In conversation with Tommaso Melani, his point of view of the Florentine style & the story behind taking over Stefano Bemer
Among his titles, Tommaso Melani is best known as the mastermind of the prestigious shoemaker Stefano Bemer and the CEO of Florentine tailoring house Sartoria Vestrucci. Tommaso’s family business Scuola del Cuoio is well known in Florence for leather making and craftsman training. He learned the knowledge and appreciation of traditional artisanship since young through helping the family business. Following his success with Stefano Bemer, aiming to persist the legacy of Florentine style, Tommaso established tailoring company Sartoria Vestrucci in 2017 with Loris Vestrucci on board, who is one of very few remaining Florentine master tailors on a par with Antonio Liverano.
Locating in the heart of Italy, Florence is famous for being the cradle of the Renaissance, this artistically and economically fertile land nested a particular aesthetic throughout history. As a Florentine, Tommaso proudly describes the accent of Florentine craftsmanship as “balance, effortless, harmonised, and yet very understated”. Echoing its central location, the Florentine accent is more neutral with “nothing popping out” in comparison with the relaxed Neapolitan style in the south and the sharper Milanese style in the north. Tommaso believes such aesthetic, or accent, reflects the character of the city and the spirit of its citizens. He was emphatic that the excessive and flamboyant impression on Pitti Uomo is never Florence, “Florentines don’t want to be seen too much, they can be seen, they don’t want to be noticed.”
Tommaso Melani’s Personal Wardrobe
No Front Darts
Although lack of interest in being ostentatious, Florentine tailoring style speaks to connoisseurs through the details. One trait of a Florentine jacket is the absence of front darts (dart: a pointed fold that is sewn in the front of the jacket to make a better fitting). Purportedly, the dart-less cut was first invented by Frederick Scholte, who also created the illustrious drape cut. Loris Vestrucci inherited this approach and made it his house style. “Florence is the only tailoring school left that doesn’t use the front seam as the tool to shape the jacket”, said Tommaso proudly. He further explains: “What the front seam does is it shapes the sides, it opens the quarter so it seat on your hips, it was created as a shortcut”. It is more complex and skills-demanding to cut a jacket without the front dart, because “you have to cut the front to the shape already, there’s no faster way to do it”, and to get the Vestrucci shape, “you have to iron the canvas very well, which nobody does nowadays……”
Taking Over Stefano Bemer
In late October of 2008, a grand event was taking place in Florence’s Four Seasons hotel inviting a selected group of Florentine craftsmen to showcase the best crafts of the city. As a well-known shoemaker, Stefano Bemer was invited, and Tommaso was also there representing Scuola del Cuoio. Coincidently, they were designated in the same showroom by chance, and that’s the occasion when Tommaso first meet Stefano. As the conversation began, Stefano complained it is hard to find a shoemaker for his brand, and Tommaso suggested they could work together on training project as his family business is more resourceful in craftsmen training, For training, besides bringing income, is also a good way to find good shoemakers
In hindsight, Tommaso introduced the training program to Stefano Bemer that allows a faster-producing pace and incentivised increasing orders from customers. Yet when he first brought up the idea, it didn’t happen immediately.
In 2011, the health condition of maestro Stefano worsened, following his tragic passing away in September 2012, Melani talked to Bemer’s family and ask if he could help. At that moment, finding a new strategy for the company is crucial, yet it seems nobody from the family could really involve in the business. Cristina, the wife of Bemer, knows that Tommaso’s ambition about Stefano Bemer and welcomed his offer. “Cristina doesn’t want the company to be too industrial, she was keen on maintaining the legacy”, said Tommaso.
Continuing the legacy of an already widely respected shoe brand requires commitment. “It was not exactly complimentary, but it’s definitely a good potential business, takes a lot of work, and I need to commit 70% of my time on this”. After talking to his family, Tommaso figured out a way to release himself from daily roles in Scuola del Cuoio so that he can focus on Stefano Bemer.
