Tomáš Bata’s town wants to revive the art of traditional shoemaking

Photo: Veronika Hlaváčová

The art of traditional shoemaking is slowly disappearing in the Czech Republic. The town of Zlín, home to footwear mogul Tomas Bata, is now trying to revive the tradition and the local school of trade and crafts hopes to open a class in the autumn.

Photo: Veronika Hlaváčová
The history of Zlín is indelibly linked with the footwear business and the success story of shoe mogul Tomas Bata. To this day Bata serves as a bright example of business ethics and the locals point out with pride the community blocks of flats that he built for his employees.

However in the last two decades the town’s famous shoe history is becoming just that – a thing of the past. The Zlín Secondary School of Hands-On Trade and Crafts which at the end of the 20th century produced over a hundred shoemakers a year has not taught traditional shoemaking in 13 years. The craft simply disappeared due to a lack of interest.

While the majority of shoes sold in the country are now factory made, dozens of shoemakers still ply the traditional shoemaking trade for an exclusive clientele. Shoemaker Michal Pavlas was taught the trade at the Zlín Secondary School of Hands-On Trade and Crafts. He graduated in 1987 along with 90 others. Today his services are in high demand. His clients are people who have a problem with standardized shoes for health reasons, but also people who want something exclusive.

Elephant hide shoes,  photo: Veronika Hlaváčová
“We frequently make shoes from exclusive materials – crocodile, manta ray, ostrich – I myself am wearing elephant hide shoes and I’ve not had anything better. Many of our clients are people who want well-made, classy shoes that will represent them well.”

Jan, a manager from Prague, is a frequent customer. He favours calf-skin shoes made to measure because of a foot problem that he has had for years.

“I was never happy with standardized shoes –my feet are quite broad so the shoes always felt very tight. Of course handmade shoes are more costly and I am prepared to pay extra for them– tens of thousands of crowns.”

While in the past few decades a shoemaker’s trade was regarded as lowly, the Zlín school which last taught the art of traditional shoemaking 13 years ago, is hoping that this air of new exclusivity will help to revive the craft. The school’s headmistress Marta Fojtíkova told Czech Radio that while in the late 1980s there used to be three classes of altogether 90 students studying the craft, at present the school lacks enough candidates to open even a symbolic class in traditional shoemaking.

Photo: Veronika Hlaváčová
“Right now we have three entries from people who are interested. We will continue to advertise the benefits in the coming weeks and hopefully encourage others to give it a try as well.”

In order to set up a new class the school needs at least six students. Whether it will succeed in reviving the trade that Zlín was once so proud of will be clear by the end of May.