Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

New beginnings for old things

Ofelio is of a category of artisans that is not trendy right now. The kind artisans that nobody writes exalted articles about nor photographs in their workshops, and probably if you tried to interview Ofelio or photograph him he’d tell you to f-off out of modesty. He has no idea that I took this picture of him by faking checking something on my smartphone. But I wanted to record it: the guy who fixes old purses. Purses, suitcases, belts, and anything leather or plastic that’s bigger and more complex than a shoe. Ofelio, like other artisans who fix rather than create new things, gives new beginnings to old goods.

Italy is, unquestionably, a true consumer society. You see it in their new purses, fashionable clothes, and in their pre-teens who own iPhones that I, myself, cannot afford. But, at least traditionally, Italians tend to buy less than their American counterparts, and again, traditionally, of better quality. Thanks to the global presence of H&M, this is no longer the case, although it is technically possible to buy good quality, Made in Italy knitwear, leathers and more as I’ve described in this blog post about my client, BP Studio.

But it seems to me that Italy is slightly less of a disposable society than, say, America. There is still a culture of fixing things. It’s dying out, but it’s still there. We have to hope that it will be able to continue.

I recently brought a bag to Ofelio to be fixed and I asked him what his opening hours are, since his shop has no sign and no posted hours. And he says “orario di bottega”. Workshop hours. I asked for further specification, and he said he comes in around 8:30, unless he has to prepare the grandchildren for school, and he closes around 1 or 1:30, and goes home for lunch, and reopens in the afternoon, when depends on what he ate, and leaves again around 7:30pm, but sometimes later, since he has a lot of work, and he has no help to do it. I asked him why he didn’t take on an apprentice, and he explained that due to the type of “company” he is registered as (I didn’t ask for details), he can’t hire anyone, not even an apprentice to learn his trade. Ofelio is not exactly a youngster and I wondered who would take over for him when he was gone (but didn’t dare ask). He read my mind: he said that when he can’t do the work any more, he will have to close down the shop, because nobody wants to do this trade.

There is still demand for artisans who can fix things, but the difficulties of running a business in Italy, with its various taxes and limits, perhaps does not appeal to young, potential artisans. Go into any besoke cobblers’ these days and you will see Asian trainees. The shoemakers’ shop on my street, in fact, recently changed hands; I noticed that the new owners are Indian, and they immediately improved the shop greatly by adding a sign and being open on weekends (the previous owner hadn’t thought of these modern marketing things that might guarantee sufficient income to beat the tax man). Asians seem to be thrilled to learn Italian craftsmanship and carry on traditions that are not theirs.

When there are people who fix things, you save money and also contribute less to landfills. Beyond shoes and purses, people who fix small appliances are hard to come by in America, but here in Italy, they still exist. A little neighbourhood store called Speranza gives a last grain of hope (speranza) to blenders, vacuum cleaners, fans, coffee makers and irons that might otherwise be thrown out. The store’s back room is just seething with dusty, dinged machines waiting to be fixed. There’s always a line, and I keep going back with broken things despite Signor Speranza’s distinctively unpleasant personality.

Maybe there is a little speranza for people who fix things, though. Two related factors could contribute. The first is the economic crisis, which makes us think twice about buying new things if we can maybe fix the old stuff first. The second is that vintage clothing and accessories have become very trendy again in the past two years – this phenomenon actually stems from economic need but then was promoted by trend-setters so that now there’s some rather expensive used clothing shops that have nothing to do with Goodwill. But if we’re currently appreciating older objects, we’ll also need to mend or fix them, so we’ll need people like Ofelio and Speranza, and hopefully their descendents, to keep doing their jobs.

Hey, this was an Italy Roundtable post!

Every month, a few awesome female Italy bloggers write on a given theme. The theme for January is “the beginning” and it wasn’t at all easy to come up with what to write for it, despite seeming like an obvious theme for the New Year! This month a few of us had other things to do so the other two bloggers who have written on the topic are:

So we were thinking… if you write a blog about Italy, or if you write a blog in general and want to participate, how about trying your hand at the topic “The Beginning” and letting us know by tweeting it with the hashtag #italyroundtable. Maybe link to one of our posts, or tweet at us so we find you. We’ll retweet and share your posts from the Italy Roundtable’s accounts! Deadline: the end of January, let’s say.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://twitter.com/EpicAdventurer_ Julia Hudson

    I love this – “fix-it culture” is something I think we are just starting to embrace in the US, and it makes me happy (I’ve decided to name the movement “artisanal hipster”:).

