When Tommaso Melani took over his late friend Stefano Bemer’s eponymous bespoke shoemaking business, he had big shoes to fill. The Florentine cordwainer was a best-kept secret among the well-heeled since the early ‘80s, save for a brief moment in the spotlight when actor Daniel Day Lewis spent 10 months learning the art of shoemaking under Bemer. To date it still remains a predominately word-of-mouth business with loyal clients, who own not one pair of Stefano Bemer’s handcrafted shoes but 40. But Melani, who has steadfastly seen to the preservation of Bemer’s vision, wanted to open the business up to customers like himself, who were interested in quality but didn’t necessarily want to buy into bespoke.
“I was never a customer, because his shoes were so far out of my price range,” says Melani. “But my idea with this product was to be able to offer his shoes at my price point—the John Lobb, Edward Green price point, so ‘generous,’ but not ‘bespoke generous.’”
Melani knew the ropes; his family has been in the leathermaking business for four generations, operating Scuola del Cuoio. He initially connected with Bemer, because he wanted the two Italian craftsmanship oriented companies to work together. When Bemer fell ill and Melani took over in 2012, the company was making just 300 shoes a year—the company now makes 3,000 annually. “We went from being just bespoke to being ready-to-wear, made-to-order, made-to-measure, and bespoke. It serves a wide range of niche clients.”
Within the confines of an old chapel just outside of Florence, 14 expert craftsman hand-make each pair of Stefano Bemer shoes. But customers come to buy Stefano Bemer’s shoes not just for the quality, but for the experience and the enjoyment of owning something rare—even their sneakers are special order. “Sneakers are simple—the shape is a cast and the stitching is elementary,” says Melani. “But when my clients buy a sneaker, they will not go and buy Common Projects. They want sneakers from the same leather used for their loafers. They’re used to having everything made to their liking. It’s not necessary, but there’s a lot of self-enjoyment in the process.”
But sometimes even bespoke shoes are not enough for Melani’s clients. The most exclusive shoes available at Stefano Bemer, their Russian Reindeer shoes, come with an $11,000 price tag. Why? Each pair is made from 232-year-old leather recovered from the shipwreck of the Die Frau Metta Catherina—a 53-ton Russian cargo ship that sunk in the English Channel in 1786 while carrying hemp and leather from St. Petersburg to Genoa. The hefty price tag is enough to sink some into debt, but Bemer has already sold 10 pairs and has just enough leather to create 5 more before the leather is gone. “To be honest, I really don’t want to sell them, and for the last pair I will probably raise the price to $100,000,” says Melani, with a knowing smile.
While Melani is relatively modest about his own personal expenditures, like his clients, he appreciates the good life. His own proclivity for collecting rare and unique possessions includes a passion for wine and watches. “The next bottle of wine I want, and I’m not going to shoot low, is the 2009 Tignanello, which I hear is the best ever made.” He also has his eye on a Patek Philippe 5970. “But I don’t buy anything unless I’m ready to enjoy it—collecting just to say I have it, doesn’t make sense for me,” says Melani. “You don’t collect things, you collect the experience.”