The RTW Line
For most bespoke brands, introducing the Ready-to-Wear line is a commercial move, yet for Tommaso, compromising the quality for commercial is not an option. After taking over Stefano Bemer, Tommaso once gave Stefano’s brother a chance to develop the RTW line. However, he’s not satisfied with the result, “so we split, I think it’s for the best.” He explained: “(What Stefano’s brother did) it is not my thing. I want the in-house capacity of production, I want higher quality, I want a pair of shoes to brag about. It has to be better than anything else on the market. It may be more expensive, but it’s better.”
Today, the Tradizione Collection that adapts the same method of bespoke shoemaking became a signature of Stefano Bemer, yet it all begins with a marketing endeavour Tommaso thought about to reach a wider audience: “Nobody makes it, we are going to make the best ready-made shoes possible on the planet!” In 2013, he presented the Replica Russian Reindeer leather RTW shoes with bespoke standards to Isetan (a leading luxury department store in Japan). At that time, the retail price point was 4000 USD a pair. Although Isetan bought a few pairs to display in the store, it was mainly for marketing purposes. To Tommaso’s surprise, those shoes sold out rather shortly and Isetan has been retaining the Stefano Bemer RTW shoes ever since. It gives him more confidence in the RTW line.
Making great product is always easier than making accessible great product. After fulfilling his standards on quality, Tommaso is facing another challenge— “How can we make it happen without making them so expensive?” This time, it took Tommaso a few years to solve this problem. The first RTW collection of the same model he presented Isetan was introduced in 2016, and the full line of Tradizione Collection with fiddle back and hand-sewn welt debuts in late 2018. It makes Stefano Bemer one of a few shoemakers with an RTW collection that are using completely the same standard of fully bespoke shoes. “I must say, in terms of quality, I haven’t seen anything like that”. With a 1990 USD retail price, “for the money, it’s incredible value”, said Tommaso.
Tommaso doubled the annual sales in the first year after his taking over, and the number kept doubling year after year until 2018. “The commercial success is the fiscal representation of what we’ve been making well, it’s the outcome of the good that we’ve been making”, said Tommaso.
Educate the New Markets
In 2016, Stefano Bemer opened its New York showroom. Although the new market brought new opportunities, Tommaso is always clear that Stefano Bemer is a niche brand compared with multi-national luxury corporations: “I can’t afford massive marketing, be on the front page of a magazine, sponsoring stars… we must educate the client”.
It’s never about money, but knowledge. “It’s a learning process when you realise softer (shoes) doesn’t mean more comfortable or better”, said Tommaso. As an anecdote, some new customers came to Stefano Bemer, to demonstrate their buying power, they told Tommaso that they buy all their shoes at Ferragamo, and normally, Tommaso would wittily respond: “I’m so sorry about that, we can fix it.”
For Tommaso, the strategy for the new markets is always about “seeding the idea that there’s something better”. Through educating the new clients on what is well-made shoes, he wishes to stimulate the customers who see fashion brands as the ultimate luxury to reconsider their choice. In Italian: “metti uni pulse nell’orecchio”, meaning to put a flea in the ear, Tommaso explained: “it reminds you that another shoemaker is better than what I’m wearing, it’s troubling you until the moment you try it.”
“We need to have a mission in life, otherwise we are compounding stuff without purpose”, Tommaso said. During the Covid, the energetic entrepreneur is embarking on something up-to-date — sustainable fashion. His new adventure is a sustainable brand called RforPeople, “the idea is to give a very practical and yet ambitious definition of sustainability.” Concerned about the environmental crisis and labour issues caused by the fashion industry, Tommaso created a fashion label using only recycled and repurposed raw material. Furthermore, the brand welcomes customers to return their worn-out sneakers and garments and reuse them to create a new product. Through a language that can be understood by the younger generations, Tommaso aims to communicate his ethical way of being stylish.
When being asked what is his passion in life, Tommaso laughed. For what he is doing, he already put them in the passion categories: “I don’t consider this as a job”. Throughout his life, he pursues the experience of “being challenged, and feeling uncomfortable”. And for the next step, he admits that he wants to find a new way to challenge himself and be active: “I want challenges, I can’t start a new company every time I’m bored.” Traveling is something on his mind. “My curiosity is about experiences.” Enthusiastic about experiencing different cultures, Tommaso thought about South America or Southern Asia as his next destination.