Day 6 of our tour of Italy, and day 2 of our stay in Florence began with our group taking a short walk through the city to the Sculoa del Cuoio, or the School of Leather. As our tour guide explained to us, this school has quite the backstory. After the second world war, many children in Florence had been made orphans, and a group of friars in the city wanted to find a way to provide these children a livelihood. This desire took its shape in the friars opening of the Sculoa del Cuoio, a place for these orphans to be instructed leather working, helping them to progress to the level of a true artisan of the craft. Not too long after was the school opened up to the public, allowing those who wanted to learn into the school, orphan or not. The school has since become renowned for its extremely high quality, hand stitched leather clothes and bags, which they sell at the school, helping to support the operation they have going.
Though the school prides itself on being a workshop instead of a factory, it still has many characteristics of a business, including of course, a place in the supply chain of the fashion industry. In terms of how this business is designed, the Sculoa del Cuoio is horizontally integrated with the upstream components of its supply chain, in that it gets its supply of basic inputs for its products from other companies. This was no more apparent than when we were showed all the different types of animal skins that the artisans worked with. The Sculoa doesn’t own any tanneries, so all of the leather that the use has to be bought from outside sources. Our guide explained that though the school likes to only make business transactions with local companies, or at least companies within Italy, some of the more exotic skins used at the workshop, such as ostrich, alligator, and deer, had to be purchased distributors in other countries. Turns out the Sculoa gets its alligator skins from the U.S.’s very own Louisiana. Other obtaining than obtaining the basic inputs for their leather products, the Sculoa del Cuoio vertically integrated in manufacturing and sales. Our tour guide explained that every student at the leather school is taught how to do every single step in the production of a leather bag, so that when their education is concluded, they are true artisans of their craft, able to produce a leather piece from scratch, all the way to its finished state. Not only does this result in some very skilled workers, but this amount of education helps to cut out any middlemen in the process of manufacturing. This even extends into some of the more specialized processes of leather working, as some of the workers there have become specialists in specific areas of manufacturing. Francesco, an artisan who has been working at the leather school for fifteen years, has become a master in gilding various leather products with gold leaf. This procedure is apparently so delicate that he is the only one in the school at the moment that is able to do it consistently without error. Nevertheless, with the ability to have this difficult process done in house, the school is able to retain its independence from other companies when it comes to manufacturing, which I feel adds to the uniqueness of their operation and help them stay true to the whole “workshop, not factory” mantra. What this mantra means for the workers in the Sculoa is that they are mostly free to produce their own, unique products inspired by their own sense of style rather than some brand. If other companies were involved, with their own requirements and agendas, I feel that the workers would not be as empowered as they are here, instead being limited to making whatever needed to be supplied for a distributor. This would effectively soil the somewhat enchanted environment this place seems to maintain. Looking around the workshop of these artisans, everyone seemed to work at their own pace, each informally working towards their own creative visions. Though I am not saying that a more uniform work environment is worse for people, I will say that upon leaving, it was comforting to know that each one of these artisans was working on a project that they really believed in.
Tomorrow we head off to the lovely Verona, ending our sadly brief stay in the city of Florence. Out of the two cities we have been to so far, I feel that I am much more disappointed about leaving here than I was Milan. Something about the age and the beauty of this place has me just a little bit attached. Here’s hoping I will love Verona just as much!