Sustainable by tradition: Il Bisonte

Sustainable by tradition: Il Bisonte

Combining design and leather delights, Il Bisonte is among Florence's artisanal highlights.

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Wed 29 May 2024 10:33 AM

Step over the threshold of the historic Il Bisonte store with its glass windows on via del Parione in the center of Florence, and your senses will be captivated by the intense and magnificent smell of leather tannin.

The flagship store has never ceased to evolve since it attracted the attention of international travellers in the Seventies with its unusual blend as an atelier and shop selling leather bags and accessories as well as curious pieces of vintage design, artworks, riding equipment and Liberty-style lamps. A striking bison in resin, wooden columns crafted for a 1989 installation, vintage suitcases and creations styled over 20 years for exhibitions held at Palazzo Strozzi form a theatrical backdrop to Tuscan dressers showing classics in the Heritage collection and more contemporary bag designs. Herringbone terracotta floors and whitewashed vaulted ceilings communicate the heritage of Florence as shoppers inspect the desirable items, from purses with non-chemical metallic finishes to overnight bags, and even a script cover yearned for by Hollywood stars.

Among the first customers to fall in love with Il Bisonte was Ralph Lauren, who bought a leather briefcase at the via del Parione shop that he has been carrying almost everywhere he goes for 50 years. Down the years, other celebrities have followed his example, including Elizabeth Taylor, Monica Bellucci, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks, who loves to pop by the store whenever he’s in Florence.

More than anything else, a visit to the via del Parione involves a deep dive into Florentine manufacturing traditions at their most authentic. All of Il Bisonte’s products are crafted in small artisan workshops, often family run and passed down from generation to generation, at a radius of no more than 35 kilometres from Florence, from model making in Pontassieve to small leather item production in Impruneta and Borgo San Lorenzo, and bag manufacturing in Reggello, Rufina and Vicchio. As we pick up a sumptuously soft notebook cover, the store manager explains how the tactility depends entirely on the animal whose skin was used to make the item. “Il Bisonte only uses hides from adult cattle reared for food, which would otherwise be disposed of at a significant cost to the environment.”

Starting their journey in the tanneries of Santa Croce sull’Arno, among others, the raw hides are preserved in salt before being washed, rehydrated and passed through drums several times. They are tanned with vegetable substances such as tannin, a 100 per cent natural powder obtained from the bark of European chestnut trees, which allows the leather items to darken and gain character over time. A photograph mounted on the wall shows how Il Bisonte’s small leather items age from sand, milk and champagne shades in their infancy to gold, honey and caramel, and chestnut and ebony in their dotage. “The vegetable substances with which our articles are tanned mean that you can rub a scratch and it will go away,” the Il Bisonte team explains while holding a handsome forest green cowhide shoulder bag in the FW23 collection. 

Stubborn like the namesake animal, Il Bisonte refuses to bow to the swings and arrows of fashion trends and seasonal constraints. Many of the items on display have been in continuous production since the 1970s, such as the iconic Caramella transformable bag and the Trappola men’s backpack. Plus, customization is an option at the Florence flagship store thanks to a machine that enables leather lovers to personalize their purchases with initials, numbers and symbols. 

Established by Wanny Di Filippo in 1970, this proudly Florentine high-quality leather goods brand has always been at home in the monumental Palazzo Corsini, a stone’s throw from via Tornabuoni and near the lungarno.

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