he loves) shoes or you will realize that good shoes are not for you and you should go hang your head in shame.

As the CEO of a famous name in Italian shoemaking, Giuseppe (we shall use his first name, to distinguish from his company), is obviously a big fan of good shoes. “For myself, I have more than 400 pairs of shoes!” He is not at all sheepish about this admission, which is more a matter-of-fact statement than a confession. To be clear, this is far from an Imelda Marcos moment.

A natural leader, this 37-year-old scion of the family business is possessed of that particular Italian energy one imagines once built empires yet he manages to seem entirely calm during our brief conversation at the Santoni boutique, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

A largish event is being held in the store later and, as a loud crash outside reminds us, Giuseppe and I are ensconced in the eye of a storm. “Don’t worry, nobody died, we can carry on,” he says, after casting the briefest look of concerned exasperation in the direction of the ruckus. Giuseppe is partway through an ambitious traveling program and the strain is just beneath the surface.

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A very young man, Giuseppe’s forte lies in contemporizing the company his father, Andrea, started in 1975. It is telling that his father is still in the business, but on the production side with the master craftspeople. Giuseppe was instrumental in transforming what the highly-regarded haute de gamme atelier his father founded into an international enterprise with 400 employees, a presence in more than 70 countries and a turnover of more than 50 million Euros.

Even with his contemporary ways, Giuseppe is quick to remind us that Santoni is now, as it always has been, about both tradition and innovation. This reminds us of more than one watch company’s tagline (guess which ones) and also subtly reminds us that Santoni is currently supplying an exclusive range of IWC Portofino watches with straps; this IWC collection is the only watch collection in the world to come with Santoni leather straps. For the record, IWC Schaffhausen uses Probus Scafusia, signifying good solid craftsmanship from Schaffhausen, as its motto.

Quality and craftsmanship are keywords at Santoni. What matters most in terms of quality for shoes, from the ready-to-wear to bespoke?

First of all, shoes are very important in that they are personal transport for us. We use them to move around in the world so if they are not well made it is a big problem. You know, if my shirt or pants is not perfect maybe I don’t realize but if my shoes are not perfect I have a problem. So, it is very important that shoes are well made.

In terms of quality, you mentioned bespoke and this is something very special. Even beyond the last and the materials, these shoes are built around your feet - your bones, your measurements. It is very important to understand the difference between this kind of bespoke quality and something normal (ready-to-wear); it is like a tailored suit versus something off-the-rack. It is completely different.

For sure the technique involved, the quality and even of course the time it takes to make the shoes, everything is completely different. You know this is totally different to customization too. You can go to some big brands who offer customization and there they will ask you to try on different shoes and tell them what is more comfortable; they don’t build the last just for you like we (and other shoemakers) do with bespoke.

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The Santoni factory in Milan is clearly not what your typical atelier looks like

How many shoes do you really need, as a man?

Well, for me this is a difficult question; I have more than 400 pairs myself! I’m not the kind of guy who cuts his budget on shoes! I consider them a very important part of the wardrobe of a distinguished man. You can judge a man from his shoes, his watch…the details you know. In England, they say you can always distinguish a man by the shoes he wears; a good pair of shoes is always on the feet of a good man. 

 

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With a good pair of shoes, we are sometimes tempted to wear them everyday. Should we give our shoes a break?

You never have to wear the same pair of shoes everyday…if you do this the shoes will get demolished. It is very good to let the shoes rest, maybe to wear one pair no more than once a week. Shoes that rest will last much longer… It’s like if you wear a cashmere sweater every day; it will stretch out and never recover. The same is true for shoes; the leather needs time to recover. I always say the shoes must dry out (to overcome humidity and our own perspiration) naturally. This is why we suggest using the shoe trees, with the wood (Canadian cedar for example) that we use, it absorbs moisture and (dissipates odors).

In our kind of wet and wild tropical weather, what kinds of shoes work best?

First of all, we do not have a problem at Santoni with rain unless it is really heavy, heavy, heavy rain and you are going to walk through flooded streets; this will ruin the shoes because they are not waterproof. You have to remember the stitching, the leather and the way they are made…water will get in under extreme conditions… Rubber soled shoes are really the best for rain because it can be waterproofed and also because you won’t slip.

