Why are we talking about Aunt Letizia, that’s what her grandchildren call her while they still see her walking through the corridors of the Brunate Shoe Factory? Because she turned 100 and has been dedicating her life to footwear and the family business since 1939. In a difficult time like the present, paying homage with great joy to a person who has gone through so many springs, knowing joys and hardships, is going to help us. Never before has it comforted us to think about the resilience important Italians companies have and are demonstrating thanks to the care, passion and sacrifices of people who have guided them and who have shared effort and satisfaction with their own family and collaborators. Never before have the words of Mrs. Letizia helped us to watch forward, with hope, trust and… that pinch of wisdom that certainly doesn’t hurt.
You were only 19 when you took over the Brunate shoe factory. What had happened and how did you feel?
“In the year 1939, my father had just died and another tragic war was looming on the horizon. Honestly, I didn't have much time to wonder how I felt. Our father died after a very short illness. I was the oldest of six siblings, and the youngest was only three years old. I had just finished school. I remember very well that the day he died, dad asked me to take care of the factory and I promised him that I would. I knew it was going to be a big responsibility. Already then the factory had more than 100 employees. But I owed it to my father and the sacrifices he had made to start the company. Then, within a few years, the Second World War started. When I think back to those times, I realise that what we live today is nothing in comparison. Many of our employees had to go to the front. The nearby city of Milan was bombed several times. Those were very complicated years, during which our business had to considerably slow down. One of my siblings, Elia, was even sent to a training camp in Germany and then, once back in Italy, he spent a few months in a concentration camp in Tuscany.”
How did you earn the respect of a male-dominated society, like that of those times?
“I guess I earned it because I probably behaved like a man! Seriously, I also got some help. My uncle Giovanni, with whom my father Vittorio had founded the company, helped out, although he too died a few years after the war. The many trusted men in our organisation supported me. And my siblings, who grew up fast. We also had highly competent sales representatives and retailer customers who appreciated our products and the cooperation with our family.
Every know and then I also had some tough fights, of course. I remember one incident in particular. One night, in March 1949, the factory almost completely burned down. A real disaster! I turned to the company’s bank for financial help. To my surprise, the loan was turned down. After a few days, I discovered that one of the bank’s executives was also a partner in a competing shoe factory. I did not get discouraged and the same day I ended the relationship with that bank, I turned to another banking institution that granted me the loan. Our fantastic collaborators gave up part of their salary for several months to support the reconstruction. Of course, I repayed everything with interests. I also managed to obtain exceptional payment terms from our suppliers. I kept all the letters of solidarity we received at that time.”
What drove you to work for 80 years?
“On the one hand, the promise I made to my father. On the other hand, seeing my grandchildren engage in the company founded by their grandfather. That’s why I still pass by the company every day.”
Someone says that you have never been on vacation? Is that true?
“I believe I only started taking real holidays in the 70s, when two of my siblings finally entered the company. Since then I have spent a few weeks in South Tyrol during summertime. I’ve always had a passion for the mountains. Until that time I only allowed myself a few weekends a year in nearby Switzerland or in Italian art cities. Florence, Venice, Rome have always been among my favourite destinations.”
What was it like having to lead a company, make important decisions, study new strategies?
”Hard, especially in the first 20 years when I managed the company almost on my own. Later I was lucky enough to have my siblings by my side and the most difficult decisions to make were shared. Perhaps our biggest regret was to stop making children’s shoes in the early 1980s. I believe that, today, there would still be space on the market for a quality product like ours.”
What qualities do you think are most important to do well in one’s profession?
“Talent and hard work are two qualities that should not be missing, even though I believe that upstream of both there should be passion for what you do and the ability to pass it on to those who work with you. In recent years I have always been pleased to see that there are people in the company who started working with us at a young age and then spent their entire career in Brunate. Forty, sometimes forty-five years. Examples of fathers or mothers bringing their children, and even grandchildren to work with us. It means that our example and dedication have helped create a stimulating and gratifying environment.”
Do you remember any anecdotes related to your highly appreciated shoes?
“I don’t know if I can say it, but we had the great pleasure of seeing Chancellor Merkel wearing a pair of Brunate blue suede moccasins during her first meeting with President Trump at the White House a few years ago. Just as we were happy to receive a private visit from Queen Paola of Belgium on a Saturday morning two years ago. On that occasion, my granddaughters helped her select décolletés and moccasins. We know that other queens, princesses and celebrities also love and wear our shoes: a good reason for being proud”.
In the fashion world, which personalities have caught your attention?
“I would like to mention Giorgio Armani for his style and elegance and that of his collections. I also think of Gabrielle Chanel for her personal story and iconic creations. As far as the world of footwear is concerned, I believe that Salvatore Ferragamo was among the first to develop fashionable products with perfect technical content taking them to international markets. ”
Generational transitions always represent a crucial moment for companies. What is your secret?
“The constant confrontation of ideas. The division of tasks. The belief that staying united means remaning strong. I am sure that without the strength of the family we would not have overcome all the crises and all the challenges in these almost one hundred years of activity.”
Today your grandchildren run the company? Do you see yourself in them or do you notice many differences in the way they manage business?
“The new generation today leaves less room for improvisation. We are talking about young people who have studied and speak several languages. And maybe they even had experiences abroad. They move easily in this globalised world. The generation of my siblings and mine was made up of young people with strong intuition and willpower. After the war, Italy had to be completely rebuilt. You needed everything. It may seem paradoxical to you, but even though times were harder, the way of doing business was easier.”
You certainly have gone through many hard and difficult times. What would you say to those who face the pandemic today?
“Creativity and good taste are qualities that go beyond the crisis. Over the centuries, art and fashion have always had a positive influence on our lives. Even during wars, even during pandemics. We must not lose hope. The world will certainly not stop because of a virus.”
What do you believe is the most important legacy you would love was preserved over time for your grandchildren and your company?
“Ever since our grandchildren and our children were younger, we have always tried to teach them the culture of work. In a way, they had to learn how to become the keepers of tradition. And in the future they will need to be able to pass it on to their children. This is Brunate’s secret, so to speak: knowing how to transform good ideas into shoes with an exceptional shape, line, fit, using the skills of our collaborators. I like to think that the family and the company almost blend in.”
When you blew out the 100 candles, did you think ‘I have made my dreams come true’ or is there still room for some desire?
“As I said, I didn’t have much time to imagine a life other than the one I had. In any case, I don’t regret it. I lived my life with great joy. It was a fantastic ‘journey’, where wonderful moments alternated with more difficult ones. If I still have a dream? Perhaps that would be asking a little too much, but in just over five years the factory will celebrate its first hundred years…”