Essentially, “Haute Coutour” and “Bespoke” describe the same practice, which evolves a clothing or accessories designed and handmade exclusively for one specific customer. However, unlike Haute Coutour businesses, which usually operate under powerful fashion houses, many bespoke makers, from tailoring to shoemaking, remained independent and are only familiar to connoisseurs. That being said, when I was shopping in Luisa via Roma’s brick-and-mortar boutique another day, I had a conversation with a senior sales lady who mentioned a name that I didn’t expect to hear in an edgy high fashion shop – Roberto Ugolini.
Ugolini is arguably the best-known Florentine shoemaker. One of the apparent reasons for his fame is he has been in the trade for long enough. Coming from a shoemaking family, Roberto opened his first shop in the city centre as a shoe repairer in 1995. And from 2000, he moved his workshop facing the façade of the ever-busy tourist attraction Santo Spirito Basilica and stayed there for two decades. If you’ve ever visited Florence, you likely have passed by his workshop without noticing it. Since 2020, Roberto has worked in his new boutique on via della Chiesa, a few steps away from Palazzo Pitti. The new place is much brighter and more spacious than the old workshop. What hasn’t changed is Roberto was always bending his head down, focusing on the shoes making while surrounded by younger shoemakers. There are many shoemakers, old and young, who have worked in his workshop throughout the years. One of Ugolini’s first apprentices is Koji Suzuki, who is now revered as one of the best shoemakers in Japan. “From every shoemaker, I took something from them,” Roberto told me. For him, it’s important to observe the working process of others, “if you look well, you remember what you saw, you can work well with your hand.”
Another thing that sets Ugolini apart is his strong personal style. It’s not hard to tell that he is passionate about vintage watches, The day we met, he dressed stylishly in an olive American army jacket with white chino trousers. “I have two goals when I make shoes. One is comfort… another is style, to have a good look.” Having over fifty shoe models displayed in his boutique, he is passionate about constantly researching new looks and designs. In many ways, the shape of the last determines the shoes’ character. Ugolini designed the famous U last for a ready-to-wear line collaboration with the Japanese department store Isetan, produced by Vass. The partnership was successful thanks to Ugolini’s design, which is full of characters possessing both masculinity and elegance. And many Japanese customers have learned Ugolini’s name since then. In our interview, he discussed his theories about the definition of beautiful shoes.