The story of a family firm whose creativity, dedication and passion for beauty has allowed them to partner with leading luxury brands for the past forty years
Set amidst beautiful river banks, lush greenery and splendid Palladian villas, the Riviera del Brenta is the Italian shoe manufacturing district most closely associated with luxury footwear. The famous Venetian cobblers, known as the “calegheri”, worked here as far back as the Middle Ages, passing on their skills and livelihoods from generation to generation. Their legacy is still alive today, inherited by the numerous companies in the area that produce some of the world’s most sought-after and exclusive footwear.
This is the scenario in which the Calzaturificio Valbrenta came into being. Located in Galta di Vigonovo, its history is inextricably linked to that of the Smajato family: shoemakers whose passion for the trade harks back to the post-war period when Mario Smajato set up a small workshop in the cellar of his house, together with his brothers Italo, Marcello, Benito and Arnaldo.
The brothers’ passion for beauty, innovative spirit, meticulous attention to details and to the quality of materials and work processes, led rapidly to success. The small workshop became a full-blown shoe manufacturing company and soon the Calzaturificio Valbrenta attracted the attention of the luxury fashion houses: as a result, alongside its own production lines, the factory started to work with leading brands, producing shoes in the ’80s and ‘90s that women all over the world dreamt of possessing.
It was during this period that the founders handed over the reins of the company to the second generation who, while maintaining the same high standards of craftsmanship, introduced various technical, managerial and technological innovations aimed at turning the Calzaturificio Valbrenta into an efficient, well-organised, digital business.
Today, the CEO of the Valbrenta shoe factory is Paola Smajato, daughter of the founder, Mario. Paola is the creative and innovative soul of the company, always ready to try out new ideas, to create a blend of old and new skills and to introduce new processes and procedures to ensure clients receive top-quality products and services. Paola’s team is heterogeneous both in terms of age, professional experience and training: craftsmen with thirty years of experience and young graduates are supported in the various sectors – production, management, logistics – by highly-specialised external consultants that ensure ongoing competitive benchmarking with the world’s top manufacturers.
Some of the other founders’ children also work in the company: Lieta is head of the administrative and accounting department, and also the vice-president of di ACRiB, the association which brings together the shoe factories of Riviera del Brenta; Ivano, another of Mario’s children, is a footwear materials expert, while Marcello’s son, Renzo, is in charge of industrialization and prototyping and Benito’s daughter, Katia, stitching and assembly.
«Intellectual curiosity and training are essential in any professional relationship. You never stop learning and you can learn even from the youngest generations. In fact, I keep going back to school: my team and I never stop – in these months we are attending an MBA course at the LUISS University in Rome» says Paola Smajato
Calzaturificio Valbrenta works exclusively for international luxury brands.
The company’s core values include an obsessive attention to detail, manufacturing excellence, professionality, innovation and flexibility, enabling it to meet its customers’ numerous and wide-ranging requests while guaranteeing outstanding quality and a rapid response.
«I never say no», Paola Smajato told Italian Shoes. «When faced with a new challenge, my first reaction is: “why not?”. And starting from that premise, we start looking for the best solutions to any problems we might come up against».
All this requires organization, which is another of the shoe factory’s strong points: «having a good planning process» the CEO explains, «means you have time to dedicate to design and to beating deadlines. It puts you in a better position to deal with the requests of creative directors or with any unforeseen events – events that, as we’ve seen over the last two years of the pandemic, create numerous problems but also allow the most innovative and efficient companies to distinguish themselves in the marketplace».
«Innovation, being constantly at the cutting edge of production techniques and technologies, has to go hand-in-hand with a strong focus on environmental and social sustainability. Innovation is not an end in itself, but a means of enhancing the value and potential of people and businesses while respecting the environment. Intellectual curiosity and training are essential in any professional relationship. You never stop learning and you can learn even from the youngest generations. In fact, I keep going back to school: my team and I never stop – in these months we are attending an MBA course at the LUISS University in Rome» says Paola Smajato.
Paola literally grew up in the company and today lives in the same house where it all began, and where her father set up the very first workshop: «The house has been completely renovated and is now a modern, minimalist place that reflects my personality, but you can still smell the scent of the first shoes that were made here».
During its lifetime, the company has had the privilege of being chosen by the top international designers to create bespoke shoes for celebrities and world-famous figures, including Michelle Obama, who wore a pair of shoes made by the Calzaturificio Valbrenta at the swearing-in ceremony for her husband’s second term as President of the United States.
In recent years the third generation has started to join the company, Smajato says, but adds: «I don’t think a generational shift can take place overnight and I believe that it should, in a certain sense, be “planned”, to ensure it brings with it a wave of new ideas and creativity, rather than reiterating the past. Only highly professional figures will enter the company, regardless of family roots: today we need managerial figures capable of working together within a system that works».
In a sector in which acquisitions by large investment funds are commonplace, Calzaturificio Valbrenta seems to be more oriented towards the creation of partnerships and joint ventures with the brands for which it works.
Despite the current economic situation worldwide and the enormous uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the company is optimistic about the future: despite its ups and downs, the luxury sector will continue to move forward and reinvent itself. So it is important – and will be even more so in the future – to combine innovation with high-quality craftsmanship, and have an efficient organization that is attentive to the environment and the local area.
«I am very attached to the Riviera del Brenta, and my father taught me the importance of generating jobs in one’s local area, of helping it to grow and, above all, of creating a network. I have great respect for the industrial “substratum” in this area. As far as I am concerned, there are no “competitors”, only colleagues» says Paola Smajato, who in addition to her role in the company is also a member of the examination board of the Politecnico Calzaturiero (Shoemaking School) of Riviera del Brenta: «I love interacting with the younger generations» she declares, «and giving them the – increasingly rare – opportunity of collaborating with shoe manufacturers to produce their designs. Young people in this sector need opportunities, and not closed doors».