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Perfectionist shoemaker, 75, finds spice of life in Chengdu

By Wang Xiaoyu | China Daily | Updated: 2019-03-23 09:06

Italian shoemaker Gianluigi Colombo, 75, who oversees quality control for a growing Chinese footwear brand in Sichuan province, has two distinct faces.

At a shoe factory in the provincial capital, Chengdu, Colombo will not hesitate to tear apart a pair of handmade high-heels that miss his standard by even a stitch. His extreme attention to detail sometimes scares his young Chinese apprentices.

But when he strolls down alleys lined with snack stalls and teahouses - an essential part of the city's leisure lifestyle - his inviting smile and bright, colorful outfits never fail to liven up the atmosphere around him.

The combination of a solemn demeanor at work and the carefree and lively street culture has been a theme running through his near decade in China.

Colombo's career in the country began in 2010, when the female founder of a footwear startup based in Chengdu was seeking a world-class designer and met Colombo at an industry expo overseas. The woman asked him to help launch a custom clothing service and improve the skills of workers at the enterprise.

Born into a family with a long history of shoemaking in Italy, Colombo had won design awards at a young age and worked with heavyweight fashion brands in Europe, including Chanel and Bally. Leaving his comfort zone and venturing to a foreign land was both a challenge and an adventure.

"She told me she came from Sichuan province, home to many giant pandas, and that piqued my interest," he said.

Colombo added that the founder's bold vision of marrying the Western concept of haute couture with the native handicraft of Shu embroidery - which features exquisite designs on silk - made the offer even more appealing.

"Shu embroidery struck me as stunningly beautiful, and I had never seen anyone incorporate the craft in shoemaking," he said. "I saw an opportunity for innovation, simply combining the Chinese embroidery with elements such as crystals on shoes."

Colombo pledged zero tolerance for even the slightest defects during manufacturing, to the point that he would use scissors to cut faulty finished products and toss them away.

His perfectionist work ethic has gradually won the recognition and respect of his Chinese colleagues.

"It delights me to see that they are able to improve and avoid making the same mistakes as we work together," he said.

"Many people are biased against products made in China, but in my eyes, shoemakers in China are skillful and quite efficient."

He said he hoped he could help break the stereotype that Chinese shoemakers can supply only low-priced, generic products for overseas companies, and then carve a new path in the global footwear market with products that exude authentic Chinese sensibility.

To achieve that goal, Colombo has been taking inspiration from daily life in Chengdu. One highlight is a collection of shoe art featuring panda-pattern prints.

"I wanted to design a new line of shoes that are as adorable as panda cubs, and when you put them on, it would feel as comfortable as cuddling with the furry animal," he said.

In his leisure time, Colombo enjoys sipping cups of tea, playing mahjong, and watching traditional Sichuan Opera, with its rapid mask-changing.

He said the leisurely pace of life and tight-knit communities in Chengdu remind him of Italy, though he finds the city's residents even more passionate and energetic than his compatriots.

Like many of the local residents of Sichuan, Colombo has developed a strong taste for spicy food.


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