An Interview with Argentine Bespoke Shoemaker Norman Vilalta

Norman Vilalta is a famous bespoke shoemaker based in Barcelona. His career turn is truly amazing that he switched lane from a lawyer to a shoemaker at the age of 30! He went to Florence from Argentina where he was raised and studied under Stefano Bemer, where he befriended with Justin FitzPatrick.

Later he settled down in the fantastic city, Barcelona, Spain and began his synonymous atelier.

It is a great honor to talk with him.

I saw your photos in many places on the net, I think you dress like Pablo Picasso especially the hat, do you think so?

I wish I had the same level of style as Pablo Picasso, but the fisherman sweater is actually a look that I grew up with. I´m from a small maritime town in Patagonia where the sea has always played an important role, so this is where I adopted the sweater. Luckily the look is also popular among many of the coastal towns here in the Mediterranean, so I fit right in.

As for my red beanie, it´s been so many years that I actually don´t remember where the influence came from. I grew up watching Jacques Custeau, the known French environmentalist, who used to always wear a red beanie. Coincidentally, he also visited my village at one point in time. Perhaps this is how the red beanie became a signature piece of my wardrobe?

Jacques Cousteau

What I can absolutely credit to Picasso, is not only his influence as a talented artist, but his mentality. One of my mottos is to “Master the rules so you can break them like a bespoke shoemaker,” which originates from Picasso´s famous line, “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”.

It was this mentality as a bespoke shoemaker that challenged me to think outside the box of classic shoe design. Without the exploration and drive to add something new to the art of shoemaking, I would have never been able to create asymmetric patternmaking, my 3D patinas, or my Decon Chelsea Boot.

Do you often travel back to Argentina and do you have many followers and customers there?

I visit Argentina as often as I can, but given the distance I´m not able to return as often as I would like to. I wouldn´t be where I am today if it weren´t for all of my friends and family who have supported me over the years, especially those who were there for me when I chose to pursue life as a bespoke shoemaker, one of the roads less taken.

I have both customers in Argentina and Argentinean customers who live all around the world. Perhaps part of the following and support is because of the Argentinian origins. Another part is that as a country, many Argentinians have a specific love, understanding, and respect for the art of fine craftsmanship.

How is life in Barcelona? Are you a fan of the football team?

Life in Barcelona is wonderful. I chose this city because of the lifestyle, the arts and architecture, proximity to the sea, and the overall cosmopolitan vibe of the city. There is so much inspiration around me at all times which helps to fuel my creative fire.

As for Football, I´ve been blessed to have two of the best players in all of history come from my home country. It´s hard to live in Barcelona without being a fan of FCB, but my main allegiance is to Boca Juniors, the most passionate club in all of football. 😉

You have bespoke and RTW, what is your role in both businesses?

We´re a small team of five, so I play an active role in both bespoke and RTW. I work with every bespoke client to create a custom design that fits their sense of style and taste. This involves consulting with them to better understand their preferences, selecting the proper material and make-up of their custom shoe that compliments their wardrobe, and guiding them through fitting sessions both in person and/or virtually.

In ready-to-wear, I design every shoe and manage the finishing of every pair to ensure that they are up to my quality control standards. Every shoe is hand finished in my workshop in Barcelona so my team and I are hands on with every pair.

Since we´re a small team, each member wears multiple hats. In any given day I´ll be helping customers in my Barcelona workshop, designing new shoes, or even preparing shipments for customers. Essentially, the team and I are never afraid to roll up our sleeves and take on any business challenge either big or small when it´s necessary.

In your bespoke offerings, what do you most eagerly want to achieve?

What I strive to achieve in bespoke is a happy client who has a personal pair of shoes that fits perfectly, is distinctly evocative of their unique sense of style, and is beautiful. Most importantly, I want to make shoes that my customers will wear. I´ve been told by customers that are hesitant want to wear the shoes because they don´t want to scratch the beautiful soles or wrinkle the leather, but I prefer to have my shoes out in the wild where they can truly live, breath, and be seen. 

I recently had an email conversation with a customer of mine about how shoes are a very personal thing. He wrote:

“Shoes are so important and personal. I guess they connect us to the ground and define how we feel our body move and stand. It’s also a piece of garment that we can actually see ourselves without a mirror, so they have a special role in how we view our identity and style. Somehow we develop a sort of friendship with our shoes, at least I do. So thanks for producing such nice friends for me!”

This email conversation was related to one pair of boots from my Condal Collection that he ordered from me, but this truly sums up the feelings that I want to achieve for all of the shoes that I make, from bespoke to ready to wear.

Decon Chelsea Boot is your most renowned model, are they the best seller both in bespoke and RTW?

Yes, my Decon Chelsea Boot is one of my best sellers in both bespoke and ready-to-wear. It´s become an iconic boot of mine that often attracts customers to my workshop as well as to my website. It´s also become a “grail boot” among some shoe aficionados which is a great honor to me.

The Decon Chelsea Boot is a good example of why I firmly believe that everyone should reach a point in their field of expertise where they can break the rules. If I would have stuck with designing a normal Chelsea Boot or the typical brown and black shoes, I doubt that my shoes would be anywhere near as interesting or impactful.

