Why Do Beckett Simonon Shoes Come From Colombia?
Colombia might not be the first country that comes to your mind when you talk about top-of-the-range shoemaking and leatherwork.
Despite that, all of Beckett Simonon’s products are manufactured by superbly skilled artisans that are all based in Colombia’s Andean capital, Bogotá.
In fact, one of the very reasons that the company was set up was to safeguard this amazing heritage for the future.
This leads to the question: why is there such a treasure trove of talent in Bogotá when it comes to leatherwork?
How did leatherwork arrive in Colombia?
Colombians claim heritage from many parts of the World, including Europe, Africa, and other parts of South America and the Caribbean. The variety of landscapes and climates mean there is a sweet spot for everybody.
Although the indigenous Colombians undoubtedly worked leather, we can largely trace the rich skillset in leatherwork down to two groups of immigrants: the Spaniards and the Italians.
The Spanish have worked leather as an art for many centuries, building on their heritage from the Celts, the Romans, and the Moors - all famous for leatherwork in their own right. It is perhaps the Moors who have had the biggest influence. They came across from Morocco and inhabited much of Spain for several centuries. In fact Colombians still call leatherwork marroquinería - which literally translates as something like Moroccan artisanry or 'Moroccanary.'
The other culture that has left its mark is that of the Italians. Italians are famous for some of the finest leather to be found, and some of the best shoes.
The shoemaking business in Colombia remains faithful to the Italian roots and maintains close links. Beckett Simonan is proud to buy its leather from a Gold-Rated Tannery in the north of Italy.
A lot of the leatherwork culture also developed naturally over the centuries in Colombia. Much like the US, the cattle ranches and horsemen of Colombia became defined by their hardy, well-worked, leather boots and goods.
How did Bogotá become a center for shoemaking?
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, the Bogotá elite became well-known for wearing the best in European tailoring and fabrics, such as tweed.
For this reason, shoemaking was at first centered in one of the classiest areas of town - Chapinero.
One of our shoemakers, Ivan Dario, grew up helping out his father in a little studio in Chapinero, where he learned all about fine shoemaking and leatherwork.
He told me that shoemaking “is a tradition I inherited from my parents. My father is also a shoemaker and has a studio in Chapinero, here in Bogotá. He is still making shoes there, in fact, mainly to order.
“This passion in shoemaking was focused in Chapinero. The high-class ladies and gentlemen, who had their elegant dresses and suits, all wanted shoes from Chapinero. This was where you found the oldest tradition and most artisanal shoes in Colombia.”
As a matter of fact, the shoemakers gave their name to the district.
Antón Hero Cepeda, a humble shoemaker from the south of Spain, arrived in Colombia in the 18th Century. He married the daughter of a wealthy landowner and inherited 50 hectares of land - where he set up a Chopine shoemakers’. Chopines (Chapines in Spanish) were a type of ladies’ shoes with extremely high heels and soles, popular with the aristocracy. They were bit like platform shoes that have come back into fashion with women today!
The area turned into a hive of shoemaking. The Chopine maker remained the focal point of the district, and people started to say - “Let’s go to El Chapinero (the Chopine maker’s).” By 1885 the area was officially baptized Chapinero.
During the 20th Century, the shoemaking industry blossomed. As the Bogotá shoemakers gained fame, small workshops became bigger and bigger. Chapinero slowly changed to become the financial center of Bogotá, and another district came into the spotlight for its shoemaking, El Restrepo.
Bogotá itself grew and attracted many people from across the country, including many of the finest shoemakers.
El Restrepo had potential - a little further from the expensive areas of the city, it gave the opportunity for growth, and the district became entirely devoted to leatherwork and shoemaking.
If you walk down the streets of El Restrepo, you will see shop after shop devoted exclusively to shoemaking and leather. There are numerous shoemaking studios, some with little outlet stores, and alongside them shops to buy laces, soles, leather, and everything else you could think of related to shoes.
Our shoemakers make every one of our shoes, boots, and sneakers in El Restrepo.
Why Does Beckett Simonon Manufacture in Colombia?
The founders of Beckett Simonon, Nicholas and Andrés, are both Colombian. They are passionate about fashion and leatherwork, and saw that the skills of the shoemakers in El Restrepo were not being used to the maximum. In fact, they were in danger of being lost.
