Just around the bend from the Stefano Bemer shoemaking school in Florence lies the Arno, central Italy’s largest river. If you overheard Bemer students while eating lunch on its bank, you might be convinced the whole thing is completely full of terrible shoes.

‘We’re making shoes, and giving each other shit all the time,” said Mikhail Bliskavka, former Stefano Bemer student and co-founder of Arno Shoes along with former Bemer jack-of-all-trades Christine O’Leary.

“The running gag was: the shoe that whoever is currently making, it’s only worth being chucked into the Arno. So…Arno Shoes.”

Ok so they’ve got jokes! Good start. But even with the right attitude and some of the best training in the world, launching a shoe brand—let alone in the midst of COVID—is no small feat. Especially when that challenge came second to doing so in a way that didn’t kill the fun of it all.

What makes a shoemaker who’d honed his craft with zero intention to commercialize it completely change course? How does an event producer who “didn’t know an oxford from a derby” learn to take a $5,000 shoe to the belt sander, then turn it into a career? Following the launch of Arno’s first ready-to-wear model, we chatted with Mikhail and Christine about what it takes to turn a strong friendship, a propensity to cold-call, and a hand-welted prototype into a size-zip production boot.

The two walked us through a story that spans from her grandfather’s shop through to the launch of the Bliskavka, Arno’s first boot, and forward into what’s next: exploring bolder colors and leathers, designing a women’s boot, and what looks to be a lot more fun along the way.

Mikhail, you were a collector before you started making shoes. What was the first pair of quality shoes you got excited about? 

Mikhail: Oh boy, that brings it way back. This whole thing started on the Goodyear Welt subreddit, let’s call it 2013. It was actually a pair of Oak Street Bootmakers Trench Boots, leather sole, the fit was perfect. I’m pretty sure it was just brown Chromexcel. They looked great, and I caught the bug. It escalated from there as you probably can imagine. I moved on to Viberg pretty quick like a lot of people do. If somebody had told me “you’re gonna be buying a six or seven hundred dollar pair of boots” when I was younger I’d be like “you’re out of your goddamn mind.” But it’s kind of consumed my life since, so…Oak Street Bootmakers are to blame for all this.

I love it. What was the craziest thing you ever went in on? I mean, as crazy as boots can get. 

Mikhail: I actually have a pair right now, Zonkey Boots with burgundy shell cordovan and elephant. They’re freaking excellent, but I don’t wear them because they don’t fit anymore. Or rather, they never fit. I didn’t dial in the sizing. I’ve purged my collection multiple times. I’m due for another one because the shoes that I’ve been making are taking over the house.

As far as craziest that I’ve made for myself, it’s a pair of slippers with a hair-on-hide cowhide, zebra print. They’re awesome. I rarely wear them, but I have them.

Zonkey’s made-to-order page is pretty out there.

Mikhail: Honestly, if I was to pick my favorite brand just from a connoisseur level, I would say Zonkey Boot. When I dealt with them, their customer service was absolutely amazing. I emailed them trying to find good elastic material for Chelsea boots, and he sent me a box of like five different types [of elastic]. And I love the designs. They’re a little bit eclectic, a little bit formal, but very cool.

So it’s the 2010s, you’re getting into r/goodyearwelt, becoming more of a connoisseur. What was the first pair you ever built? 

Mikhail: So in 2018, 2019, I have a friend, Chuck, at Tulsa Shoe Rebuilders. I got to know him initially getting Topys put on some of my leather soled shoes, then some minor shoe repair. And obviously we’re talking shop every time I go there.

And I’m a reservist as well. I had gone on a deployment, and I was still going to college at the time. I came back, still had one semester left, but I didn’t have many classes. So I popped into Chuck’s shop and I was like, can I help you out? At the time he was actually getting more into making boots, cowboy boots especially. He had gotten help from somebody in California on pattern-making and just happened to have this chukka boot pattern and an old Jones & Vining last that basically fit me. So he’s like “well, I need to check out this pattern…do you want to make a pair of boots?” And I was like hell yeah.

