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Why Tod’s is still made by human hands, and close to home

The Bag Hag Diaries

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Here are some of the reasons we buy the bags that we buy: the brand is reputedly a good one; the style is something that has garnered considerable media exposure because of popular celebrities who carry it; the color is beautiful; the functionality of the bag is unparalleled.

And then you have these very good reasons to buy the bag: because you genuinely like the style; because of the brand’s heritage and the quality of the bag; and because of impeccable after-sales service based on your own experience as well as from other customers’ testimonials.

The latter reasons were what had attracted me to Tod’s. My mother has been a great influence in my love for bags, and she was the one who introduced me to Tod’s bags. Before her introduction, I knew Tod’s only for its gommino moccasin loafers.

From then, I went on to love a Tod’s D bag in bright yellow. It was striking and beautiful. Unfortunately, it was already sold when I made my decision to buy it.

So my first Tod’s bag was a Pashmy. I was very attracted to the bag because of the numerous zippered exterior pockets and compartments. Those were a big plus because the smaller contents would no longer get lost in my bag “abyss.”

It was really the perfect travel bag, especially when I was with my children. It also turned into a cross- body bag when I lengthened the shoulder strap.

Design signature

Another exquisite style was the D bag made famous by Princess Diana. The bag’s design has become a classic, and it remains a design signature with the brand. I was very satisfied with the bags from Tod’s and was able to test their after-sales service as well. It was topnotch.

Last September, with other foreign press, I visited the Tod’s factory in the rolling hills of the Le Marche countryside a few hours away from Milan in Italy.

We traveled by train, then drove to the town of Brancadoro. There we entered a university-like complex with clusters of low-rise buildings. This is where the Tod’s SpA headquarters and factory are located.

Designed by Diego Della Valle’s architect wife, Barbara Pistilli, the main building was nothing short of impressive. It houses the offices of Diego, his brother Andrea, and their father Dorino (and also happens to be the design labs of Tod’s, Hogan, Roger Vivier.

At the entrance is a large orange globe studded with black pencil bottoms (representing Tod’s shoes’ signature color and gommino rubber “nubbies”) made by artist Felice Limosani, set against the immaculate white halls.

Dorino, the Della Valle patriarch, has his bicycle parked on one side of the main lobby—he pedals around the offices if he finds the walks too tiresome. The walkabout in this high-ceiling office introduced us to different art works, as well as that precious gift from Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo—the first “victorious” Grand Prix Ferrari ridden by Michael Schumacher.

In a corner was Della Valle’s grandfather and cobbler Filippo’s preserved wooden workbench, a reminder of the family’s humble beginnings. The highly inspiring environment is undoubtedly conducive to creativity for the artisans and the design team.

In the design lab, designers get down to business working on the sketches of a shoe, tweaking specifications, and drawing on a cardboard shoe last.

The design is rendered by a plotter machine, which cuts out patterns on a board. There are approximately 20 separate parts for each shoe. The leather parts are created from the cardboard cutouts.

According to the design team, there are different insteps made for the different markets of Asia, Europe  and America. The procedures are very precise and exacting. In this design office is how and where the first prototype of a shoe is made.

Very similar, tried-and-tested procedures for design and prototyping produce the Tod’s signature bags. The design team uses crosta, a low-quality leather, to produce an actual sample to show proportions. Approximately seven samples are made before they arrive at the final piece.

When it came to the shoes, Della Valle is the company’s very own “test” subject—if he is happy and comfortable wearing the shoes, then the shoes get the final nod into production.

We headed toward the company’s leather warehouse, located a short walking distance from the offices and passed by more works of art. The leather warehouse was jaw-droppingly impressive, with rows and rows of rolled raw leather as well as that multimillion dollar “cage” of exotic skins and leathers.

Inspected thoroughly

It is here that leather gets inspected thoroughly for flaws, and is overseen by their in- house leather expert and master, Antonio Ripani. Tony has been with the company for 40 years, and he makes sure he and his team leave no imperfection unnoticed. Color, thickness  and overall quality of leather are paramount.

Moving on to the actual factory, again we were left wide-eyed with amazement. It is in this factory where we saw the actual shoes being made—and this was where they churn out merchandise which line the shelves at each Tod’s boutique. There were rows and rows of machines, but the one thing that struck me was this: a lot of the work was still done by human hands.

From the stitching of the shoes and the small nails that piece the shoes together to the zipper pulls and gumming of leather trims on each bag, everything was done by hand by the workers (men and women, both young and old) who wore color-specific Tod’s logo shirts.

My mind deconstructed the Tod’s G bag as I saw how each separate piece of the bag was made and subsequently put together. The leather trims on the bags went through a skiving process to reduce the thickness of the leather so that it becomes more pliable. The interior lining of each bag is sewed by machine, but thread ends were sealed by hand to prevent them from “running.”

Foil and heat stamping of the brand on the bags were likewise done by hand. Rolled leather handles as well as other leather parts were gummed on their ends with a dark substance, and it is amazing how none of that dark tint ends up leaving stains on the light leathers. There was a rack of bags marked with a pen on the sides, and I was told these did not pass quality control and were hence marked as such.

This piqued my curiosity, and I went over to inspect the bags myself. To this day I honestly could not tell you what was wrong with those bags. This was proof that everything at Tod’s was so precise and very strict quality control was enforced.

Before we left the factory, we saw how the shoes and bags were packed into their dust bags and signature boxes— again, by hand.

Leaving the factory, I now have a profound admiration for the company that  Della Valle built. In today’s economy, companies that continue to uphold their heritage by sticking to tradition are already succumbing to moving production outside their country of origin in order to plump up bottom lines.

Mr. Della Valle has consistently resisted this very idea of outsourcing production to China. In an interview with Liz Alderman in the New York Times last year, it was written that “maintaining a quality image is one reason he says he continues to insist that all Tod’s work be done close to home.”

Della Valle’s insistence on upholding the tradition of the company by keeping it purely Italian has certainly paid off.

Ingrid Chua-Go is publisher of www.thebaghagdiaries.com and is on twitter.com/thebaghag.


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