Tradition and innovation are at the core of Santoni. How do you reconcile the apparent contradiction?

We represent a brand that always evolves in terms of techniques but not because we change the way we make shoes but because we are always looking for new methods to construct shoes; we keep the old traditional ways but still look for new ways. In the past 10 years, we have come up with many new construction methods, either through invention or reinvention, like the flexible Goodyear-Bologna construction (which allows the wearer to feel instantly at home in the shoes, without the usual issues of breaking-in of new leather shoes) and Bologna sneakers…so we always try to have new ideas and new products to offer the customer otherwise… you know our shoes last a long time, if you treat them properly. Twenty years no problem. We cannot rely on people replacing their shoes so we have to offer new kinds of shoes. This is a consequence of our quality really.

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Giuseppe's office. Notice the clock. Remind you of a certain watch brand?

What are the advantages of being family-owned?

Business decisions are quick, which is typical of family-owned companies. We are also able to focus on quality, making the best of the best. Sometimes as part of a big group you don’t anymore focus so strongly on quality but on making the brand famous… The shareholders want results, money, at the end of the year so you don’t act anymore to make the product the best; you just do what you need to make the shareholders rich. You know, money doesn’t make quality…you need time, you need experience, you need passion; money and passion are not the same thing.

Our people of course have salaries, they get paid, but as a company, for the family, we are not in this just for money. We are in business to make quality products.

You have modernized the company and introduced contemporary marketing. Tell us about this.

We have two energies in our company: one is the marketing part, the innovation and design; the other is the traditional part, the shoe technique and the master craftsmanship. On the design side, the oldest guy is maybe 35 while on the shoemaking production side, we have people in their 70s. It is the combination of these two energies that makes sure our products maintain the innovation in design but traditional in terms of quality.

If you see our website and our factory especially, we have won an architectural award for the building. Our factory is super-modern and we are very aware of what is going on in the contemporary world. We have solar panels (at the factory) and we actually produce more energy than what we need so we sell the excess energy to our neighbors; we have a greenwall (a vertical garden), a water recycling facility… These are not things linked to a traditional craftsmanship company but then again, we do our last designs by computer and we also have special lights in the factory so the craftspeople can see the colors they are working with properly. Artificial lights (warp) things; you need to go outside and see how the colors look in natural sunlight. Our lights get around this problem so we are also super-modern in this way.

Again, you must remember we still make shoes in the traditional way (even if computer-aided design is involved) and we even have a school in the factory to teach young people how to make shoes. So, I would say we are quite a unique company; a combination of old school and new school, always with one eye on how to adapt new ideas.

Growing up in the business, as it were, did you always know you wanted to be a part of the Santoni company?

When I was a kid, the factory was just downstairs! We lived upstairs and they made the shoes downstairs; the factory was my playground. After school, during summer vacation, I spent my time learning about how things worked in the factory. I started at the company very young; I was 22 when I became CEO of Santoni; my father was always more involved in the production side and he trusted me to develop the company. I had the chance to do a lot of things – I made a lot of mistakes but I also made a lot of good products. So in a way I always knew my role would be in the company; it was normal to me.

Passion is the other watchword at Santoni. What defines your passion?

I like products that have something inside…something that you need to have an engineering process to create. I have two passions besides shoes: cars and watches. But with shoes, I think it is even more complicated (in some ways) to engineer because there is no real production line like you have at Mercedes, for example. From start to finish, one car is the same as the next. This is not true for shoes because leather is a living material and it might react differently from one shoe to the next.

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The Santoni factory is an ultra-modern affair that actually produces enough energy to sell to its neighbors

What to you is the ultimate luxury?

Time is the ultimate luxury because I have no time. I would love time for myself because at this moment I am running around too much. But if we speak of luxury (as typically defined) then luxury is everything that you have but do not need that makes your life better.

Can a luxury product ever become a necessity? Is that even a good thing?

My grandmother used to say to go forward is easy but going backwards is hard. Once you drive a Mercedes, going back to driving a Hyundai is difficult…

Is luxury best shared with others or kept for oneself?

It depends on context; it can be both really, especially if it is a great wine or something you should share it.

What are five luxury products or experiences that are essential in your life?

Cars, watches, shoes, jewelry – not for myself but as gifts.

Santoni 

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