So I made it! In hindsight I didn’t quite do the upper assembly correctly, but it worked out. All of a sudden you have something that’s physical, tangible, that went from inception to completion to putting it on. It was just addicting. And then I found out about the Stefano Bemer course and, shit, how do I make the stars align to go, because who’s got the time to take three or six months off?

But I managed it, I’m quite pleased with myself for that. It’s changed my life.

Christine, your narrative starts earlier, can you talk me through the rediscovery that your grandfather was a shoemaker?

Christine: I always knew that my grandfather had been a shoemaker. But I didn’t realize for how much of his life, and how important it had been to him kind of until I embarked on this journey, when I started getting all the stories from my family.

I knew I wanted to leave New York… it’s very rat racy there. I have a close friend who was living in Florence while I was visiting family in Ireland. She says, “why don’t you just give Florence a try?” And I was like, “I’ll give it three months, see how it goes. And if not, I’ll just come back.” No big deal.

So I moved there, and started apprenticing for a jewelry maker. And it just so happened one of my first friends was one of the shoemakers at Stefano Bemer down the road. I knew Mikhail and all these guys who are studying in the school. We had all become friends. As just I started to think “I don’t know if I can stay in Italy”, my friend tells me they really need somebody to sort of just pick up slack, do a little bit of everything.

So I met with the owner and he was basically like, ”Okay, great. Can you start on Monday?” Wow, okay, a new life. So I started working with their shoe finisher, for lack of a better word. He did all of the tassels and the small leather work at the end. The bows, he put on metal toe taps. He did the polishing and the shoelacing and the boxing and whatever, just refining little things. I learned really fast from him. He was an amazing teacher, very trusting.

So I’m taking these shoes—somebody’s paid five grand or more for them—and I’m putting them up against the belt sander for the first time in my life. That was daunting, but I made it through and did well. I became more and more confident. Like Mikhail was saying, I just sort of loved it. Even if I wasn’t building the shoe from scratch, it was working with your hands, watching something be created, something beautiful, something useful. It just resonated with me.

I also got into sales and customer relationships. For the people who are doing made-to-order or bespoke, I was talking them through leathers they could choose, what goes with what. And I was learning a lot about the classic pairings, whether it’s a certain leather on an oxford, or even that two brown leathers can make for a funky shoe—that’s just something I never really considered. I just loved working with the clients, seeing what they were putting together. Some people want to do wacky, crazy things. Some people want to do beautiful, creative things. And I just had so much fun doing it.

I want to pick up and go to Italy.

Christine: It was truly life changing. I had no idea I’d ever be into shoes. I mean, I liked shoes, but not the way that I do now. And I got to leave with a pair of made-to-order. I’ve been working with Mikhail on a couple of prototypes for women, and those are among my most-loved shoes because they’re just so comfortable. Women, we kind of get the short end of the stick because we have these very uncomfortable shoes that are not super well-made, and not that long lasting. So that part is very exciting to me too. We’re hoping we can tap into that a little bit.

Mikhail: The paradigm is that women don’t wear quality shoes. But I think that’s changing.

Christine: And I think women’s styles are changing. And I think even now, there’s a lot more androgynous styles, and mixing of styles. And I think that there’s more place for it now than maybe ever in my lifetime. When I was a teenager, I was out wearing heels all the time. Now you’d be hard pressed to find me in a pair of heels, and all my friends as well.

Christine, what skills did you leave Bemer with? And what did you eventually have to learn as you began to build a brand for yourself? 

Christine: I didn’t know anything going in. If you asked me the difference between an oxford and a derby, I couldn’t tell you. And even now it’s funny because I have a lot of people talk to me about wooden shoes, and I’m like oh no it’s not wood, it’s just stacks of leather. But that’s something I might have thought before too. If you’ve never kind of dealt with all the pieces it’s kind of niche and really specific.

