It's a simple test: Grab a pair of shoes and lace them up as quickly as possible.
Did you remember to skip every other hole as you crisscrossed the upper? Did you maintain a level of tightness throughout? Did you prevent the laces from twisting? Did you treat the tongue tenderly?
If you can respond with a resounding yes, then you might just have the golden hands required to land a job making shoes for Louis Vuitton. All of the upscale brand’s stiletto-heeled boots, logo-covered loafers, calf-leather sneakers and shimmering sandals come from Fiesso d’Artico, a town between Padua and Venice on Italy’s Riviera del Brenta, a stretch of grand villas that’s been a footwear shopping destination since the 13th century. A few minutes away, you’ll find the Museo della Calzatura, a museum and archive dedicated to this storied history. (Yes, those 17th-century pointy black shoes were made around here, and so were Nicholas Kirkwood’s “Back to the Future”-inspired peep-toe booties.)
Once upon a time, local artisans passed their skills from one generation to the next, keeping well-heeled Venetians well heeled. But those legacies have gradually faded, leaving the luxury producers of the region scrambling to fill their workshops. At Manufacture de Souliers Louis Vuitton (that’s French for Louis Vuitton’s shoe factory), human resources manager Sabina Sergi’s task is identifying potential employees. When she can’t poach from competitors, she recruits by word of mouth and at area high schools. Many arrive with little or no experience, she says, which is why certain aptitude tests — like that lacing one above — are used to discover raw talent.
For those who are hired, explains industrial director Paolo Secco, “There is a path. So they start from the most simple operation and then go through the other processes.” This on-the-job training, with veteran staffers teaching their co-workers, lasts for years.
Although taking an individualized approach has kept the factory chugging along, parent company LVMH — a multinational conglomerate responsible for 70 brands — recognizes that a lack of qualified artisans is an issue for every trade in the luxury spectrum. That’s why it developed a more-cohesive strategy for recruiting and cultivating the next generation: the Institut des Métiers d’Excellence, or IME.
Since its debut in France in 2014, the program has striven to achieve its goal (“to promote, transmit and valorize savoir-faire in artisanal, creative and retail skills for the luxury industry”) through an ever-increasing array of work/study training tracks designed to hook young people. The IME partners with existing educational institutions to design a bespoke nine-month schedule for students that’s split between the schools and one of LVMH’s houses. Plus, master classes provide a broader overview of the luxury market and to get lessons in English technical lingo.
There are now 20 tracks for students in France, Switzerland and Italy in a variety of specialties, such as leather goods, jewelry, watchmaking and, of course, shoes, which launched in September.
Ten apprentices are enrolled in the IME’s inaugural women’s shoemaking program, including 20-year-old Giovanna Scarano, who’s from the Venice suburb of Mestre. After graduating from high school, she had hoped to find a career that would tap into her creativity. Instead, she ended up bouncing between barista gigs.
“Those jobs weren’t giving me what I was searching for,” Scarano says, which is why, last year, she walked into a temp agency. The folks there told her the IME was beginning a program with Politecnico Calzaturiero, a shoe design school on the Riviera del Brenta. The only requirements were to be over the age of 18 and a resident of the region. Tuition is covered by European Union training funds. It’s not high-paying work — an entry-level salary for the industry is about $24,000, which won’t buy many pairs of platform sandals.
But Scarano was intrigued enough to join 40 other applicants who went through the screening process. There were some SAT-esque questions. (She remembers one required her to calculate how much to turn a sailboat to make it go in the correct direction.) But the biggest hurdle was a practical test. She was given paper, tape and scissors, and told to build a ballerina shoe. “I thought it would be easy — cut it and put tape on it,” says Scarano, who soon realized her original design would not just be a flat, but flat. To keep her creation from collapsing, she tinkered until she figured out exactly where to insert extra pieces of paper.
“It was this magic that attracted me,” says Scarano, one of three apprentices soon assigned to Louis Vuitton. (Others in the program are attached to two nearby LVMH brands, Christian Dior and Rossimoda.)
From her first day in the building — designed by architect Jean-Marc Sandrolini to resemble a light-filled shoe box, and covered in a metallic mesh that helps control the temperature — Scarano was wowed. The campus is dotted with footwear-inspired sculptures, including a pumped-up pump with a copy of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” printed on the insole and another massive shoe made from hundreds of pots and pans.
It’s home to four production workshops, each with a signature scent combo of leather, rubber and glue, and a particular soundtrack of buzzing and whirring: Speedy is for sneakers, Nomade is for car shoes (a.k.a. moccasins), Taiga is for elegant men’s footwear. And Alma, where Scarano is training, employs 100 people to make elegant women’s shoes.
She had already spent one month at the Politecnico focused on what she calls a “360-degree view of shoemaking,” considering the extensive behind-the-scenes strategizing needed to make a beautiful object that can both comfortably fit many people’s feet and handle the stress of being walked in for miles. “Looking at a shoe, I could begin to imagine how long it took to structure that heel in a way it would work,” Scarano says.
It all got much more real when she arrived for her first assignment in the workshop: cutting leather. At school, she’d practiced the basics of cutting by hand. Now, the stakes spiked considerably higher, and she was exposed to more methods and instruments, including press knives, which look like giant cookie cutters. “The key difference is you are in a workshop with so many people, with more opportunities to look around and pick up tips,” Scarano says.
The advice has been critical in helping her develop her sense of touch. “Leathers look the same,” she says. But if they’re a bit more supple or stiff, they need to be treated accordingly.
Each week she’s been on site, Scarano has moved on to a new station, getting crash courses in smoothing, gluing, hammering and stitching. In addition to working on the 10 to 15 models the factory churns out each day, there is another shoe that she’s producing step-by-step entirely on her own, a sleek black slide that’s embellished with a golden lock.
This is an especially important project in Alma, where folks are expected to know how to do every single operation. (That’s not true in other workshops that have more specialized tasks.) They’re able to switch up positions, which keeps things more interesting and less likely to cause injury. It also means employees are better at quality control, each person checking the work done in the stage before.
Observing Scarano during a training session in February, it’s clear this isn’t a glamorous situation. No one’s wearing designer duds — unless you count Scarano’s white lab coat with the LVMH logo. And luxury footwear is everywhere except on the feet of employees, who are mostly in sneakers. It does seem a bit like a sport. Scarano rubs her hands in a protective cream and then dives into her afternoon task: inserting the lining into the bottom of a boot. It can’t be bent, stretched or curved. The glue can’t stain any other part of the shoe. And she can’t actually see what she’s doing because it’s too deep inside. She must feel if it’s correct.
“It makes you feel good, but challenged,” Scarano says, jutting out her determined chin.
Alma production manager Raffaella Parolin, who has been tutoring Scarano over the past few months, beams as she watches her work. “Manual skills are very important. But it’s also the attitude, willingness to learn and passion,” says Parolin, who eagerly points out several other young people in the workshop, including one about to switch offices so he can learn how to make lasts (the structural forms used to approximate foot shapes). Older artisans who were once dismissive of recruits are now welcoming, she says.
And it’s a good bet Scarano will find a position among them soon. By the end of this school year, 500 people will have completed an IME course. According to LVMH, the overall placement rate (in jobs or additional training) is 80 percent, with the majority of graduates working for the corporation.
Although Scarano still has additional skills to study — and a final group project to complete — she’s convinced that the IME has led her to a career that finally fits. “Making shoes is not just a job,” she says. “It’s an art.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the photographer of several photos as Dan Sauer for The Washington Post. The photographer is Stefano Trovati/SGP. This version has been updated.
Vicky Hallett is a writer in Florence.