Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gondolier's Shoes

“Gondolier’s shoes”, this got my attention. I knew about all the other things worn by gondoliers; the striped shirts, the black pants, the sailor-collared over-shirts which vary from black to white depending on the time of year. Hats? Yes, got a bunch of ‘em, but I had never heard about a particular shoe being chosen. I must give credit where it’s due: El Felze – a wonderful group of people in Venice are responsible for making me aware of the shoes. El Felze is a group who meet in and around Venice; they are mostly involved with gondolas, the gondola trade, and the preservation of other things which are trademark Venetian. I had the good fortune of attending two El Felze meetings when I was in Venice in September of 2006; one at the Café Florian, the other at the famous Squero Tramontin. It was so great to be in a room filled with people as enthusiastic about gondolas as I am (I’m used to being the “weird one” in the crowd who has a one-track mind for gondolas). Before my trip to Venice, I had read a lot about El Felze and checked out their literature. Under “caleghèri” I first read about the traditional Venetian shoe craftsmen, and by the time I was packing for the trip, I had determined that I would not bring any black shoes because no matter what it took – I had to have a pair of those “Gondolier’s shoes”.

On my first full day in Venice, my good friend Nereo Zane and I went hunting for the caleghèri I had read about. Nereo is a Venetian who grew up in the area and currently lives in Padova so I felt I had an edge. It wasn’t easy finding parking in Mestre, the industrial city on the mainland that we were in, but when we found Sergio Segalin, we were not disappointed. Mr Segalin is exactly the kind of guy you’d want to buy handmade shoes from in Italy: older and wiser, but seemingly younger in spirit than most. He gives an air of remarkable expertise while still being quick with a wink or a smile. In short, Sergio Segalin is all the things that are great about old men in Italy. I can only guess that Americans would be a bit more sanguine if we spent more time enjoying wine with friends and focusing on family.

Enough about the man, let’s talk about the shoes. While Venetian caleghèri have been crafting shoes for centuries, the “gondolier’s shoe” or “funzionale” as it is called, has been a recent incarnation. The Funzionale is functional, just as the name indicates; this shoe, while good looking and dressy, is designed with function in mind. As I understand it, these were not intended specifically for gondoliers but rather as a comfortable walking shoe for Venetians. The first thing I noticed as I was trying on various pairs; was the weight – these things were about as light as a pair of flip-flops you might wear to the beach in California. When I commented on the weight, to Sergio, he picked one up and twisted it up in his hands – something I wouldn’t, and probably couldn’t do with most shoes – then he let go and the shoe just went back to its original shape without even any sign of stress on the leather. As if he knew what I was thinking, he mentioned that this shoe is a good choice for travel because it’s lightweight and packs well. I have since, brought mine on two business trips and they are definitely up to the task. The look of the shoe is Italian while remaining a bit conservative; perfect for wearing on the gondola, or with a suit. I have actually performed a dozen or so wedding ceremonies in both suit and captain’s uniform in my “Gondolier’s shoes”. The leather is remarkably soft and the soles are made of a non-skid rubber, so, unlike regular dress shoes with leather soles, these won’t betray you on a wet deck. No wonder gondoliers have adopted this “comfortable walking shoe” as their footwear of choice.

At one El Felze meeting I sat next to Saverio Pastor – the well-known remo and forcola maker. Saverio is the President of El Felze. I noticed that he had on a pair of blue ones with the El Felze logo embroidered on the top.

I ran into Mr. Segalin a few times in my travels in Venice and it was always a warm “Oh, hey, how have you been?” type of encounter, as if meeting an old friend. Sergio Segalin: a great guy who makes really great shoes.

If you happen to be in Venice and want to find Segalin, the contact info is on El Felze’s website

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