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José Luis Merino at his studio. Photo by Beatriz Schulze.
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Shoemaking The skin we're in
Josep Cunillera at work. Photo by Martin Roberts.
José Luis Merino is a hero of mine. Educated at Barcelona’s prestigious design school Eina and now based in the fashionable neighbourhood of Gràcia, he illustrates for the New York Times, Elle, Newsweek, Forbes and Harper’s Bazaar. And his graphic design—a delightful mesh of Tetris pixels and luxury damask—is both award-winning and highly solicited. But this is not why I like José Luis Merino. My admiration comes from the fact that here is a man who took a giant leap, shelving a glittering and hard-earned career to learn to make leather shoes from scratch.
Merino’s story unfolds like a fairy tale. It also echoes, in reverse, a famous fable involving footwear—Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes—in which an orphan replaces her humble slippers that she makes painstakingly by hand with a silk pair from a designer boutique. The tale follows that the new red shoes are possessed with an evil spirit that forces the young girl to dance manically as soon as she puts them on. She dances and dances, unable to remove the shoes, until finally she begs the town’s executioner to cut off her feet. “By initially making her own shoes, the child accomplishes a major feat,” critic Clarissa Pinkola Estés points out. “She takes life from shoeless or slave status—just going on one’s way, nose to the road, looking neither left nor right—to a consciousness that pauses to create, that notices beauty and feels joy. The handmade shoes show her rising into a passionate life of her own design.”
The same sentiment finds its way into José Luis Merino’s reply when asked why he became a shoemaker’s apprentice. “Learning to do something that you’ve always thought impossible is so exciting. And the feeling when I wore the first pair of shoes that I had made by hand, it goes beyond words.”
In fiction as in daily life, the act of hand-crafting an object, which takes an uncertain amount of time and a great deal of courage, is as mysterious as it is rousing. The self-reliance needed to carry out such a project serves to ward off the gilded cage of modern convenience which can prove a disorientating distraction, not to mention create nefarious dependencies. My Catalan neighbour Maria Victoria is an embroiderer by profession, and goes so far as to say that,“Working with my hands has proven to be my salvation.”
Of all the vocational trades, there is something particularly magical about shoes. British writer and acclaimed shoe historian June Swann explains, “The shoe is the only garment you wear that retains your shape and your personality. You take off your clothes, they’re just a heap of rags on the floor. But the shoe is moulded to your foot. It’s got the essence of the wearer in it.”
The history of cobbling in Spain is a long and diverse one. It is assumed that the oldest human rendering of shoes is in a cave painting near the city of Santander, dated by scientists as being between 14,000 and 17,000 years old. As civilisations began to develop, sandals were more often worn, particularly by the conquering Romans, who as they extended their empire into the Iberian Peninsula spread the message that footwear was necessary in a civilised world. By the 13th century, a casual shoe in Catalunya appeared called the alpargata made from esparto grass, one that is still produced in the region today. Around the same time, the Confraternity of Master Shoemakers of Barcelona was founded, suggesting that cobbling in the city had become active and important enough to merit an official status as early as 1202. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, shoes were a luxury consumer item, propelling Spanish women 10 centimetres off the ground in the earliest-known version of a platform shoe—the exquisitely decorated chopine. Even Queen Elizabeth I commissioned her personal shoemaker to craft a pair for her.
Today, with high fashion cobblers like Canary Islands’ native Manolo Blahnik making global headlines, the focus now is how shoes can lend charisma to the wearer. Yet even in the face of fame and fortune, Blahnik remains solitary, continuing to sketch and create each shoe himself, ensuring that his work is as much an expression of the maker as the wearer. Another example of shoemaking as self-realisation is the charismatic Olga Berluti, whose Paris-based cobbling legacy borders on theatricality. Her leather is washed in the lagoons of Venice, buried in the Alpine snow of Cortina then bleached by moonlight “for transparence.” The construction of a Berluti shoe involves more than 250 individual manoeuvres, “as many as for building a cathedral,” Olga suggests, and as for upkeep, she recommends that the wearer bathes it in dry champagne, “on the rocks, and preferably vintage”—since the fizzy bubbles remove wax and restore a shiny finish.
Eager to see more deeply into this intriguing world, an apron was handed to me and I took up my own shoemaking apprenticeship at the Raval-based atelier of maestro Josep Cunillera. My first lesson involved observing a drawing of a cow, to understand where the skin for each part of a shoe is taken from, and being shown a series of sample skins, some in the complete form of the animal, and others even bearing the marks of where the skin once hugged a spine. It demonstrated how primitive and unchanged this craft is, how a handmade shoe is, at its essence, the skin from the neck or back of an animal that fits around a human foot, skin on skin. No wonder then, that craftsmen who work with leather have throughout the ages considered St Mark, St Crispin and St Bartholomew as their patron saints. All three martyrs had their skin flayed from them as punishment for their beliefs.
This history of violence is possibly the most surprising aspect of shoemaking, but it is fully present in the stripping of a skin from an animal and hammering it into the shoe it will become. In this way a moccasin, a sandal, a brogue suddenly becomes a thing of substance, with a force of its own. “Shoes adopt and tame you, and you adopt and tame them, like domesticating a wild animal,” Olga Berluti explains. “You buy a pair of shoes you adore, but they are too edgy. Perhaps your partner made you buy them. You put them away, and little by little this style, this colour that you’re not used to seeps in. You buy a jacket that goes with them, or a different colour shirt. One day, you realise you have become the person your partner envisioned. The shoes revealed something new, something unexpected in you.”
During my time at Josep Cunillera’s workshop, I have begun to notice other idiosyncrasies, such as how artisans drop their tools. They tap nails, sand wood, slice leather and then the implements clatter to the ground or are tossed to one side, their service no longer required. But as soon as a new nail needs affixing or there is a something to carve, these makers reach to retrieve their fallen hammers and knives with care.
It seemed a paradox. Why treat a hammer in such a cavalier way, only to then pick it up with such reverence? “For a tradition to remain alive,” says Berluti, “we owe it both respect and disobedience.”