Shoe designer Rupert Sanderson remembers an inspirational visit to “The Boot.”

Sandals at Florence’s leather market, photograph by Emily Pearce

I traveled to Italy for the first time in 1999, at the tender age of 33, when I was enrolled in a two-year shoemaking course at a technical college in East London.

I made plans to ride my friend’s Triumph Thunderbird motorbike through the northern cities — Milan, Parabiago, Bologna, Florence, Santa Croce, Arezzo, and Vermezzo — to see factories, specialists, and tanneries… pretty much as many people, places, and things associated with shoes [as possible].

An Italian classmate helped me create an itinerary using a way out-of-date directory of factories I found in the college library. He contacted the factories on my behalf, so I just assumed they were waiting for me, but it turned out that none of them actually expected me to visit.

Leather drying at a Tuscan tannery

Looking back, the arrangements were sketchy, but each place was very welcoming.

It took about a month to hit all the stops — including the most extraordinary concert of my life, Tom Waits, whose performance at an opera house in Florence blew me away.

Gaining a technical understanding of the vivid and visceral process that real shoemakers practice helped me realize my dream of becoming a designer that creates, rather than simply designs.

It was a life-changing trip.

— as told to The Thick

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An Italian cobbler at work, photograph by Jorge Royan