The Shoe Artist

Shoemaker master Norman Vilalta. Photo: Andreas Klow

Occasionally, reality throws you a curveball. You have a perfect plan that you’ve decided to follow to the letter. Then, something makes everything go a completely different way. This happened to me with Norman Vilalta. I was on a holiday in Barcelona with my fiancée and had decided to write just a small introduction about this master shoemaker. I actually had set a time for it in my mind – I would have a brief conversation about his shoes and style and be out half an hour later.
15 seconds into the interview my plan took a sudden left turn and vanished. We left the atelier over two hours later, filled with awe and happiness that comes from meeting a great creative mind.

Two different styles of handmade shoes by Norman. Photo: Anu Rautalin

The trigger to the sudden left turn I mentioned in the beginning was a pair of shoes he was wearing. They were made of palm fibre and, to uninitiated, looked like they almost were ready to be retired – they were worn, stained and tattered. However, the wear and tear were completely purposeful – the shoes encapsulated the essence of ”wabi-sabi”, a Japanese aesthetical concept which cherishes the perfection of imperfection, wear and natural randomness. Norman Vilalta told me that he thrives to incorporate this concept to his designs. To me, this created an interesting juxtaposition to Japanese bespoke shoemakers who are, seemingly, concentrated on creating shoes that are almost too perfect to be worn. Of course, the discussion extended to other aspects of nature inclined Japanese aesthetics, including the essay about the beauty of classical Japanese outhouses.
The wabi-sabi shoes are just an example of Norman Vilalta’s way of aesthetic thinking. It is evident that, ever since completing his training and becoming a master himself, he has dedicated himself to take the shoes further, to innovate and to experiment. One such innovation is his so called ”over-under” heel cup, a clean departure from more commonly seen designs, while still allowing the shoes to have a traditional feel and look to them. An another central aesthetic decision is the tension and dynamism that is incorporated to all curves and divisions of the shoes – and which makes, according to Vilalta, the creation of a full brogue shoes harder than any other model, due to the vast amount of curves that have to be both dynamic and in perfect balance to eath other. Shortly put, Norman Vilalta, instead of making footwear by commonly accepted templates seen in the creations of countless shoemakers, cuts, sews, hammers and dyes his aesthetic philosophy and thinking into each and every pair of shoes that his eponymous brand puts together.
Change and innovation, in Vilalta’s opinion, is the only thing that is stable. Still, innovation cannot happen without understanding the time-tested methods. A student by late master shoemaker Stefano Bemer, whose photograph oversees Vilalta’s workstation, he has not taken any shortcuts in learning the trade. Although this would be enough for most, Vilalta has not quit learning, pushing his knowledge and inventive mind ahead. An unique ”herb garden”prototype shoe, made from fully recyclable materials and lined with seeds to grow when the shoe is discarded? Done. Minimized shoe that can be done with the fewest of tools? Completed. And the list of prototypes, tests and innovations goes on, as Norman Vilalta also wants to infuse ecology and ethics to his designs instead of just concentrating on the external style.

Norman Vilalta to the right, wearing his wabi-sabi shoes. Photo: Erik Mannby

Norman Vilalta was not set up for a life as a shoemaker from the beginning. He grew up in Patagonia, in a coastal city of Puerto Madryn, from where he headed to Buenos Aires to study law. After his graduation, Vilalta worked as a lawyer. However, his lifelong interest towards beauty and aesthetics got better of him – he wanted to create and live beauty. This has taken him from Patagonia to Barcelona where he lives with his internationally recognized artist wife and their ever playful dog, Goya. In his free time he fulfills his craving for natural beauty with a perhaps most elegant classic gentleman’s hobby there is – fly fishing.

Norman Vilalta’s 1202 RTW.

Never resting on his laurels, Norman Vilalta has created a new line of shoes. Combining the bespoke methods and styles into a ready-to-wear shoe, He has made a group of classic styles that still carry his personal trademarks and take a good use of the type of last he has created – a last that creates a shoe that does not wrinkle. This, again, shows his innovation. More subtle than his radical patina and rock-inspired shoes, they represent the breadth of Vilalta’s skills. Inspired, perhaps, by the high quality of modern Japanese shoemaking, Vilalta wishes to show that even the most classical shoe styles can be taken many steps ahead and still be recognizable.

Author of the article, Jussi Häkkinen, and Norman Vilalta. Photo: Anu Rautalin

Next time I had a pleasure of meeting Norman was in Florence, during the Pitti Uomo. His showroom presented the finest of shoemaking skill, accompanied by his creative presence. As he joined our group of friends for a dinner, we had a stimulating discussion about aesthetics, ecology, anti-disposable culture and modern art. One moment – waiting for a table outside the restaurant, on a beautiful Florentian street, discussing about our favourite modern painters – has since became one of my favourite moments in life. The meal comes a close second, since the slowly cooked wild boar dish that I ordered after Norman’s recommendation, was definitely something to remember.

Words: Jussi Häkkinen


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