If you have to walk a million miles in someone’s shoes, you want to make sure they at least have great soles. One place you are guaranteed to find that is at Benheart, a leather craftsman using 100% products from Italy whose first shops in Florence have expanded all the way to Lucca, Rome, Milan, Strasbourg, Tokyo, Kuwait City, and Ben isn’t stopping there.
The fact that leather has long been a part of tradition here in Florence comes as no surprise as it’s proximity to the Arno River made it an ideal location for several reasons. As noted by Author Laura Morelli, who specializes in Made-in-Italy guidebooks “Florence and its region have held a reputation for quality leather production for hundreds of years. However, prior to the Industrial Revolution, preparing animal hides to make leather was considered particularly unsavory work. In medieval Florence, many of the tanneries, or conciatori, were located along the Arno in order to facilitate washing away the mess and unpleasant smells that characterized the trade.”
Regarding the production of shoes, Laura continues with “by the 1300s, some 1,500 shoemakers were already working in the city. About a third of these settled in the Oltrarno district. Cobblers made shoes for local consumption, but also participated in a lively export trade, forming the roots of the Tuscan international leather fashion industry that still thrives today.”
At Benheart, entering through the door of one of his shops will take you to a sweetly-centered world where you will find a wide-array of stylish, funky vs.classic jackets in distressed hand-treated leather, belts with custom buckles, wallets, shoes, and bags. The items are meant to be a perfect fit and are all virtually unisex, they can be entirely customized (which we love) and customer’s initials are always stamped on said jacket, belt or bag before leaving the store. They can be shipped worldwide – and all carry a certificate of lifetime guarantee.
[Leather sandals on display at a Benheart store in Florence]
Hicam Benmarek Sherian or “Ben” as his friends call him has long been on our radar. After meeting a few years ago and falling in love with his exceptional Italian leather products, what proved even more infectious was his energetic personality and generous spirit. I don’t think I have ever personally met someone with as much motivation, drive and confidence as Ben but a person whom also takes humility and loyalty seriously. He sees the good in people and gives them a chance, a sort of American-dream inspiration come reality that you rarely see in Italy.
He is also a man who quite literally received a second chance at life after recovering from a heart transplant and starting a lifelong dream of producing quality leather products from Florence with a childhood friend. They found instant success and though the friend has moved on, Ben has charged forward with making his custom leather jackets, belts, shoes, bags and more available to ever wider an audience.
[The author with Benheart at his warehouse outside of Florence]
Ben’s love for shoes began at a young age. After not being able to afford top name brands, he obsessively collected castoff name-brand shoes, even if they didn’t fit, all in the name of saying he had a sought-after pair. Now as an adult, an albeit successful one at that, he admits to suffering from childhood complex. On the way to Montecatini he tells me “I still buy shoes that I couldn’t afford before. If now I like them, I just go ahead and buy them, but I plan to give them to my kids when they get older.”
[A pair of Benheart shoes at the Via della Vigna Nuova location in Florence]
You might have remembered our adventures to his leather manufacturer in Santa Croce sull’Arno here, but we decided to take it a step further now and explore the shoe artisans that make Italy famous the world over. This takes us to the areas in Tuscany of Santa Croce sull’Arno, Montecatini and Monsummano Terme where there is even a statue depicting hands tirelessly working on pairs of shoes. Why should you care? With so many options for buying shoes online or offline, it can be hard to know whether your Made-in-Italy shoes are truly authentic, one way to tell is to visit the people whose job it is to make each pair.
Our first stop is at a family-owned fabbrica (warehouse) where a Tuscan named Luca and his team do the important job of putting together Ben’s shoes. With the sounds of machines whirring in the background and shoes being places in various stages of development, we chat about the concept of quality and craftsmanship. He explains that despite the fact that increasingly brands want to pay less per pair and cut corners on quality, ironically this actually makes the job harder for Luca and his team who are not used to undertaking such cost-cutting measures.
To provde his point, I am immediately shown the difference between pairs whose leather has been tinted previously and those who have been tinted after, and it’s a noticeable difference in those who have purchased already-dyed leather do look a bit cheaper. However, it’s worth saying that it is riskier to choose Ben’s approach of tinting the shoes in a large washing machine after since mistakes can happen, but it is a choice that makes his shoes one-of-a-kind and unique.
For Ben, it’s about producing quality shoes that anything but ordinary.
“What’s important is that the shoes are not identical, similar sure but everything in this artisanal process is meant that every pair should remain unique” he says while grabbing a pair of shoes off the shelf to show me the details.
We also visit another fabbrica where shoe-guru Luciano has been working on artisanal shoes since the age of 13. He is a humble and quiet soul that feels most comfortable at work, place details in the veins that run up and down each confident arm. Now owner of the company, he still works side-by-side with the rest of the employees even after sixty years in the business, there is no distinction in role when people work side by side. Workers range from young men with bulging biceps and tattooed arms and ladies with large smiles who wouldn’t be out of place in a middle-school lunchroom (my memories from Texas here) sporting gloves and meticulously handling each shoe as if each pair was a personal gift.
Perhaps this is because they see the value in what they do, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. I asked if Luciano planned on retiring to which I received a shake of the head and a smile. Ben answers for him “If he retires, he will be even more tired staying at home… after all this is where he belongs.”
For consumers, it’s worth noting that many “Made-in-Italy” items that you see in shops in Italy and abroad are made mostly made in other countries with cheaper materials, with just a few slight modifications done in Italy (like adding a tag or code) to allow them to stamp the item with the coveted Made-in-Italy brand. That’s why it pays when brands like Bens invest in full transparency and allow people like myself to go and witness the production firsthand.
The range of shoes at Benheart are vast and unisex, perfect for couples like myself and my husband who share the same shoe size and sneaker taste. There is everything from leather-latticed street sneaks, snappy dress shoes and cool dress loafers with Vibram® soles (the best in the business), plus sandals for days when your feet just need to breathe. Everything in the shop is guaranteed for life (not an exaggeration) and customers are treated like family members, it quite frankly remains an experience that quite simply comes from the heart, something that Ben lives his life for, every single day.
Benheart is located on Via dei Cimatori just steps from the main street of Via Calzaiuoli while a second location lies on Via della Vigna Nuova. You can explore more about the brand and discover the rest of the worldwide locations here. For custom orders and shipping to the USA and abroad, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.