Baby Alligator Hides & Shoehorn

Antonio Pio Mele – Bespoke Shoemaker Milan

In the internet world, it often seems like certain artisans and craftsmen receive a great deal of attention – and sometimes nearly cult status – whereas others remain virtually unknown despite their skill. One of these hidden gems is bespoke shoemaker Antonio Pio Mele from Milan.

Located in a charming little shop onVia Soncino in the heart in Milan, he crafts individual bespoke shoes  from the finest leathers – especially exotic hides.

The Person Antonio Pio Mele

Born into a family of shoemakers and shoe factory owners, Antonio Pio Mele started to make bespoke shoes when he was 17 years old. When I asked him why he decided to become a shoemaker he simply answered: This craft was my destiny, and passion and accuracy simply do the rest. His father had been producing women’s shoes since the late 1970’s and so Mr. Mele learned a lot about elegant designs. In order to master the differing craft of men’s shoes, he worked throughout Italy and England absorbing the necessary skills. During his apprenticeships with master shoemakers, he would learn their secrets and recognize the local differences. At the time, his masters were 78, 81, 69, 79, years old, leaving him with deep insights into old world shoe making.

Interestingly, Pio Mele also learned how to make fine women’s bespoke shoes and as such, he is one of the very few shoemakers remaining who actually make shoes for men and women from scratch. Personally, I had the opportunity to get to know Antonio Pio Mele a little more closely, and one thing that struck me about him was his general appreciation for crafts. More often than not, a shoemaker thinks bespoke shoes are the most important thing, a tailor swears his custom suits make the man, and a shirtmaker has only eyes for his shirts. Antonio, on the other hand, respects many forms of craftsmanship and as such, he wears bespoke shirts and suits as often as he can. In my experience, it is rare to come across such a well put together craftsman; their devotion to their art often strangely blinds them to other elements of style. Of course, he also realizes that the term bespoke is often abused nowadays. For him, craftsmanship always involves handwork, passion and a certain portion of perfectionism.

The Bespoke Shoe Atelier

After years of apprenticing and numerous crafted shoes, Antonio opened his own atelier in 2010 onVia Soncino. As with anything made by hand, there is a limit to production and so Pio Mele cannot make more than 180 pairs of shoes a year – including men’s shoes, women’s shoes, boots and children’s shoes.

The atelier itself is located in an old building with beautiful brass details. The room is filled with wooden shoe shelves, tufted leather furniture and is accented with a ostrich leather humidor and a striking painting of a medieval cobbler’s shop. As you would expect, the scent of fine leather is omnipresent, and if you wish, you can smoke a cigar  while you flip through a stack of leather and chat with the owner.

The Antonio Pio Mele Bespoke Shoe

All bespoke lasts are carved on the premises from birch wood. Basically, he offers two kinds of construction methods:  a fully hand sewn shoe that does not involve any machine work, or a shoe that has a machine stitched welt. However, we are not talking about the kind of machine seen in our How to Make Shoes video, but much rather it is an 80 year old machine from Germany that he uses to make one stitch in the welt at a time. While a men’s shoe can take up to 40 hours to make – depending on construction, a woman’s dance shoe is done in about 10 hours.

A regular men’s bespoke shoe in the finest aniline dyed or chrome tanned calf leathers start at 1500€, and can go as high as 4500€ for Alligator. At this point, it deserves to be mentioned that Pio Mele only uses the superior skin of a baby alligator, which means he can only produce one shoe per hide.  While this may seem wasteful, it ensures the longevity of the shoe because larger scales will break more easily over time. In addition, he must find two skins with similar scales. When I visited his store, I was also presented with a Russian reindeer leather that had the most unique smell, almost like a fine Whisky. Antonio also works with caiman, frog, elephant, stingray and fish skin, such as salmon, perch, carp or eel. When I asked him what he has not worked with so far, he replied: “Human skin! Because it is illegal” with a joking smile.

For the first pair of shoes a client purchases, he or she receives a wooden box with shoe polish and 12 inch shoe horn. Sometimes, he even has the customer’s initials applied to the shoe horn in gold or silver. Despite his affinity for fine clothing, you can drop by at any stage of the bespoke shoe process and see Antonio Pio Mele himself making custom shoes by hand on the premises. He only uses 100% natural materials, no plastic  or thermo-moldable caps or the like. As with most bespoke items, a shoe usually requires three fittings; if the client has a difficult foot, Antonio always makes a trial shoe.

Of course, the customer can specify every detail of the shoes, such as the shaft, if he chooses to do so. Though, if you simply order” a pair of shoes” you will probably be equally pleased with the elegant, yet masculine shoes of Antonio Pio Mele. The shoes are neither French, English nor Italian, but a nice blend of all of them. One of the strengths of Antonio Pio Mele is the vintage Patina that he creates for his shoes. He achieves this effect with an array of sponges, shoe coloring and polish.

Conclusion

Overall, I would have loved to have Antonio make a pair of shoes for me. Tragically, I did not have enough time and so I must to postpone this project. At the very least, I was able to bring home a navy blue business card holder in blue alligator – of course, sourced only from the belly. If you are in Milan next time, make sure to stop by and see Antonio Pio Mele. Although Antonio is far from retirement age, he is so old school that he does not have a website! However, you can reach him by telephone and email. Antonio is fluent in English and Italian, so there should not be a language barrier. Now, don’t forget to check out the picture gallery below for more pictures and if you enjoyed it, please share it using the social media buttons underneath the gallery.

Antonio Pio Mele Via Soncino, 3 20123 Milan, Italy Tel./Fax.: +3902 39663680 Email: artemaxima@hotmail.it
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