One thing (or person for that matter) that you may not ever think about is how the shoes get from factory A in Italy or factory B in China and make it to a store like Selfridges in the UK or Nordstrom in the States. You might assume that buyers speak several languages, or that factories have english-speaking representatives. And while this might be the case sometimes, in reality there are people like Giovanni Gambini who are connecting the dots from the manufacturers to the distributors. I, too, never thought of this role until I met Giovanni. But after seeing just how important he is to the shoe industry and places like Nordstrom or Selfridges or any other big department store that might want a ‘house brand™ or access to a factory that is on a much smaller scale, I realized that there must be many other behind-the-scenes individuals, like him, helping to create business while jumping through the obstacles of language and cultural barriers. So I decided that instead of resorting to another shoe designer or shoemaker this month, I would shed some light on the people that are less thought about but equally important in the shoe industry, allowing your favorite brands to make their way into your favorite stores.
P.S. This is quite long, but extremely informative! Also, sorry for the inconsistencies in the fonts and sizing and spacing, Blogger was not being cooperative to my copy and pasting from Gmail? Go figure, they are the same company.
1. What exactly is it that you do?
I work as agent, protecting the interests of the company that hires me as an agent to follow their work/business with factory/factories in Italy and I make sure that the footwear that they order is made in full respect of agreements stipulated, ie: for quality, attention to detail, materials and components and that the delivery is made respecting the terms specified on the orders themselves. My function however is not limited to this aspect alone in fact, I start by researching suitable factories that meet the qualifications that I know my customer requires such as: adequate financing-sound financial position, ability to do the type of product that my customer requires, pricing in line with what is necessary for my client. Between placement of orders and delivery we monitor the various stages of production, do a final quality control, follow through with shipping and all documentation necessary for customs and to proceed with payment.
–Just in case that was a little confusing, it was liked I stated above, taking a company like Nordstrom who may want to create a ‘house line™ and wanting a factory in Italy to do so. Giovanni would be the guy to make that happen, and make sure that it happens in everybody™s interests.
2. How long have you been in the shoe industry?
I started working in the shoe industry in the late ’60’s and I have continued since then with the exception of an interval of about 4 years spent in the United States during which time I worked for GUCCI in their Beverly Hills store.
3. What brought you into the shoe industry?
I began working in the shoe industry right after graduating from a course in the English language through Michigan University. One of the best ways to use English in those days was working for what was then known as a Buying Office. Florence was known, then, for its Buying Offices; all the biggest and most important U.S. department stores had representative offices known as Buying Offices which became a typically Florentine institution and which started just after the second world war. I was hired by AMC, the Associated Merchandising Corporation, representing stores such as: Bloomingdales, N.Y.; Filene’s, Boston; Bullocks, L.A.; Rich’s, Atlanta; Burdine’s, Florida; L.S. Ayres; J.L. Hudson; Abraham & Strauss, Thalheimer’s, Va. etc. there were at least 25 companies. At that time I was put to work in the men’s shoe department and I worked under a man who taught me, and very well, the first principals about shoes a man I still know and for whom I have great respect. That was a time and an atmosphere that hardly exists anymore, anywhere. You have to consider that the best instruments you had available at that time were forms which were put together to keep things organized. The only fast way to communicate was via the telex machine and, rarely due to the expense, via telephone, by previous appointment. There was no fax machine, email, FedEx, UPS, DHL or other instantaneous communication. Orders and other important communications were still sent by regular air mail.
4. How many factories do you have relationships with?
If you mean factories that I regularly have relations with I would say at this time that there are perhaps a dozen to a dozen and a half. But, of the factories that are still regularly active, I know quite a few especially in the men’s shoe sector and certainly I have done business in the past decades with as many as fifty or more. You have to consider that many of these have been forced out of business in the last years due to the emergence of what used to be called under developed countries and have now become the main producing realities of the world, such as China, India and Brazil, to name a few. Even just 10 or 15 years ago these countries certainly weren’t known for their production of footwear other than athletic type footwear.
5. What™s the most difficult part of your job?
I would say that for me personally the most difficult part of my work is finding the right factory for the product desired a factory that is able to do the product well and at the price necessary. Its important to get it right and right off. For the people working in my office the most difficult or time consuming part is the unending amount of paper work related to social compliance/responsibility issues, more complicated ways of labeling, international security and ecological considerations as well as the processes involved in keeping all this information up to date for each factory. Although the computer has facilitated and accelerated communications, it has also now made almost obligatory the immediate answer to almost any inquiry. We are forced to spend a great deal of time obtaining information and formulating immediate answers to all kinds of queries regarding our clients business here. At one time there was a lot of work, high quantities, few styles, and the work was mostly concentrated in preparation and programming production and deliveries. Now quantities are small and the amount of paper work and day-to-day answering of inquiries is almost overwhelming.
