Andrea Artioli, shoemaker to the stars

It’s fair to say that George W. Bush and the late Saddam Hussein had very little in common. Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin don’t see eye-to-eye, either – except when it comes to their brand of shoe.

Artioli is the luxury Italian footwear label with a VIP customer list others can only envy. Donald Trump apparently buys 25 pairs each year, Pope John Paul II is resting for eternity in his. Nicolas Sarkozy appears a little taller next to wife Carla thanks to some special Artioli heels. In Australia, proud wearers include Simon Crean and Andrew Peacock

Andrea Artioli, 45, the grandson of the company’s founder, says 30-something men are becoming more interested in the brand, sold exclusively in Australia at Harrolds in Sydney and Melbourne.

“Yes, especially this younger generation, they appreciate the high quality of our shoes, because they are connoisseurs of the good taste that the world can offer,” Artioli says.

“My father used to say to me that the older generation in Australia was not spending that much on fashion, on their wardrobe, but this new generation changed it. They have a vision about the beauty, how to dress. If you dress well, you add quality to your life.”

Artioli was in Australia recently for one-on-one appointments for made-to-measure shoes that set the benchmark of handmade, luxury Italian footwear.

The starting price for a pair of Artiolis is $2690 (Harrolds sells 70-100 pairs in Australia each year) and custom-made shoes can add another zero to the price, depending on the leathers. Customers wait around eight weeks for their bespoke shoes to be hand-crafted in Italy.

Artioli started working in his grandfather’s factory when he was 14, after nagging him for seven years: “I was refreshing his mind every year that I wanted to work with him!” he laughs.

From father to son

He learnt the craft of shoe-making from his grandfather Severino and his father, Vito. Now at the helm, he’s introducing changes to ensure the company stays relevant and profitable.

Surprisingly for a company best known for its elegant classic shapes such as brogues and loafers, and for its exotic skins and leathers, the most successful and fastest-growing Artioli segment is the luxury sneaker.

“People are dressing more casually, so they appreciate a sneakers line that has an elegant appeal,” he explains. “I introduce it about six years ago as a request from customers who want to wear them on Sunday, with children, with family or also in the morning when they go to the gym.”

Working in a close-knit Italian family, however, comes with challenges. Change can be a dirty word and discussions can get heated. Artioli says he’s a born diplomat and, to implement some crucial design changes within the company, his tactics were slick.

“I suggested all the changes in a way that it was coming from them. Otherwise if you don’t have co-operation you cannot do it,” he says.

The luxury markets, too, have changed. The company no longer relies on the Middle East but is focusing on Russia and China. One of the highest-growth markets is Kazakhstan, while Moscow’s two boutiques doubled their turnover in the last three years, and China’s new Beijing boutique is selling beyond expectations, too. London remains the biggest hub for European travellers.

Hopes for the US market

Artioli hopes the US market will improve soon. That is, after all, where the company’s made-to-measure service germinated 30 years ago, when a young Andrea fell in love with all things American as a teenager and, at 16, persuaded his father to work in the US for a few months: “I stressed him very much!” he laughs.

In the sole San Francisco department store which stocked Artioli shoes, Andrea was thrown in the deep end, and after a month of training was in charge of the shoe department.

He observed the high-end suit salesmen offering customers different colours and fabrics after their off-the-rack suit was fitted perfectly. “So they could buy the same suit, in their right size, but in many different fabrics and colours, made to order from Italy.”

Andrea had his lightbulb moment. “I asked my father to send me all the leathers we had in the stock. I bought a book and attached all the different skins and colours. When the customers were choosing the suits, I was going to them with my book, and they were choosing my leathers to match the suits. This was the first step in the made-to-measure service.”

Slowly, customisation offerings grew, as the company concentrated on individual fittings and modified the timber lasts. Word spread and rich customers from Dallas, Texas, visited the San Francisco store – including one George Bush Senior.

“He became my customer at the time and I’ve never lost him. He’s still my customer,” Artioli says proudly.

“One day he called me and said, ‘I need your help – we have a new president, my son, and he wears very ugly shoes.’ I answer, ‘Of course, my pleasure to help you, Mr President’ and I did the first pair for George W. Bush as my gift.”