Italian shoes are, quite simply, the best in the world, and have been internationally recognized as such for many years. Building upon a centuries-old tradition of fine leather production, Italy's shoemakers began to achieve a prominent place in fashion before and just after World War I, led by industry pioneers Gucci and Ferragamo. Guccio Gucci founded a saddlery shop in 1906, opened a leather accessories shop in Florence in 1923, and then branched out into boots and shoes. The Neapolitan Salvatore Ferragamo emigrated to America in 1914 and opened a shoemaking business in Hollywood. In 1927 he returned to Italy to found a high-end shoe business in Florence that attracted an international clientele.
With the rise of the Italian fashion industry after World War II, Italian shoes came more and more into the limelight. Designers were able to call upon a deep tradition of shoemaking craftsmanship to push shoe design to new limits. Designers offered not only high heels of leather and cloth, but innovative materials as well. Sandals, once the footwear of peasants and bohemians, entered the vocabulary of high-fashion footwear as part of the Italian Look’s emphasis on elegant sportswear. For men, too, a casually elegant look was achieved with loafers as well as more formal shoes in lightweight, supple leathers. Italian shoe designers continue to set the pace for high-fashion shoes for both women and men,
Italy is Europe’s most important center for the design and manufacture of shoes, accounting for about half of total European shoe production. While production of inexpensive shoes and mass-produced sports footwear has inevitably moved off-shore to third world countries with low labor costs, the Italian shoe industry has maintained its good health by focusing on what it does best – designing and manufacturing high-end shoes where excellent design and quality production values are paramount. This segment of the industry remains strong; after a slight decline in the 1990s, footwear exports (by value) have recovered in recent years and now are steady at about 3% of total annual Italian exports.
The Italian shoe industry is widely dispersed, with many small, often family-owned, operations to be found in almost every part of the country. About 110,000 Italians are employed in the shoe industry, but the average shoe company has only fifteen employees. Three regions dominate shoe production in Italy: Marche, Tuscany, and Veneto account for about two-thirds of shoemaking companies, two-thirds of workers, and about three-quarters (by value) of exports. However, the largest single shoe company, the Filanto Group, is headquartered in Lecce, in the far south-eastern province of Puglia. With about 8,000 employees, Filanto makes shoes mainly in the medium-price range and has recently relocated some production facilities to Albania. High-end companies like Ferragamo and Tod’s continue to prosper, while a recent trend is for large, international, integrated fashion companies to expand their own shoe manufacturing by acquiring and consolidating existing production facilities.
Trends for 2011 include wedge heels, neutral colors (and, for contrast, bold, shiny bright-colored leathers), a range of narrow heels from stilettos to one-inch mini-heels; ankle straps, woven uppers, and metal, polished stone, floral, and other embellishments, especially on sandal straps.