IMPACT series #3 Family Grassetti

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  • By Martin Johnston
IMPACT series #3 Family Grassetti

AN ITALIAN LUXURY SHOE MANUFACTURER IS SINGLE-HANDEDLY TAKING ON THE REFUGEE CRISIS WHILE PRESERVING CRAFTSMANSHIP.

Mario and Giacomo Grassetti are the father and son team who are ensuring that their craft of shoemaking fuses with their desire to make a positive difference in their local community. With an undeniable worry for the future of their business, the two family members decided to do something positive to solve their worker issue while at the same time supporting the social interaction of legal status refugees. This is their story.

 

January 2016.

 

When we were searching for an artisan company to support us in our mission to develop highly crafted sneakers and use them for positive social impact, we had absolutely no idea that our path would cross with a father and son team based in Corridonia, Central Italy. We knew that our concept from the outset was unusual, unheard of and as yet unrealized. This did not thwart us however. An old friend of mine from my prior corporate life, Enrico Pessallacia was residing in the footwear capital of Italy, in the Marche region. I called him in early 2016 to explain what our ideas were, and without hesitation, he mentioned Mario and Giacomo Grassetti. Little did we know just how much Enrico had nailed our request until months later when I found myself, in mid-October, arriving at the small, dimly-lit train station in Civitanova.

 

It was a chilly Sunday evening in October, Enrico met me at the train station and graciously gave me a ride to my hotel a few kilometres from the station. The Italians are true masters of hospitality and Enrico was their Captain!

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“Welcome to Marche my friend!

I see that you survived the earthquake last night."

Enrico Pessallacia.

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There were no direct flights from Amsterdam to Civitanova - the closest airport was in Ancona 90 km away, but was ridiculously expensive to reach from Holland. As a start-up and 100% self-funded, I was travelling (and still am) cheap with no frills, so I flew Easyjet into Milan, took the €5 bus to Milano Centrale train station and boarded my second-class cabin for my 6hr ride down to the Eastern seaside town. I had no idea what to expect - it was a part of Italy I had never visited before, but I had read up on the region, its power and rich history in Italian footwear and artisan made products and the struggles it was facing after the recent earthquakes.

 

Enrico and I chatted briefly during our short drive to my 2* hotel. It was close to 9pm and I had been travelling since 8am. He could see that I was shattered, so he bid me goodnight after agreeing to start the next morning at 7.30am. I trudged my bag up to my room, let my family know I had arrived safely and passed out for the night.

 

I arose the next morning early – the morning sunshine was creeping into my room. I was excited to see the countryside of Marche and to finally kick start my sneaker project with Italian artisans I never knew existed. I was floating inside my own little bubble – about to set foot on a journey to fulfil a lifelong dream.

 

Enrico was waiting for me at reception, he is an extremely jovial guy and my Mr Positive. The first thing he asked me was how I slept? "Fine thank you". I thought to myself, wow that is considerate. "Welcome to Marche – I see that you survived the earthquake last night?" I thought he was joking! I had not only missed my only ever earthquake adventure, I completely slept through it. I thanked my angels for taking care of me, made a quick call to my wife to tell her (excitedly) before we headed off to have what would soon become our customary morning cappuccino before the BIG meet and greet with Mario and Giacomo.

 

Arriving at IFG, I had all sorts of romantic thoughts racing through my head about how my sneakers were going to be made, by whom and how, which exquisite raw materials we would spend hours deliberating over to every colour of yarn we would use for the stitching details. Months and months since I first heard about them, the moment had arrived. We met on the factory floor where Mario still leads by example today. He starts every morning at 7am, working and teaching his staff side-by-side on the floor, until he closes up at 8-9pm every day of the week. I was intrigued by him, his passion for his craft and his staff, and undoubtedly his story - he did not disappoint.

 

Mario Grassetti is a 59 year old cordwainer by trade and profession.

 

The craft of shoemaking started in Italy inside the local villages. Working by hand with available materials, a local craftsman – called a cordwainer, {Note a cobbler is someone who repairs shoes} would produce footwear for the entire community, adapting them to fit adults and children. Materials were usually animal skins (in cold areas) and vegetation before the advent of leather tanning. Since one man often created all the shoes for one village, he developed great mastery within the Craft - making him a Craftsman and his work Craftsmanship.

 

Mario has always been living and working in Corridonia, Marche – always in the homeland of shoes. The start of his infatuation with the art of shoemaking started in the early 1970’s.