Bogotá is not a bubble. As I talk about in my blog post, The Art of Shoemaking, the global desire for cheap, disposable fashion accelerated in the 80s and 90s. Nobody wanted to buy top quality footwear anymore. Shoemaking is an art - but it’s also a business, and has to give the client what they want.
By the last decade, there was a very real danger that the centuries of knowledge and skill that had developed in Bogotá was going to be lost.
Andrés and Nicholas decided to establish a company that would embrace these skilled artisans and preserve the craft for the future.
This is a win-win situation. The Made-to-Order model cuts out the middleman, so it works for both the customer and the shoemaker.
Beckett Simonon customers get shoes made with the skills and craftsmanship that one might associate with Italy or New York, but at a fraction of the price. At the same time, shoemakers here get a fair wage, good working conditions, and can practice the trade they love: crafting beautiful footwear. The shoemaking tradition lives on for another generation.
How does Beckett Simonon ensure that the tradition continues?
Ivan Dario is an excellent example of how shoemaking knowledge has traditionally been passed on. He told me, “At the present moment, I’m 35, and I started from 10 years old with my dad. When you like something, you do it naturally. The passion flows from person to person.”
Our head of design, Giovanni, started shoemaking with his Uncle Orlando as a teenager. After his day in high school, he would run down to his uncle’s studio to help out. He fell in love with shoe design and never looked back. His own little girls are already picking up the lasts and showing interest.
With a traditional art like shoemaking, it is all about skills being passed down from one generation to the next. If the skills aren’t used, they are lost.
Another factor is that by producing top quality, full-grain, Blake-stitched shoes and boots (as well as gorgeous full-grain leather sneakers) the artisans are able to flex muscles that weren’t being flexed. Many had the skills - but didn’t have the opportunities to use them.
It’s rather like an endangered animal; they need to produce to survive!
By selling directly to customers in the USA, Beckett Simonon not only gave new life to the industry, but also allowed the artisans to pass down their knowledge to a new generation of shoemakers. Also many seasoned shoemakers could now grow and work to their potential.
As with Ivan Dario and Giovanni, the only way to learn shoemaking is to do it. When you walk around the studio, you will see the older and more experienced artisans working hand in glove with assistants or apprentices.
These are like the kitchen hands who start peeling potatoes. Eventually, if they work hard and are keen to learn, they might earn their Michelin star!
Ernesto Beltran, for example, assembles the uppers for our sneakers. He said, “The way you learn is always the same. You learn on the job. It all depends on yourself. If you want to aim to be an assembler, we more experienced artisans guide you and motivate you - you need the dedication. I loved it, and I ‘graduated’ to assembler in six months, which was very fast. Sometimes it takes years until a trainee gets the confidence to stitch an upper.”
One of the ladies who work in our shoes and boots workshop is called Paula. Paula was working as a waitress - and hated it. She knocked on the door of the workshop and was taken on as a trainee.
She started in the soles section. This is a baptism that all new apprentices go through because there is no other workshop in Bogotá that makes soles to the same standard - this way, the shoemakers can see their willingness and ability to learn. In soles, all new employees start at zero, even if they already have some experience.
One of the advantages of taking on young people, new to shoemaking, is that they have a beginner’s mind and will soak up the information. They don’t have any bad habits or preconceptions and are able to be shaped into the style of shoemaking with the quality of leather that Beckett Simonon uses.
All trainees, such as Paula, are fully paid and have all the same benefits as other workers. Not only is this the just thing to do, but it is also important because it ensures that the best talent won’t be lost to other professions and shows people new to the profession that this is a serious art.
Paula loved shoemaking and has progressed quickly. In just a few years, she has progressed and is now the assistant to Henry, one of our top shoemakers.
In this video, one of our assemblers, Orlando Chicaiza, talked about how he learned the trade, and how he is passing it on to the next generation.
It’s your heritage too
Some things are worth protecting because they are the heritage of all of us. Through our model, it means that the shoes and boots these artisans make are accessible to everybody across the USA.
Every piece in our range is made by the finest of artisans and made to order. That means when you click buy, the order gets sent down the line, and each product is made specifically for you.
Every order you purchase goes some way to helping to preserve the heritage and tradition of classic shoemaking in Bogotá.
If you have any questions about the process or our products, drop us a line on the contact page, or leave me a message in the comments section below.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for upcoming posts.
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