Saturday, August 15, 2009

Getting What You Pay For...


Made in Italy! Not made in China.

I can't tell you how many times I've been told that since we've arrived. From the little Antica Merceria which sells yarn to bras, to the craft, fruit and veg stalls in the market in Santo Spirito, sellers are emphatic and passionate (it is Italy after all)about the Italian origin of their wares. The buy local and slow food movements are at a whole other level compared to those in the US. The participants in the movement do not seem to be restricted to any particular group of society, but a much larger cross section of the population appears to be involved. It isn't just pride in what they make, but there also seems to be a greater comprehension of the environmental and quality impacts when you transport your food and goods long distances from countries where enforcement of labor and environmental laws may be sorely lacking.

Several months back, over dinner, we got into an interesting conversation with an Italian friend who lives in the US about the cost of shoes. Every few years, when he is home in Firenze, he goes to a place around the corner from us and picks up a pair of handmade Italian shoes.

(Like the furniture restoration stores the area also has a fair number of cobblers. Now some cobblers strictly just repair shoes, others make and mend and there are a few who 'design' and create. The prices for handmade shoes where you can see the individuals making the shoes right there, varies widely. At one shoe store on the other side of the river well heeled young men and women work exquisite shoes that hang delicately in the window. I stopped once and asked how much a pair of shoes would cost.

Oh, all our shoes are custom made, but these (a gorgeous pair of red flats were a basic pair) start at 900 Euros.

Don't think about it too much, it hurts. The lady was very nice as I spluttered. Anyway, back to our friend, who I assure you isn't spending 900 Euros on his shoes.)

Wow, are they that much better? I asked. Surely they are expensive?

Yes, they are that much better.

Our friend buys a pair of shoes designed by his friend Stefano every couple of years. He wears them practically every day and, he was emphatic about this, not only do they last, but they are infinitely more comfortable.

But the price...
said I.

our friend said, better to pay for one pair that is comfortable and lasts several years than 6 cheaper pairs that are not comfortable and do not last.


But that wasn't the end of it. Our friend continued to talk about the value of knowing the working conditions of those who made what you buy and questioning whether saving a little money was really worth the karma points. Well, he didn't say it exactly like that, but that sums it up. Now, if you don't have the money to lay out anyway and you're scrimping to buy one pair of shoes, or you're buying them second hand (both of which I've done, the second more recently than the first) then this argument is null and void.

All this got me to thinking. So after dinner I rushed home and dug out all my shoes. Well all the shoes that I brought with me.** Where were they made? Did it matter how much I paid for them?

Shoes are the one item that I'll actually spend money on, well relatively speaking. Shoes don't know that I've put on a crap load of weight, they still fit me and don't add insult to injury when I try them on in the store.

The answer? China.
To a pair. The boots, the Ariats that are so damn comfortable, the MILFS (oh such a bad phrase), the red pumps, the flats, my sandals...all China.
Now, I don't have a problem with the Chinese and, other than the wish to invest in my local economy and to keep transport impacts down, no problem buying from another country. I know that it is the Big Corporations who add to the labor and environmental issues, the plight of the Chinese worker and their low wages is what keeps wages and conditions low elsewhere. In Tucson, I'm not sure I can be discerning, other than maintaining with new soles/ heels and buying second hand, but here in Italy I have a chance to buy something made from a person I can shake hands with, in a place less than 100 meters from our front door.

This is the window display at Francesco's

and this is Francesco:

Francesco making someone else's shoes

So I did. I've eyed these shoes everyday for the past six months. They're not exactly glamorous, rather they're classic in that 'I can wear them when I'm an old lady' way. In fact, I'm pretty sure that they're something that my Granny H. use to wear. Okay, maybe they are old lady shoes, but they're very work friendly and after a little stretching they fit me perfectly and I love them. So I bought them. If they'd had them in my size in the aubergine color I would have got those instead. They cost a tiny, minuscule fraction of those over on the fancy side of the river, but it was really nice to purchase something from the family that made the product and who seem to be doing just fine.


**My unsolicited assvice for the day: Packing for a trip to somewhere that oozes Old World charm? Skip the heels and the pumps. Forget trying to impress the locals, you can't. Wear something comfortable and flat. The roads and sidewalks can only be navigated in any kind of heel by some other species. Definitely not me, probably the same species that can wear white linen.


  1. Bravissimo! Greetings from Orlando, FL... Enjoyed reading your post this evening; particularly love the pic of Francesco. Such charm and "humanness" when we take time to see & experience it...

    Life in Tucson will never be the same, I'm guessing.


  2. What a great purchase! I would've bought them too, especially if I met the man that made them and saw where he made them.

    I'm sure they'll be your favorite shoes, even in Tucson! :)

  3. good for you Rachel! i made a similar decision last year when i bought a pair of handmade leather shoes. the result? i wore them four of every five days of the week for two semesters. i've had to replace the rubber tip on the heel once ($4.50 at local cobbler). they are comfortable, they look the same as the day i bought them, and i will NEVER buy another pair of shoes from target, payless, etc. if i can help it!!


  4. I'm not even into shoes, but I would be if I had Francesco making them for me.

  5. Great thought provoking post. Maybe I should buy a pair of handmade shoes...Hmmm

  6. I. love. this. And I wish upon wishes that you could have packed me in your suitcase, just so I could have stood in that shoemakers shop and *drolled* over the loveliness (Helllllooooo red lace up boots!)