 

He described to me how he found his passion for shoemaking.

 

“When I was a child I went to school in the morning and to a small shoemaker’s atelier in the afternoon, where an expert “master” taught me every single step in the process of shoe making. We would start with shaping the wooden last before proceeding with cutting the leather from pre-drawn paper patterns, then we would stitch the upper together, attach the lasted upper with glue to the outsole and then stitch the outsole with a needle for extra strength, yarn and awl, before arriving at the last step of polishing shoes with oils and natural wax. The master checked everything with his austere but expert gaze and passed down to me all his passion, precision and dedication to this work.”

 

 _____________________________________________________________________

“When I was a child, I went to school in the morning

and to a small shoemaker’s atelier in the afternoon,

where an expert “master” taught me

every single step in the process of shoe making.”

Mario Grassetti

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During this period, his passion for hand-crafted excellence was born, and in 1979 Mario started his very first workshop. His objectives have remained consistent from those early days in the 70’s - to always create with passion beautiful shoes, with zero tolerance on poor quality and an unmistakable dedication to details.

 

Mario is continuously looking for improvements and knowledge while thinking about how to ensure his craft and that of many other cordwainers in Marche continues. Ever since Mario could remember, his son, Giacomo, would visit him at his workshop. Picking up pieces of the jigsaw called shoemaking. After years of sharing his passion for his livelihood with Giacomo, he finally convinced him to join his adventure in 2009 which enabled him to realize a lifelong dream: to create a family business out of his true passion. Today, the new business IFG – Impresse Famigliare Grassetti is recognized as one of the most trusted, respected and high quality workshops for footwear in Marche. They can both speak passionately and long about “Made in Italy” and what has gone wrong with the label and how it needs to be remedied. Like Father, like Son, the saying goes.

 

After Mario had got my goosebumps raised in admiration, I explained to both him and Giacomo the vision of Crafted Society. No sooner had I started up my pitch {it was a pitch as I needed to convince the family duo to support me from the start with development, expertise, low minimums etc} on the artisans greatest challenge, giving back to preserve craftsmanship when Mario lead me back to the workshop floor. All of his team were hard away at work – no fewer than 12 passionate souls, gluing, stamping, pressing, cutting, and finishing beautiful sneakers – when he asked me what I noticed. I gazed over the small workshop and said – “they are not all Italian, I can hear different native languages.” “Bravo. Good observation.” Said Mario, before we headed back to the office.

 

Mario explained that the art of shoemaking, the dedication required to become a true master and craftsmanship as we know it, is facing a real threat. Our vision of fusing exquisite craftsmanship with positive social impact had struck a note with Mario and Giacomo. He explained that his single biggest challenge was in finding the next generation of aspiring talent to learn his craft and pass it to the next generation. When he and Giacomo (a young guy of 28) had been discussing this, they were also fixated with the refugee crisis engrossing Italy society.

 

He pointed out that a young boy had knocked on their door looking for work. In basic Italian, the boy had told them where he was from, how old he was and that he wanted to work. The stories of refugee exclusion were completely contrary to their beliefs about building a strong local community – the refugees who had made it to the shores of the mainland were legally registered to work – they were no longer refugees but Italians {or soon to be citizens} who needed to integrate. They were also desperate to work. The two had a brainwave. Before they could offer any employment, they knew the would-be-cordwainers, needed a crash course in shoemaking. They called the boy back and he was joined by six other hopefuls all looking for an opportunity. Mario offered to train them for free on the condition that they had to fulfill the 6month training course and learn fluent Italian.

 

Mario enlisted the help of two retired former master shoemakers from the local area to conduct the training. 6 months passed and 7 fully trained new recruits were ready to work. Mario is very proud that today, Mammon (Morocco), Precius (Nigeria), John (Nigeria), Hamed (Morocco), Mohammed (Afghanistan), Moussi (Tanzania) and Jousef (Afghanistan) are still with him building sneakers for some of the most recognized brands on the planet.

 

After hearing this, I knew just how right Enrico was and how forever grateful we are to have met and partnered with Mario and Giacomo. It is not easy to run a business in Italy – the Government offers limited support and little encouragement to build a social enterprise business model, something they could learn a lot from the Americans. But even with all of the bureaucracy there are still people like Mario and Giacomo who put purpose, people and passion of their Craft before a profit only focus!