Family-owned Italian luxury shoe titan Testoni continues its forward march under Yvan Benbanaste's art direction.
For three generations Testoni has been perpetuating traditional Italian shoemaking savoir-faire and avant-garde artistry. Now, under the art direction of Yvan Benbanaste, the brand marches forward with a revised modern spirit.
Apart from being home to the world's first university, many famous sandwich meats, and arguably the best pasta sauce ever invented, the gorgeous red-brick-and-marble city of Bologna, Italy, is also the historic center of fine Italian shoemaking. After soaking up his native city's vibrant shoe culture as an artisan apprentice, Amedeo Testoni opened his own "bottega," and eponymous shoemaking brand in Bologna in 1929. It is in that very atelier, under the management of Amedeo's grandson, Carlo Fini, and, more recently, the art direction of Parisian designer Yvan Benbanaste, that Testoni continues its shoe legacy today.
Imagining the shoe as a painter would a canvas, the Testoni sense of creative play is as elaborate and indulgent as the 168-step process required to produce one of their signature pair of shoes. Though Testoni is prized for its sculptural shapes, hand-painted finishings and intricate marquetry compositions (achieved using the most exotic —and often most difficult—of skins), the brand can also be credited for revolutionizing the standards of comfort with its unique "Bologna construction." Understanding that elegance is more that a pretty exterior — though some of Testoni's storied clientele, such as Sophia Loren, Jean Paul Belmondo, Vittorio Gasman, and Marcello Mastroianni, are legendary knock-outs —each creation is the technical marriage of ultimate comfort and absolute allure.
What is your definition of luxury?
We lack the time to appreciate, to reflect, and to enrich ourselves personally. Those who have that time are bestowed one of life's greatest luxuries.
If luxury were an object, what would it be?
A pair of crocodile shoes. They represent some of the most beautiful objects that I have the chance, and pleasure, to create at Testoni.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Venice remains my favorite city for its timelessness. When there, you have the impression of being everywhere and nowhere at the same.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
The person you love.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
Being in love.
You created textiles and fashion before designing shoes. What was that journey like and how did you arrive at Testoni?
I was born into the world of fabrics. I worked at my father's textile manufacturing company in Lyon where I experimented with fabrics by mixing up textures and fibers, and discovering new techniques of weaving and finishing. After earning a degree in textile design, I moved to Paris and soon launch my own fashion brand, Yvan. For one of my fashion shows, Testoni generously contributed shoes. A month later, the company contacted me to conduct a special seminar on fashion trends in Bologna. Following the presentation I was offered a consultancy position which soon led to my current role as head of design for men, women, and art director for the entire brand.
How have your experiences influenced your artistic direction at Testoni?
The universe of luxury has always been a part of my life. Sine the age of 20, my vocation has not only been to create, but to study the international markets. My approach, as a consumer (I have a very large collection of fine shoes), avid traveler, and designer, takes into consideration all sides of the industry.
What is your biggest challenge when designing shoes for Testoni?
For me it's achieving an ultimate level of comfort, followed by the aesthetics of the shoes. Aesthetics without comfort for a shoe brand is unimaginable.
Is it much different designing with skins than with fabric?
It's incredibly different. Every skin is unique, and each one must be analyzed for its quality, properties, and cut, and then appropriately assigned to the fabrication of specific models. One of our most valued traits is that we are one of the few luxury brands to use such a wide variety of esteemed skins, including crocodile, ostrich, lizard, python, and shark, in large volumes. This heritage adds to our level of prestige for amateurs of exotic skins.
What is it like as a Frenchman working for such a quintessentially Italian brand?
I worked with Italians in the development of fabrics for my ready-to-wear projects so I already had a certain cultural foundation to build from. The dilemma I was confronted with, however, was that my taste was more informed by English and French shoes aesthetics. There is much more audacity within the Italian shoe heritage at Testoni than with the English and French competition. A game is constantly in play around each design, a twist of fantasy that stays within the realm of elegance. The approach is very design, very architectural.
Bologna, where the Testoni brand originated, is legendary for its shoemaking craftsmanship. How is that tradition perpetuated at Testoni today?
Today I work directly with Carlo Fini, who is the grandson of the original founder. Not only do we continue to produce shoes in the company's original factory, but we also work with Italian ateliers whose technical and aesthetic savoir-faire is extraordinary. The passing down of expertise from one generation to the next is what gives each product its exceptional quality. It is by perpetuating these increasingly rarified skills that Testoni helps promote and expand the history and culture of Italian savoir-faire throughout the word.
What does the "Bologna construction" consists of at Testoni?
Around twenty years ago Testoni created a technique of marrying luxurious uppers with rubber soles. After noticing that society was heading more towards the realm of comfort, they began researching ways of creating flexible shoes while preserving aesthetic high standards and quality and invented the "Bologna construction." Basically, each shoe is fabricated like a leather gloves to cradle the foot. So at Testoni you can find traditional styles with unmatched comfort and flexibility.
What are Testoni's most luxurious products?
The shoes in our Amedeo Testoni range are entirely constructed and sewn by hand. The flexibility of this range is such that we've printed a feather on the bottom of the soles to illustrate just how light they are. You can literally bend the shoes in half. Within this range the Norwegian Oxford made of 100% centered crocodile is the most sublime. Since we only use the most beautiful part of the skin for this model, we use one skin per shoe, or two skins per pair.
How do you keep the brand image modern while preserving its artisan heritage?
The archives at Testoni are incredibly rich. There are over 120,000 drawings by Marisa Testoni, Amedeo Testoni's daughter, who designed collections for her family's brand for over 55 years. I can dig 40 years into the past and find models that are extremely avant-garde. It's marvelous. The only thing that changes in terms of rendering each design more modern is the form. Each season we play with proportions in order to find a new balance between the traditional and the contemporary.