    I hate wasting, and I think cooking and sewing are two skills everyone should have so they waste less – add some basic carpentry and you really do find yourself shopping and spending less, and valuing your possessions more!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    absolutely, Julia!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.andrews.581 Stephanie Andrews

    This is a great post, Alexandra. I’ve always been “into” vintage and making and caring for things, perhaps because my mom had a cross-stitch on our wall when I was a kid that said “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without.” (I suppose that’s our sturdy Ontario pioneer heritage speaking.) I actually pull apart old sweaters and knit them anew – a habit I picked up in grad school when I yearned to knit again and didn’t have money to buy new yarn. I’ve always been into vintage clothing, which I cut up and sew into new things, or tailor to my liking. This is all to say that I have noticed these things in Italy. My boyfriend still wears a gilet that belonged to his dad in the 50s, I think, and has pullovers he bought twenty years ago. He’s very “quality” focused, as is everyone in his family. I love that. And in spite of being elegant dressers, they appreciate my knitted things. :)

    At the same time, it’s impossible not to notice the encroachment of the disposable culture, even in Italy. I loathe Zara with a passion (I know, it’s Spanish) for example (although I don’t think I’m supposed to say that out loud!), which is always full of shoppers (Italian and foreign) in the centre.

    I’m hoping the economic situation is going to have an impact in pushing people in the western world generally back towards appreciating and preserving quality things. I’ve also noticed vintage clothing shops cropping up like mushrooms in Florence lately, although they seem to be trying to be “niche” shops for vintage style, as you say, and they are definitely overpriced vis-a-vis their North American counterparts. (I actually buy vintage Italian and other luxury vintage goods at a fraction of the price, but in the US.) I’m curious to see how this trend plays out in Florence, as my boyfriend thinks it’s a bit strange to wear clothes previously worn by other (non-family) people. Not sure if that’s a general Italian viewpoint or just his, but vintage certainly seems to have a stronger foothold in places like Paris, London and New York. Even just glancing at young students on the street, you don’t see the kind of eclectic, quirky styles in Italy that you see in other parts of the world.

    I also love the old repair shops that are still to be found in Florence (there’s a man who fixes watches in via Faenza, I think, and I like to peek into his shop). I’m rambling, but I ardently believe in an old-fashioned approach to consumption, and hope sincerely that we will all start to move in that direction. (I could go into the economics of all of this, but I won’t bore you!)

    GREAT interpretation of the theme of beginnings.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks very much, Stephanie, I appreciate the mile-long comment! My mom actually really disliked this article so every comment I get otherwise is a particular pleasure. She says it’s not factual and that in Toronto she has some people who fix things, just depends on the area. That is, however, not my recollection of Toronto or any of the American cities in which I have lived.

    You are so right about the Italian idea that old clothes worn by someone else are gross. Maybe it’s a holdover from their poor complex pre 1960s. Odd that it persists in younger people though. My husband thinks along the same lines. As for young people not wearing cool, original styles, I have always noticed that too. Especially in Florence where fashion has always been extra conservative. Globalization evens things out to a certain point but there’s a difference between here and milan in this aspect, as well.
    Interesting to know that you knit so well, I am impressed. I have made a few attempts but seldom finished anything, or else have finished things but they’ve been crooked and unwearable. When you come to Florence finally we’ll have to get you coming to BettaKnit events – they are one of my clients at Flod (see http://www.bettaknit.com).

  • Celia Prosecchino

    I hope with all my heart that these skills stay alive. As an artisan I realise these skills are going fast and as courses become more academic the actual manual skills are lost. Artisans have been a very important part of the Italian economy and should be given tax brakes and grants to train young people to both restore and create. Please buy a bag from an Artisan and have your very own original design rather than buy one from Prada or Gucci.

  • http://twitter.com/thismyhappiness Jenna Francisco

    Interesting, Alexandra. I agree that such skills are to be valued and that Italy stands out as a country that values quality items. I actually have a pair of nice leather boots that I have worn a lot the last 10 years. The sole has is coming apart, and I did find people to fix them here in my hometown. I am not sure about fixing purses and other items, but there is a stronger interest in reusing (including clothes swaps, which I doubt would occur in Italy) and bartering here in California instead of just endlessly consuming.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Jenna
    Good that you found someone to fix it. I am sure these places do still exist everywhere, just for some reason they seem more common here. As for clothes swaps, some people do organize them, though they’re not so popular, for the reasons noted above by Stephanie ‘from Ottawa’ :)
    Ciao! Alexandra

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.andrews.581 Stephanie Andrews

    Hi Alexandra. I remember reading about the BettaKnit events in one of your posts I think. I will definitely come along when I am in Florence! Gee that comment of mine was rambling though…