I think I learned how to see quality work. Whether it’s stitching, or the kind of leather, or how it’s held together, where it’s held together. I was into fashion to a degree, but not really at this level. And I learned just how much people, especially—maybe not especially men, but at least men right now—value their shoes as a means to express their personality.

Mikhail: We’re basically the sneakerheads of fine shoes. You need to have that one specific leather/sole combo or this hardware combo or this real obscure thing. It’s the same thing as sneakerheads. I’m not knocking it! I’m all the way in. But I’ll still pretend to be superior because ours at least last longer.

I used to have, on Instagram, ‘life’s too short for boring shoes.” I’m kind of embracing that. I feel like one of the limitations men’s shoes have is it’s basically just different shades of brown. So throw a little sage in there, throw a little zebra hair-on-hide, whatever, you know, to rock it.

On my way back from Florence, I stopped to see my cousin in London. So I went to Saville Row. And going from the bespoke side to handling ready-to-wear, even high-end ready-to-wear shoes. You can’t even compare them, honestly. Don’t get me wrong, but…

Christine: Yeah, maybe let’s not put that one in writing Mikhail? [laughs]

Mikhail: No, no, no! I’m not knocking any brands. I have a few pairs of Gaziano and Girling. I love them. But when you take a pair of handmade bespoke shoes and a pair of factory-made shoes, just holding them, you can feel the difference. It’s substantial. It’s cool. So I guess I got a little bit more elitist when it comes to shoes [laughs].

Christine: Coming from the US, I took so much for granted. China has some wonderful manufacturers as well, but just the craft you see in Florence, it’s not just shoes. It’s leather works, jewelry, lamps, furniture, and you watch the people making it and you’re really like, wow. I just wish everyone could actually see from start to finish how these things are made, because it’s really impressive. It’s just cool.

Mikhail: I’ve actually gotten a lot more appreciative of other people’s hobbies. They can be collecting whatever. Just because this hobby has brought so much joy to me. And then especially creative hobbies. Something at a craft fair. I’m not just looking at this thing or maybe comparing it to something you can buy at Walmart. I’m looking at the time and the creativity and the energy it takes to make it.

You can relate to the person in a way you can’t when you mechanize out the human element.

Mikhail: Imagine the chain of events that led this person to doing this niche obscure craft. I have a friend that does woodworking and makes beautiful tables. When we were growing up, I would never ever have imagined him getting into that. 10 years ago, I would never ever have pictured myself doing this. So it’s kind of interesting to see the course of events.

To dig into the way that played out for you two, when did you come to the decision that you wanted to move forward with Arno?

Mikhail: So I went to Bemer in 2019. Wow, it’s already been that long.

Christine: Wasn’t it 2018?

Mikhail: No, it was 2019. Oh, January 2019.

Christine: Yeah, yeah. I got there in 2018.

Mikhail: Being in Florence, you’re living and breathing shoes. You’re working on shoes with your friends. And then you’re leaving and you’re hanging out with your friends, and talking about shoes. Full-on shoe immersion. And so you’re just full of ideas.

Then I left, and I started my corporate job and it was just a “man, what am I doing?” type of thing. But it pays the bills, so okay, great. Fast forward to early 2020, COVID hit and I thankfully was able to transition to work from home without any issues. That freed up a lot of spare time.

So I’m cooped up, and I start just making shoes. I think in 2019 I only made two pair. But 2020 I made maybe 15. I also started grad school at the time. So Christine messages me, and she’s like, “hey, do you want to start a shoe brand?” And I said, “I’m busy! I’ve got a lot of shit going on. I’m making shoes, I’m working, I’m doing school.” I just didn’t have the time. I don’t think I said no, I don’t remember what I said. But I definitely thought no.

Christine: You said no.

Mikhail: All right, fair enough.

Christine: I can show you the email. [laughs]

Mikhail: Anyway, the idea really grew on me and I’m glad I did it. Honestly, even if this thing goes completely bust, it’s been worth it because the whole experience, navigating through all that, talking with manufacturers, tanneries, learning about all this stuff, making mistakes. And it’ll be really cool if we can keep doing it.

