One of the best features of Tuscany, and indeed all of Italy, is the number of independent local businesses that are on offer from bustling cities to small towns in the countryside. No matter where you turn, you can see people selling local produce: handmade, home-grown and undoubtedly wearing the proud label of ‘made in Italy’.
Italy is flushed with small to medium sized businesses, many having operated for years and steeped in family tradition. In fact, 98% of the over four million companies in Italy have an average of just four employees!
It’s no surprise that Italian business etiquette is much more personal than other European countries, as merchants value quality relationships with their customers that keep them coming back for more. Rather than visiting the supermarket every week, you’ll be strolling from market stalls to butchers and winemakers before stopping by a local tailor, and at each of them you’ll find a happy face welcoming you in and recommending the best of their local goods.
Meeting Mario Bemer
To learn first-hand about the personality of Italian business, we got in touch with Mario Bemer, a shoemaker in the Oltrarno region of Florence, south of the Arno River and a neighbourhood renowned for craftsmen and artisans. Mario has been running his current store since 2014, but his background is a rich history of quality craftsmanship always with an eye towards taking care of customers:
“The relationship with my customers begins before the shoe is even made; I need to understand the lifestlyle, habits, and uses my client will need their shoes for. I like to understand their taste, and be able to make suggestions that can enhance the style and look they are going for. These are the details that I find create a relationship of reciprocal trust with the client. From there it becomes an ongoing relationship, where I listen to their requests, and make recommendations to suit different styles.”
Mario’s brother, Stefano, was asked to repair a shoe as the only repairman in their town (Greve) had passed away and Stefano had worked with a leather artisan making goods for Gucci. After training and financial backing from Mario, Stefano set up a small shop which eventually moved to Florence and continued to expand. The name Stefano Bemer became synonymous with the finest quality shoes and the company had clients worldwide, with the shoes themselves always made just outside of Florence and the leather used from a local tannery.
However, the company ran into financial trouble as Stefano’s health deteriorated. When Stefano passed away, the company was bought and changes were made, changes that meant the company would stay afloat, but would lose the personal touches that Mario and Stefano prided themselves on. Finer details, like trial shoes, shoemakers themselves taking measurements and the Florence-only materials went by the wayside and Mario decided to leave the company just six months later:
“I was dissatisfied with the direction the new company was taking, one that had a very distant philosophy from that which my brother and I had. I felt that our reputation was being compromised. I therefore decided to create my own brand and continue crafting shoes that would in some way honour my brother’s memory.”
Expert shoemaker Seiji Miyagawa joined Mario, who founded his store in Florence so that he could conceive, design and produce his own range of shoes right in the heart of Tuscany and made only with the finest Italian leather. His red ‘O’s on the eyelets of each shoe denoting his unique brand as he continues to fashion shoes with the quality and care that his brother did:
“In Italy, specifically in Tuscany, one can find the best leather tanneries, materials, and suppliers of the necessary items for fine artisan craftsmanship. Italy is known worldwide for these reasons and this gives us an advantage of being identified with the highest standards.”
Knowing his customers and tailoring everything towards their style is paramount to Mario, who will greet shoppers as they enter, sit down with a coffee and is glad to share all of tips, expertise and ideas with them. The business is not the bottom line to Mario, but rather the joy of doing what he loves and taking chances to great fine products:
“Most times a client likes to personally be involved in the selection of all materials, form, model, and detailing. Other times they’ll give me a rough idea of what they are looking for and ask me to interpret it for them. Either way it is my goal to go beyond their expectations.”
Easy to lose in many larger companies, there’s an incredible sense of both joy and pride in Mario’s work. His shoes are made with a Goodyear-welted sole, as he always wanted to produce a welt-soled shoe that did not compromise on flexibility or comfort. In fact, Mario’s more than happy to demonstrate that flexibility by taking one and giving it a twist! He’s also one of thousands of artisans who wear their heritage as a badge of honour:
“’Made in Italy’ and ‘Made in Florence’ both carry a tremendous amount of value. We are world renowned for crafting the finest hand-made products using only the best materials available and I believe that the century old traditions in artisanship that we have in our country are unmatched by any other place.”
Italy is full of stores just like Mario’s, determined to bring a personal touch to every customer. To get to know them and their needs, as well as share the story of his own business and the huge amount of pride he takes in his work. The next time you’re strolling the Tuscan streets and looking for anything from a new suit to a new soup, ask about the people you’re buying from and you’ll be regaled with tales of family tradition and expert craftsmanship.
As Mario told us:
“I have clients from all over the world, and each one is different, what I find though is a common sense of refined taste. It’s the appreciation for something special that is created just for them.
A famous quote by St. Francis of Assisi says it well:
‘He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.’”
To visit Mario’s store in Oltrarno take a look at our local Florence villas.