After recently introducing hidden gem Antonio Pio Mele, we would like to present Roberto Ugolini, a bespoke shoemaker from Florence who is probably among the most renowned custom shoemakers in the world today.
The Shoemaker Roberto Ugolini
Mr. Ugolini is a true bespoke shoemaker from Florence, Italy, who operates out of his store in Via de’ Michelozzi near the Santo Spirito church. Although Mr. Ugolini has been in the trade for years, the family shoemaking tradition reaches much further back. His great grandfather, grandfather and father were all shoemakers. To commemorate their family history, you will still see a black and white picture hanging in the workshop today showing all of Roberto’s ancestors. Surprisingly, Roberto used to do all kinds of work on shoes, including ordinary repair, until 1995, when he decided focus exclusively on bespoke and custom shoes.
Since making the transition to bespoke, Ugolini and his apprentices have created wonderful pieces of art in the Ugolini atelier. Roberto describes his shoes as Italian, but I think one can narrow this characterization down further to a very Florentine style. This means his shoes have a slightly carree-shaped, soft chisel toe, with a slim line that results in an elegant and lightweight shoe.
Ugolini, Isetan & the U Last
Ugolini had his breakthrough as a shoemaker when he first began to host trunk shows in Japan, in collaboration with Isetan. Subsequently, he was flooded with orders for his bespoke shoes.
Based on this successful venture, Isetan wanted to further develop their relationship by creating a Ready-to-Wear line of shoes. Instead of succumbing to an enticingly easy revenue stream, Roberto chose to continue producing exclusively the highest level of custom shoes. However, Roberto offered to develop a last for which he is probably more famous for today than for his own shoes: the U Last – for Ugolini.
After Roberto declined to manufacture RTW shoes, Isetan decided to have the Hungarian shoe maker Laszlo Vass produce the shoes according to designs and lasts developed by Ugolini. When Roberto visited Vass in Budapest for the first time, he had considerable doubts about the entire project.
He was unwilling to lend his name for the (in his opinion) unrefined workmanship at Vass. Consequently, in addition to designing the last, Roberto changed the way uppers were cut and sewn, and specified processes like welting and sole thickness according to his taste.
The resulting U Last shoe was a worldwide success, and Vass began to while implement many of Ugolini’s changes in his other shoes as well. Today, the term U last has become synonymous among style aficionados with elegant, high quality men’s shoes.
Ugolini Bespoke Shoes
Despite global renown, Roberto Ugolini continues to do what he does best: bespoke shoes.
The first step for each new client is to have their feet measured according to the the Ugolini method (see the picture).
Secondly, a raw last is carved out of beech wood, which is then refined, sanded or widened until it is perfect. Although many others use plastic lasts, Ugolini swears by his wooden lasts because he feels that plastic would not allow changes to be incorporated as accurately as with wood.
Once the last is completed, a trial shoe is produced, a step that has been discarded by many other shoemakers. This shoe looks basically like the real one: same uppers, same heel, but the leather consists of scraps of cheap quality. The shoe is also glued instead of hand welted. If this is the customer’s first shoe, chances are he will be sent to town to walk around for a few hours. From the wear pattern, Ugolini can judge how the shoe fits and whether there is room for improvement. This process is repeated until the shoe fits perfectly.
Once that phase is complete, the real shoe is made entirely by hand. As a true master, Ugolini knows how to make the handmade goodyear welt (not to be confused with the machine-made goodyear welt), in addition to the Norwegian welt and the Tyrolean (Tirolese) welt.
Ugolini offers a variety of different leathers ranging from standard box calf to caiman, alligator, stingray, carpincho, shark, camel and elephant leather.
For the very first shoe, you should expect a year from start to finish, unless you reside in Florence – then it should take about 6 months. The process requires that you have one or two fittings after the initial measurement process.
Despite Ugolini’s high level of craftsmanship, his prices have remained moderate for a bespoke product.
As such, Ugolini maintains a growing Japanese clientele. In fact, the entire shoemaking scene in Florence is dominated by Japanese customers because they seem to appreciate true craftsmanship, unlike the marked decline of interest by western cultures. Ironically, the only Japanese shoemaker in Florence – Hidetaka Fukaya – apprenticed with Ugolini before he started his own business.
If you should ever make it to Florence (and who doesn’t love Florence?), you should definitely pay a visit to Robert Ugolini! The pair of shoes on the left is my fourth purchase from Ugolini and I am more than happy with his superb styling and workmanship. Until then, I hope you enjoy the pictures and the following video.
Via de’ Michelozzi, 17
50125 Florence, Italy
Tel.: + 39 055 216246