Inside Arezzo the 50-year old Brazilian shoe factory
Arezzo & Co annually sells around 30 million products. A domestic shoe powerhouse, its production headquarters outside Porto Alegre in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande Do Sul employs 800 workers and there are several other operations throughout the country. Currently the Arezzo portfolio contains 16 brands spanning diverse levels of affordability including Schutz, Fiever, Vans, Reversa, Anacapri, and the jewel of its crown Alexandre Birman.
Son of Anderson Birman who co-founded the company in 1972 with his brother Jefferson, Alexandre Birman is Chief Executive Officer as well as the creative mind behind his eponymous line of glamorous shoes which is stocked by Net-a-Porter, Bergdorf Goodman, Luisa Via Roma, Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue, and worn by A-listers such as Gigi Hadid. Schutz, edgier in style and with a more contemporary pricepoint, has a Madison Avenue store in NYC, and one in LA and Florida, and is reportedly the target of further US expansion plans.
FashionUnited was invited to visit Arezzo’s entirely vertical operation where design, prototyping, and manufacture happen under one roof. As we enter the design department there are shelves of magazines, spotless white conference tables surrounded by chairs, vintage shoe photography on the walls and some museum-worthy pieces of shoemaking machinery dotted about. We pass a small studio set up for photo shoots with a backdrop, camera on tripod, and reflector on our way to the company archive which dates back 50 years. Floor-to-ceiling corridors of shoe boxes all have Polaroids affixed to the front showing the contents. I am told that every shoe Arezzo has ever made is represented in the archive.
The company was named after the Italian town of Arezzo in Tuscany famous for Michelangelo, gold and antiques. Three years ago, Alexandre Birman was awarded an honorary citizenship by the Italian town.
The working conditions inside a Brazilian shoe factory
Emerging into a vast sewing room, there are rolls of leather packed tight in shelves right up to the roof with dangling brown tags bearing their characteristics. Mostly women, all wearing white coats, sit behind sewing machines, spools of colored thread at hand. Prototyped styles in trays bear a yellow or blue reference sheet of modification notes and measurements. This space is entirely for prototyping in-house ideas only while another facility on the premises is dedicated to manufacturing.
The shoe last, despite its name, is the starting point of every piece of footwear, and cubby holes of these foot-shaped models made of hardwood or plastic are stacked by size and style. Women affix the leather to the shoe’s underpinnings with glue and select from trays of small components while men with assorted hand tools work at standing machines on the heels and soles.
It is high summer and the space is cool and airy with abundant natural light. It is not unusual for employees to stay with the company for many years, like the curator of the archive who started his career decades before in sewing. Everywhere there are stacked bins of lasts, insoles, uppers, heels, buckles waiting to be of use. Brazil makes all components of shoes domestically but soles for the Alexandre Birman brand with its higher price point are imported from Italy.
Alexandre Birman is the jewel in the Arezzo crown
Crossing a loading bay we come to a set of double doors which marks the entrance to the Alexandre Birman manufacturing facility. Inside a delivery is ready for shipping as there are towers of shoe boxes in that distinctive tea rose shade. Workers wear white short-sleeved jackets with Alexandre Birman printed on the back.
In this wing there is less variety of shoe styles than in the previous facility as the range is built on high glamour and higher heels. We have left casual slip ons, lace-up styles and rubber soles behind, and instead workers are painstakingly finessing narrow ankle straps and diamanté trims as we pass a rack of lasts all with curved arches and narrow toes. A row of gold sandals all facing the same way resemble little statuettes. Across from them a row of tall block-heeled mules in a rich shade that is just the color of the piping hot *cafezinho* that Brazilians regularly drink throughout the work day. A sign in Portuguese reads, “We make joy in the form of shoes.”
Much of the work is carried out by hand but after affixing soles to stiletto-heeled sandals workers place them in bins to pass through machines like baggage through the airport scanner. Signs read *Hot, don’t touch*. A tidy stack of paired insoles, naked and pink, rest toes touching on a counter beside a utility knife while another two dozen spoon along the remaining length of the counter.
Twin lengths of shiny material rest on a large digitized cutting bed equipped with multiple pneumatic oscillating knifes with different blade widths and lengths which can cut through almost any thickness of material. Every available inch of the material bears the stencil of an insole on it, and like a cookie cutter through dough, the insole is punched out and the discarded shell collected in bins.
Moving into the business hub of the plant we first enter an office with dozens of workers in cubicles typing at computers. Certain stations are labeled: Logistics/Invoicing; Logistics/Transport; Supply Management; Planning; Business Development; Sustainability. On the wall are screens displaying maps, statistics, graphs, while at the far end a carpeted area with leather couch, coffee table and plants provides a more intimate space to have an impromptu meeting or just a screen break.
Along the corridor an impressive cockpit called the Solutions and Monitoring Center boasts ten screens of graphics recording business activity in spikes and dips like an electrocardiogram. At a glance problems can be anticipated, supply and demand kept track of allowing those here at HQ to react quickly to requests from the company’s hundreds of stores and even more franchises. Nothing is left to chance.