Entering the storefront of Saskia Wittmer’s shoe workshop, you are greeted by varying mesmerizing sounds—light taps to leather, hard strikes of a hammer and the gentle rub of various lotions—yet there is a peace pervading that comes from people relishing working on their craft. Shoes are suspended from the ceiling, each masterpiece the result of months of labour with careful consideration behind each handcrafted stitch. Saskia Wittmer is the artisan behind these works, producing the one-off pairs of artful footwear in her own studio since 2000. Working with her two assistants, the all-female team form shoes for men, bringing a flair, elegance and femininity to the covetable luxury item.
Each shoe has its own story, entirely bespoke for every individual who enters the special space. Saskia takes a rare level of care and dedication to a person’s specific needs, committing time to understand the unique style of each client before pulling out the ancient looking tools and taking every necessary measure to produce the perfect goods. Born in Berlin, Saskia came to Florence out of love of the city and became the assistant to renowned shoemaker Stefano Bemer for several years before striking out on her own in 2000, opening what is still one of the very few female owned shoe workshops in Italy. She admits that the locals needed a bit of time to adjust to her presence in the artisan area, convinced that a female foreigner shoemaker wouldn’t last. Now, with 20 years behind her back, her right to be claimed one of the best shoe artisans in Florence is well-deserved.
“I trained for three years in Germany with Benjamin Klemann, who worked in London with Foster & Son and John Lobb. That is where I learned all the techniques. Following the apprenticeship, I came to Florence to work with Stefano Bemer, where I learned how to use my skills and I had the opportunity to learn about Italian style, leathers and models. It was only the two of us in a little room. I couldn’t really speak Italian and he couldn’t really speak English, so we had to communicate through gesture. It was a lot of fun and I trained there for six years before deciding it was time to open my own workshop. What was fundamental for me was windows and daylight. I don’t have anything to hide because I know how to do my work, so I enjoy it when people can have a look, take pictures and really see what we do. Children from the French school stop by everyday on their way home, they really love it. Some go home and tell their parents and bring them in. It’s wonderful.” Saskia also hosts workshops (on pause at the moment), passing on the trade to those who endeavor to learn the secrets of the millennia of artisanal excellence.
Perhaps most impressive of all is Saskia’s most recent accolade—she was chosen as one of the 38 artisans invited to take part in the Dolce & Gabbana men’s fashion show at Palazzo Vecchio on September 2.
“I had this really unexpected visit from Domenico Dolce. I was very surprised when Pitti Immagine called and said that somebody would come and have a look. That morning, he walked in through the door and I certainly didn’t expect that! We had a wonderful talk for half an hour; he was very kind and interesting and also very inspiring. He asked me if I would do something for their show and so I created five pairs of slippers. I’ve never done anything like that because usually I work for a specific individual’s foot. It was also strange to have this complete freedom in a way, because he just said he wanted slippers, and that I should think about the colour and the Renaissance, and everything else was up to me. I got to use materials I rarely use, working in collaboration with the Fondazione Lisio (hand-woven silk foundation). I was using bochart, which you have to be exceptionally careful working on because one mistake, and you throw away 5,000 euro! I had five weeks to create them before they were shipped to Milan. It was crazy, but a lot of fun and it was very nice to participate in an haute couture show. It was an amazing opportunity for Florence and I think the spotlight really went on—the world was looking. I really appreciate what they did for the city, and also for Italy.”
The very soul of Florence is undoubtedly its artisan tradition. Technologies will never replace the skilled work of these craftspeople whose time, passion and dedication poured into their work can never be matched by a factory’s production line.
“Purchasing a pair of shoes like these is an investment, they can last you 10 to 15 years”. But beyond that, they are capsules of your personal style and identity, carefully constructed by an artisan who takes 220 steps to create a shoe of unbeatable quality, which will give joy every time you glance down at your happy feet.