Christine, when you sent that “hey, Mikail, let’s do this” email, what pushed you there?

Mikhail [goofy voice]: Let’s start a shoe brand! In the middle of a pandemic when nobody’s buying shoes because everybody’s freaked out, and nobody’s going anywhere!

Christine: Things were sort of coming to an end. I was still at Stefano Bemer. I can’t remember exactly when I had left and then asked Mikhail, but I had discovered this thing that made me super happy. And I was like, what if this is something I could do and somehow keep working on? I wouldn’t be the first person who ever tried and won’t be the last. I wasn’t thinking “how hard can it be?” but, “why couldn’t I do it?”

We all were probably glued to our phones during that time, Mikhail was pumping out one shoe after another. And we had stayed in touch. One of the cool things about the class is we were all around the same age, having this middish thirties…

Mikhail: Life crisis?

Christine: Yes—what are we going to do with our lives? I was on Instagram looking at what Mikhail was doing and could tell he was super passionate about it. He was really skilled. The school was three months, six months, nine months, a year, whatever you could do. Mikhail was there for the shortest amount of time. And you can get invited to become an apprentice and then hired. Two of the master shoemakers were both like, “we wish Mikhail would have stayed.” And not to say that they didn’t get two wonderful shoemakers out of the class they did! But they recognized his skill, and eye for detail, and the passion behind it, and his work ethic.

I saw that too. So I reached out to Mikhail. He originally said no. I was very sad. And he reached out to me again to be like, wait, no. I’ve been thinking about it, and we should do it. And so we kind of went from there. I actually came back to the States for a few months because we were looking at more lockdowns here. I went to Tulsa, and started hashing out everything. And that’s how it first began.

When you took that trip out to Tulsa, Mikhail, were you already selling the custom work you were building? 

Mikhail: At that point, it was just for close friends. I struggled with this one. I’m like most shoemakers. You nitpick the hell out of your work. So my thought was like: ‘I’m just going to make them and I’m not trying to monetize this.” Even when Christine reached out, I was like, man, I don’t want to lose the joy of it.

Christine: I think you had a few orders by then, under Arno.

Stitchdown: Why the name Arno, by the way?

Christine: Well, first of all, it’s the name of the river that runs through Florence.

Mikhail: We can talk about how scenic it is to be along the river or whatever, but the real story is: we’re sitting there making shoes, and we’re all giving each other shit all the time. And so the running gag was, the shoe that whoever is currently making, it’s only worth being chucked into the Arno. The shop is actually literally a few hundred feet from it. So, Arno Shoes.

Christine: We used to have lunch outside right on the Arno. It’s right there.

Mikhail: Chuck them in the river and then you could go for a dunk yourself right afterwards.

Christine: I don’t think anyone ever did that. Nobody ever chucked them in the river.

That’s hilarious. Ok so what happened from there?

Mikhail: That summer I had gone through my backlog, got some lasts, got some leather, got a new job offer, and moved across the state. I can make a pair for you in say a month and a half, two months, but now it’s dragging to three or four. Our ready to wear concept is essentially a solution to that problem. I want to do all this stuff but I don’t have the time because I still have a day job.

Unfortunately as glamorous and cool as shoemaking is, it’s hard to make a living and I applaud the people that are doing it full time. Because it’s not easy. The idea was to make ready-to-wear stuff that’s well designed, well sourced, interesting, and not what other people can get right now. There are other brands in our similar niche, but I think we have a bit of a different aesthetic.

Christine: And Mikhail still makes our prototypes.

Mikhail: Yes, I make all the patterns. On the zipper boot, I had a guy on Reddit reach out to me, he wanted a zipper boot. Zipper boots are completely different from all the pattern-making that I learned. So I make one pair just to ensure I know what I’m doing. And I was like, shit, this looks good. And Christine dug it too. We had made a prototype for a lace-up boot, even found a manufacturer to make samples, and we saw this zipper boot and we’re like, man, we need to change because this is cool.

