What do you picture when you think of handmade shoes in Peru?
I used to imagine a old man hunched over his work in a small, dim workshop inside his house in a village in the Andes, turning out traditional indigenous style shoes. I imagined a dirt floor, piles of leather pieces and metal tools covering the wooden benches. I guess I was combining what I know a shoe repair shop in NYC looks like (dingy, dark, crowded) with what I imagined an artisan workshop looks like.
Maybe those workshops exist. I don’t know, because I didn’t visit one of those. What happened instead is that when Fortress of Inca found out I was going to Lima, Peru, they connected me to Adriana Crocco, who manages the largest handmade factory in Peru.
I have a pair of boots from Fortress of Inca that are the most comfortable things I’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing. They slip smoothly on my feet and then hug them, with a cushiony insole and an outsole and upper with just the right amount of give. I’ve stomped and danced through alkaline dust with them for 14 hours straight, with not even a hint of a blister. They are clearly the work of a master.
And then, I’m told that Adriana is also the founder of the gorgeous new shoe brand Huma Blanco, which turns out feminine, fun, yet timeless shoes that are fit for lady boss. I need no more convincing.
Huma Blanco shoes
So, I take a taxi from my hotel in Lima 25 minutes to a quiet industrial neighborhood not unlike Bushwick, Brooklyn, and ring the buzzer outside of an imposing warehouse-sized building. This is where Dart Cuero, a family-owned shoe factory, is located. Adriana, a peppy brunette my same age , meets me at the door and leads me inside. As we pass through the outer vestibule into the main area, the roar of machines requires her to raise her voice. This is a handmade shoe factory? I wonder.
I follow her upstairs to the conference room, which overlooks the factory floor through a large glass window. We sit down, and Adriana’s mother pops her head in to ask a question in Spanish. “It’s a family company,” Adriana says with a smile. And she’s off, enthusiastically talking for the next half hour, hardly taking a breathe, about what makes her family’ factory the best in Peru.
From Old Lady Shoes to High Fashion
Adriana’s grandfather, Elio Crocco, migrated to Lima from Italy after surviving World War II’s concentration camps. He wasn’t from a shoemaking family, but when he arrived and started knocking on the doors of other Italians, it was either bread-baking or shoe-making. “He was like, OK, shoe business for me,” Adriana says. He worked for a shoemaker, then opened his own store, continuing on the exalted Italian tradition of making the highest quality handmade shoes.
Things were going great for him and Peru’s shoe industry until the 2000s, when Chinese shoe machines showed up. The problem was that, “In Peru, we have so many laws that protect the workers,” Adriana says. Peru couldn’t compete with the dirt cheap prices of China, and they lost their handmade touch, so shoe factories started shutting down.
Elio Crocco’s small shoe factory and store survived by focusing on the old lady shoe market – they were the only remaining people in Lima who were willing to pay more for quality and comfort. One day, a designer from the quirky Canadian punk-goth shoe brand John Fluevog happened to come in her grandfather’s store and picked up a shoe to examine it. “My grandfather approached her and asked, ‘Do you like it?’ She was like, ‘Honestly? I hate the design. But the quality is really good.'”
So Adriana’s grandfather started producing for John Fluevog’s high-end line. Eventually her mother and brother joined the business (her grandfather passed away a few months before my visit) and they picked up Fortress of Inca, Rachel Comey, and Ulla Johnson, too.
After Adriana graduated from college, she joined the business. Her role is to sit down with the designers, figure out what they want, and explore materials and options for bringing their vision to life.
“I love working with designers who know who they are. The relationship is so easy because you know what they want in the end. The process of development since their first day when they send the first spec until they get the shoe, that goes so much more smoothly when you understand the client.”
Dart Cuero is also flexible about minimums – they’ll do a run of 20 shoes – so it’s easy for a small or medium-sized brand to work with them.
“I never thought about making shoes,” she says. “I thought about business management, living in another country at a big company. When I started working with designer clients, I started thinking, If I was a designer I would do it like this.”
So in 2015, she started her own line of beautiful women’s shoes under the label Huma Blanco, in order to bring more work and stability to her artisans.
“A lot of my shoes look better when you wear them. When you see them, they look cute, but when you wear them, they fit your foot in a very flattering way, because we start with the last [the wooden foot form around which you traditionally craft a shoe]. We don’t start with a photo, we don’t start with a drawing. We start with a shape.”
Ethical Artisan Meets Modern Design
In 2017, they moved everything into this new custom-built factory. Now the factory produce about 2,500 shoes a month using almost all local materials: leather that is a byproduct of the meat industry that is processed at responsible tanneries with water treatment systems. No alpacas were killed for Huma Blanco’s fluffy alpaca shoes, either. “They have a GPS, and they are running free, and when you see the GPS isn’t moving, you know, oh my God, an alpaca has died. And you go and get it. When you export and work with clients who value this, you have to make sure all the processes are like that.”
“Here we do everything by hand,” Adriana continues. “We paint a lot of our leathers by hand. The only machines are for sanding, but the employee still has to work with the machine.”
Many of Dart Cuero’s 60 employees have been working with the family for over 30 years, since they left the countryside because of terrorism in the 1980s and started working for her grandfather. Now many of them have children in college. Everyone gets health insurance for the whole family, one month of paid holiday a year, and has access to a line of interest-free credit when the need it. “When minimum wage is raised, it doesn’t effect me. Because none of my workers earn minimum wage,” she says.
Sometimes they even allow the workers to make special shoes for someone’s quinciera. “When you work with one of them, you work with the whole family,” she says. “You have to adapt to these people, because it’s an art. I can’t put an ad in the newspaper. Once I get a good shoemaker, I have to keep him here.”
Many Peruvian companies pay their employees off the books, or small artisans don’t charge properly for their work. “And a lot of people take advantage of that here. I know it because I have meeting with retail stores, and they say, ‘I’m just going to pay $30.’ And I automatically say no, because that is not even the materials that I use. I know our prices are not cheap, but we are doing something no one else is doing. Everything we do is the best,” she says.
She employs women in the finishing area, and also is starting to hire for the stitching. “Not the handmade, because you can’t imagine the strength it takes to stretch the leather,” she says. “It’s very hard, you have to use the whole body. So you won’t have a women doing the shoe. Maybe a sandal.”
She takes me back down to the factory floor for a tour. First we go into the pattern development room, then the leather cutting area. “After we cut, we skive,” she says. What is skiving? It’s cutting the edge of the leather so that it it has a feather edge and can be neatly fitted into seams.
“You see you a shoe like this, you don’t understand how much work is being done,” she says. This is true. I had no idea the details that go into a good handmade shoe.
All the components of the shoe go into a bag that is passed along down the line from artisan to artisan. “They get mad when they don’t have all their stuff,” she says. The upper leather is stretched over the last and nailed and stitched, the inner components of the sole are added, the sole is glued on, and then stitched. The layers of heel go on finally, and are hand cut into shape, then the artisans carefully sand the sole on the machines to satin-y, burnished perfection.
“It’s amazing how similar the shoes all look at the end. Because everyone has their own way of working,” she says.