6. What™s the most satisfying part of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is finding the right product at the right price and knowing that I am working with people in manufacturing and in retail that appreciate what I do as much as I appreciate their contribution and seeing that the results make it profitable for everyone concerned.
7. Looking back at when you first got into the shoe industry, how does what you are doing now compare to what you thought you would be doing after this many years in the industry?
This was partially answered in other replies before this. I’ve spent at least 35 years in the shoe industry. I don’t really recall a clear thought about what I thought I might be doing at this age but I’m sure, with the amount of quality work that I’ve put in, I should be retired and in a comfortable economic state. I’ve always been optimistic and I always thought that no matter how difficult things might have been at the time things would definitely get better going forward. Unfortunately, this industry seems to have longer lows than highs, especially in the last few years.
8. What are some of the pitfall™s of today that you have seen in the shoe industry? How has it changed from 20 years ago?
Given that the process necessary to put together the ideal product, that is, product that has something special compared to the competition, sells well and hopefully will continue selling well for more than one season involves risk and is costly because it requires a lot of research as well as considerable investments of time and money, the pitfalls are related to the risks involved you can do all this and find in the end that producing such a shoe in Italy is too expensive you lose the customer because you can’t produce the shoe in Italy at the price he needs or, worse still, your customer decides he wants a higher profit margin and takes the samples developed at great cost in Italy and has them made in China or Brazil. Twenty years ago, for instance, Italy was the largest shoe producing country in the world and the Chinese, Brazilian and Indian industries were practically non-existant. For the most part you could manufacture effectively at every retail price level in Italy and it was only a question of going to the right area. You could do volume footwear as well as the high grade. Now, in Italy, you can do, for the most part, only the high grade but here you encounter other types of competition coming from the well-known designer or fashion brands.
Twenty years ago the companies to look up to were: Cole-Haan, Bally, Bruno Magli, etc. and the big fashion names of today did not have a significant role in the shoe business. Cole Haan, Bally, Bruno Magli, Johnston & Murphy, Florsheim, Bostonian were all producing most of their product in Italy. Today, almost all of them produce for the most part in Asia. In essence, twenty years ago you were competing with specialized shoe companies which all produced almost exclusively in Italy. They had strong buying power therefore it was difficult to compete with them price-wise but you could get very close since they were all paying the same amount of money for labor. So you had a chance. You could find a smaller factory that would be able to produce with a lower profit margin and that you could instruct properly to make a better product and give them the right ideas design-wise. Things didn’t change that much from season to season. Nowadays, you have two different types of problems: 1) the better shoe business is largely driven by designer brands, fashion brands that change things continually and it doesn’t matter to the consumer that much where the product is made as long as it has a brand that is recognizable and desirable; 2) the volume business is mostly driven by price price is the main issue. To have the right looks is important but everything must be at the lowest price possible therefore, all that production to cover that part of the business is done in Asia where labor costs are ridiculously low compared to the labor costs in any country of the western world. Of course, the economic crisis of the last few years has further dramatized the situation. The creativity is still here, the better quality leathers and other materials are still here but the creativity can be copied and the leathers and other materials can be imported from Italy and even the Italian technicians can be hired. They cannot however import the feeling for the product that exists here, the many decades of experience that have made the Italians the best artisans in the world with an innate knowledge and unique sensitivity for line, detail, color and finishing.
9. Who is your favorite non-Italian shoemaker/shoe company?
Having to give a name other than an Italian shoe company it would have to be among the English shoe companies and of those I would say Edward Green and Crockett & Jones. They have remained faithful to their traditions and maintained their customers but at the same time, particularly in the case of Crockett & Jones, are attentive to some of the changes in last shapes, without ever exagerating, as well as new leathers and colors. They are a good balance between traditional and contemporary.
10. What are your aspirations for 10 years down the line?
Given my present age I definitely hope that before then I will be retired even though I am in good health and still enjoy working and visiting factories. I hope, in any case to continue in some way with this work which has in many ways become a passion and be able to use all I’ve learned over the years to assist people starting out in the business and who are interested in producing quality footwear in Italy.
Thank you Giovanni for such wonderful insights into the real world of factory shoemaking in Italy. This is precisely the information that I believe is pertinent to any person who buys shoes and cares about the product, but is also information that no one is going to tell you. And while Giovanni would never tell you this for being a modest man, he is to thank for the fact that you can find Silvano Sassetti in America.
For any of my readers who just might be store owners and are interested in connecting to factories in Italy, you can always email me so that I can connect you to Mr Giovanni Gambini. I hoped that you all have enjoyed the interview. Until next time.
-Justin, “The Shoe Snob”