So that’s the origin story of your first ready-to-wear boot, the Bliskavka.

Mikhail: Yes. I feel a little, how do I put this? Pretentious for naming it after myself, but…

Christine: Well, I did it. You don’t have to take the blame.

Mikhail: I’m Ukrainian and obviously grew up in the States, but I’m a reservist, so I got sent to Germany for six months to translate. So all the political stuff, the war, everything, it’s gotten a lot more personal for me. And it actually means lightning in Ukrainian, Bliskavka does. To throw a little factoid in there for you.

Stitchdown: Could you talk me through the logistics of getting a boot into production once you’re at that point? You’ve got the pattern, but now you need to produce something that can ship.

Christine: So I was in Florence, and had some contacts for manufacturers. And I was sort of hitting dead ends with the outreach here. We even looked into factories within the US but they are very few and far between, and very expensive. And a lot of them don’t take new clients. So then Mikhail you follow a lead into Mexico…

Mikhail: I knew that León was a place where they manufacture shoes. And it’s a lot quicker and easier to go over there than to Italy, for me. So I got a list of manufacturers and just sent a ton of emails.

And one guy is like, sure. I can do that. So we visit and it turns out he knows everybody. They took us to two last factories, the textile factory, a bunch of tanneries, the sole manufacturers. We made a ton of connections from that trip.

As far as the logistics of making this thing happen, man, it’s a lot more complicated than I expected. And it’s taken a hell of a lot longer. I was thinking it might take six months. Then our first manufacturer didn’t work out, that took a good chunk of time. And we had a big leather snafu with customs.

Christine: Everything was so slow, and then suddenly we had 100 pairs of shoes and we’re like, oh my God.

You’ve got the Bliskavka out, it’s an awesome boot. What’s your vision for the brand going forward? 

Mikhail: We like this boot, right? I like this boot. But somebody said to Christine, “I thought they’d be a little bit more exciting.” I want to go a bit more out there. Not just being loud for the sake of being loud. I would like to refine the thing, make it more interesting, use more unusual leather combinations. And then definitely ladies’ boots and at some point derby boots or shoes. But first it’s probably just different variations of the size of the boot. It’s an interesting mix because we’re using a straight-up Italian dress last. It’s a dress shoe last. I have dress shoes made out of it. But when you put on the boot, they look great too. They don’t look like dress boots.

Christine: They can go both ways I think.

Mikhail: It’s a dress shoe last but it’s pretty roomy. If we took a beefy leather, put a nice thick midsole on there, made them substantial… One of the things I’m sampling right now is the Maryam Sage waxed flesh leather for the vamps, and for the quarters, this printed brown kudu. I also have a pair of uppers that I’m making for myself. I made some vamps with CF Stead Unicorn leather, and then zebra hair-on-hide quarters. I think they’re gonna be cool. I’m not saying that’s where we’re gonna go. But I would like to push it a little bit more. There are a lot of brown shoes and boots out there.

Christine: We really love the boot. But since it was our first foray into it, we didn’t want to go too crazy off the bat. We had minimum orders to fill. So we wanted to make something classic and beautiful and wearable and durable, that we loved. I think looking forward we want to make a women’s boot and just experiment a bit more with some of these interesting looks.

And as we learn and grow, just making the product better and better. More comfortable, more durable, just sort of perfect what we have now, and then add to it.

Mikhail: The current zeitgeist is chunky work boots. I guess we’re proposing an alternative. I don’t know if everybody’s going to quite jump on board, but I like the look. Honestly, it makes me feel like I wear cowboy boots whenever I wear these. It’s weird, but it does have that look.

Christine: They do have the cowboy look. We had a guy buy them for the Thunderdome. He said he was looking for a boot that he could dress up and dress down and that he could wear all the time. And he picked up on exactly what we were trying to do. So that was pretty exciting. We’re basically the new Skechers or Bostonian or whatever. Just kidding.

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