If shoes make the man, then meet Darren Smith, the man who makes the shoes. Far from being your average cobbler, Smith is the founder and creative director of Barollo Shoes, a luxury footwear brand whose bespoke approach has garnered a wealth of celebrity clients, athletes and VIPs including Caitlyn Jenner, Lupita Nyongo’o, Jessica Biel, Sarah Paulson and Angelina Jolie since its 2018 launch. Not bad for a kid from Philadelphia whose prior life found him installing multi-million dollar IMAX systems around the country before he took the plunge into designing shoes back in 2014 and heading off to Venice, Italy for an intensive apprenticeship.
Aside from loathing a day job that saw opportunities dry up as the capacity for new IMAX theaters being constructed around the country was hitting its breaking point, Smith’s epiphany that he wanted to dive into the deep end of shoe design came while volunteering at the Devon Horse Show back in 2014. It was during the 10-day event where Smith came across La Mondial, a century-old manufacturer of custom riding boots based in South America.
“I met the owner at the show during one of my breaks,” Smith recalled. “I kept going back to watch the craftsmanship and videos they had and was blown away. I didn’t even know that custom boots were a thing. On my third visit, there was a literal flash of light and a voice in my head that said I had to make shoes. It was as clear as this conversation. I have never had more direction and clarity in my life.”
The aspiring cobbler soon learned that Italy was where he would learn more about this new career in high end design and three months after the show, he bought a two-week round-trip ticket to attend a show and make connections. The return passage lapsed and Smith found himself apprenticing in Venice (“It’s literally the mecca for leather goods”) under a local university professor with 40 years of experience making shoes. Mentor and mentee proceeded to spend 15-hour days, seven days a week learning the craft. Just as important was Smith being immersed in Italian culture that valued high standards over mediocrity in all aspects be it food, architecture or time spent enjoying everyday life. It was a philosophy that continues to inform Barollo Shoes to this day.
“I couldn’t have landed in a better place,” Smith said. “It opened my eyes to how the world is and I really fell in love with that aspect of Italy—the craftsmanship. These people I was working with weren’t rich but if you went to see them, they had the best appliances. They would have a prosciutto cutter that was thousands of dollars. They were committed to having the best of everything and everything oozed quality.”
Smith’s dedication to maintaining these lofty benchmarks found him setting up shop on the banks of the Riviera del Brenta, near Venice, in the heart of the luxury shoe capital of the world. It’s an area that where you’ll find Louis Vuitton’s Italian headquarters and where other luxury brands are manufactured including Jimmy Choos, Hermes and Chanel. It is here where Smith hand-picks Napa leather for lining in his women’s shoes that goes for $40 a square meter and is generally used for finished goods including handbags, gloves and leather jackets. And that uncompromising demand for quality even extends to the packaging (“People don’t think the box matters but when you buy a pair of shoes, the first thing the sales person hands you is the box. It’s like a car—the outside has to be as beautiful as the inside) which is supplied by a company that is also a supplier for Tiffany’s, Valentino and Gucci.
As for the actual footwear, Smith is proud to be very hands-on with each design handcrafted to order. This time-consuming process requires more than 350 individual steps to complete a finished pair of shoes and ranges from hand dying the skins to cutting and stitching each piece of leather.
“With me, you’re dealing with the designer like you did with Gucci in the early 1900’s or Ferragamo in the ‘50s or ‘60s,” Smith said. “I hand-select all the materials. I’m not just the designer—I make everything. I don’t do every part of every operation but I’m literally touching every shoe multiple times and doing multiple processes.”
Not surprisingly, Smith’s services don’t come cheap. His lines includes women’s Dream Stilettos and Addison loafers and men’s boots, Daytona loafers and tuxedo shoes. He also makes belts and handbags. Barollo’s custom-made shoe line starts at $5,000. Given how time consuming this part of the creative process is, the current challenge is for Smith to scale up. He hopes to go from custom-made to ready-to-wear with the ideal goal of selling 10,000 to 20,000 pairs of shoes a year with sneakers at $750 and shoes starting at $950 and going up from there. Currently, he’s moving only hundreds of custom-made shoes. Because of Barollo being one of the most exclusive brands coming out of Italy, there is a wait for the products because of demand. Scalability is the challenge for 2023. Smith’s hope is that he can land his shoes in exclusive boutiques in cities like Miami, Palm Beach, Dallas and New York City.
His one foray onto Long Island was in the Hamptons, where his shoe line was being carried by Fred Segal before that location closed. What sustains him is the feedback and loyalty of his customers thanks to the high quality and care that goes into each pair Smith produces.
“You asked what makes Barollo different—we are special,” he said. “When I’m in L.A. or New York and I’m wearing certain shoes, I get stopped on the streets all the time. If you’re wearing a Louboutin, I don’t know that anyone is stopping you.”
Visit www.barolloitaly.com to learn more about Barollo Shoes.