My Derby Simple is another best seller since people are often fascinated by my 3D patina. For those who are new to the patina, it´s a patina that I created on grain leather that uses the distinct texture of the grain calf to produce a 3D effect. Each grain is covered in ink dis-proportionally which produces a gradient effect and highlights the uneven texture of the grain leather.

Lastly, my Adelaide Full Brogue is a popular shoe because it has a classic look, but the design is unique and bold.

The shoe features a number of my signature design details — my asymmetric pattern, which is a unique way to cut a pattern that removes the center back seam, my signature pitched heel, which delivers a cleaner and slightly more aggressive silhouette, and many combinations of my hand made patinas.

I find that customers who aren´t as comfortable with some of my more experimental or conceptual shoes and patinas, start off with either my Adelaide Full Brogue or my Mario Cap Toe Oxford, fall in love with my unique design details, and then try some of my other more adventurous shoes.

What is the overall business condition of your RTW? What plan does it have?

Not all customers are able to visit me in Barcelona or at one of my trunk shows, so taking measurements and experiencing full bespoke can pose a challenge. As such, my Goodyear-welted Condal Collection and summer ready Brava Collection give customers the opportunity to try our brand without these hurdles and these collections have become an important part of my business.

It was initially challenging as a bespoke shoemaker to comprehend starting ready-to-wear shoes since it is crystal clear that feet come in many shapes and sizes. Working in bespoke helped me understand the many complexities of feet, the importance of the structure of a shoe, and proper patternmaking. Therefore it took me approximately one year to develop and engineer lasts that I was happy with.

As a result, I´ve found that a large portion of people from around the world who initially try my ready-to-wear lasts are impressed with the fit. Those who typically have issues with my ready-to-wear lasts are customers who need to go either semi-bespoke or bespoke to find a shoe that will properly fit them.

Every Goodyear-welted shoe of my ready-to-wear Condal Collection is hand finished in our workshop in Barcelona, which creates challenges with scalability, but allows us to better manage quality control. I´ve actually had fellow shoemakers visit our workshop in Barcelona and ask if some of the Condal Collection were my bespoke shoes. As such, I´m quite happy that I´ve been able to provide a ready-to-wear line that has been able to satisfy customers in both fit and finishing.

As for plans, I will continue to expand my RTW collections and will be launching new shoes with more experimental shapes, lasts, and unique designs.

What future projects do you have lined up?

Expanding on what I mentioned earlier, I have many new styles launching for my Condal and Brava Collection. The team and I have developed a good rhythm with new product designs and and we now feature something fresh and new at least once a month.

As you might be aware, I also have a line called the 1202 Heritage Collection, which is a semi-bespoke line that uses my ready-to-wear lasts and designs to create a completely handmade shoe. This line has been limited to customers who visit us in Barcelona and the shoe aficionados who have heard of this more exclusive line and reach out to us directly.

With more and more customers becoming educated in the world of shoe making, I´ve seen a demand in handmade shoes and increased interest in my 1202 Heritage Collection. As a result, we are working on a relaunch of this line for our website very soon.

I also have plans to return to some of my more adventurous design roots to add distinct and compelling new shoes to the footwear world. In bespoke I was blessed to have a number of clients who had very daring tastes which made the design process fun and exciting.

In Ready to Wear it can be more challenging to be adventurous since I am producing for a larger portion of customers with varying tastes.

Luckily, I feel that we´ve reached a point where we have a large enough client base who better understands our brand and appreciate some of our design quirks. I´ve received great feedback from customers on some recent experimental pieces in ready-to-wear and have received requests for more of my conceptual designs in bespoke. As a result, I´m excited to have a chance to launch some special new designs in both ready-to-wear and semi-bespoke that are more experimental and venture further outside of the typical classic shoe realm.

Lastly, I have a couple of design collaborations that I´m very eager to have a chance to talk more about. I will be announcing them soon.

Where is your biggest customer base? Are bespoke and RTW the same?

I have customers from all over the world with a large portion based in Europe and the US, and a quickly growing business in Asia. What I find is that we have more and more customers who are looking for smaller artisanal brands that are offerings something outside of the established traditional brands. Many have developed nice collection of classic and more traditional shoes from some of the other makers and are now ready to try something a bit more experimental and fun.

Bespoke attracts many customers to our brand, but ready-to-wear makes up a large portion of our clients. I have many customers who visit or reach out to us inquiring about bespoke, start out in ready to wear after trying the fit of my lasts and shoes, and then return for semi-bespoke or bespoke when they want something even more particular or special.

Please say something to Chinese shoe lovers.

I´d like to say thank you to all the Chinese customers who have supported me and the business. The team and I are honored to have more and more Chinese shoe lovers who have discovered our brand and have decided to give us a try. I think it is wonderful to see an increase in educated shoe aficionados from China and around the world who are venturing away from the already established luxury and heritage brands and are seeking out more small, artisanal brands who are adding something new to the world of shoes.

I hope that this interview provided some more insight into my brand and look forward to having more Chinese shoe lovers in their own pairs of Norman Vilalta shoes soon.