Finding extremely high quality dress shoes under $400 is a challenge. In just five years’ time, Cobbler Union has established itself as a somewhat quiet but very real player in that space.
After serving as CEO of his childhood friend Norman Vilalta’s bespoke operation in Spain, Patagonian-born Porcelli moved to Atlanta to found the direct-to-consumer brand, which creates handsomely designed shoes with beautiful leathers and incredibly thoughtful design features—like beveled waists—that are rarely seen on shoes selling for Cobbler Union’s prices. He started with a brown and white spectator, a bold move indeed, and evolved the now well-rounded line to include Goodyear welted oxfords, longwing derbies, loafers, Chelsea boots, loafers, and some wonderfully dressy boots.
I spoke with Daniel about his leap from bespoke to ready-to-wear, how a small company like Cobbler Union competes in a crowded market with sizable demands for leather and other materials, the benefits of selling direct to consumer, the importance of customer service, and, of course, how he manages to make such high-end shoes for such a reasonable price.
Stitchdown: So I’d like to start with your own love for shoes. Where did that begin for you? When did you start realizing that shoes were a lovable thing?
Daniel: Way before I got into classic shoes, I was a tennis player. I grew up competing on a national level in Argentina. At the time, we didn’t get any imports in Argentina, so we had a local brand called Topa, a Brazilian and Argentine brand. You’ll see professional tennis players from South America wear them. So that’s all I could wear, but I really wanted to wear what Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were wearing. I was obsessed, but I didn’t have access to them until I came to the US in 1989. So I found a pair that was too small, but I bought them anyway.
I moved from very small town in Patagonia, and when I landed in New York, I was exposed to architecture, art, cars, everything in New York is known for. And clothing. I worked for a consulting company on Park Avenue, and the founder would fly to London for rain coats, he’d come back from Venice with cashmere shirts. He taught me about Swiss watches. And then I started buying shoes. I started with English shoes that I could afford. I got my first pair of Church’s. In my 30s I got really into it.
And then one of my friends from my childhood Norman Vilata, went from being a lawyer to becoming a shoemaker, training under Stefano Bemer, and opening his own shoemaking school in Barcelona. We met when we were seven years old, and I ran his business for two and a half years, but unfortunately we’re not friends any longer, which is something that happens sometimes in entrepreneurship.
But as for shoes, I got interested as a consumer. And that was very good, because I wasn’t interested from a business perspective, or an area where I can make money. I wore the shoes, I enjoyed them. I appreciated the craftsmanship way before getting into the business.
Stitchdown: What else were you wearing back then, other than the Church’s?
Daniel: I had a driver from Tod’s. I had a pair of Crockett & Jones. Half of the collection was Italian shoes that I bought on a trip to Rome before my wedding. Bruno Magli, when they were big in the 90s, I had a couple pairs. All good, all well-rotated, and I always took care of them. I never had the John Lobbs, the Edward Greens—I was never able to afford them. But I always liked them.
Stitchdown: So as much as you’re willing to talk about working with Norman—what was that like? And I’m very interested in hearing what the CEO of a bespoke shoemaker does, as from my knowledge, not too many have experienced business people involved, at really any level.
Daniel: It is unfortunate and painful that we are not in contact anymore, or friends anymore. But when things don’t work out, it’s not about the other person. You said it very well: not a lot of bespoke shoemakers have a CEO, or a business, and that’s the explanation. But he was incredible. He trained under Stefano Bemer, who I’m sure you know passed away about five years ago. Stefano Bemer was one of the best. And as Norman was training, the first pair of bespoke shoes he made, I sold them for him.
I was doing my MBA, so I thought that I right after that I would join him, which was very naive. From 2003 to 2010, I supported him as a friend. Around 2010, he had made shoes for a couple of royal people and he had been published in a bunch of magazines. I had always been interested in helping him, and he needed a lot of help, to build a brand and a business. I had been a partner in consulting. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had the resources to do it. And when I joined them, it was incredible. We were doing something that I felt was spectacular.
What I always tell people is that I got into this world at the pinnacle. It doesn’t get any better than bespoke. And Norman is one of the best. He’s an incredible talent, he’s a visionary. I was exposed to the best of the best. And I essentially reached out to everyone in the industry. We met with Philip Carr at Saint Crispin’s, we met with Antoine Arnault at Berluti, visited with Tony Gaziano, the Carmina people. We really wanted to learn, and wanted to do it right. The whole idea was bespoke first, and ready to wear second. But we never got to ready to wear. Actually we revealed the first collection and that was when the breakup happened. But I fell in love with the craft.
And despite the disappointment of the breakup—it kills you. To lose a friend over a business venture…not even a friend, one of your best friends, it’s very difficult. But since then I think we’ve been respectful. He helped me love what we did in spite of everything that went wrong. And I know everything with Cobbler Union happened because I joined Norman.
We launched Cobbler Union out of a passion for the product. Then we became curious about what Warby Parker was doing. And we said, wow, we could be one of the first shoe companies that goes direct to consumer. But it wasn’t the other way around—oh, we’re business people walking around New York thinking about how we can make money. And that’s how we started Cobbler Union: in a very humble way, with very little money, and with a lot of passion.
Stitchdown: What year did you launch? Can you take me through that, through today?
Daniel: We launched Cobbler Union in the summer of 2014. When we launched the first collection, we launched without any shoes. We took pre-orders, and waited for the shoes to show up. It was a real struggle at the beginning, but we had a lot of passion. And then it was one month at a time. By December, 2014 we had steady sales, and then it was organic growth through today. We’ve bootstrapped the company, and we’ve had a couple small rounds of funding. For the most part, it’s a company that’s fueled by a great product that gets better at every cycle, and then by community.
Now we’ve sold in 90 different countries, one box at a time. I always remember an email that I sent to Philip Carr from Saint Crispin’s. I said, hey, you know, we should compare notes. And he goes, ‘why should I talk to a competitor?’ I’m like, “I don’t think I’m a competitor, haha.” And I felt that the industry was not united, that everyone was trying to play the game by themselves. There was a lot of paranoia. But I felt, you’re not getting too into patents or IP that you need to protect. In our industry there’s room for many more players. There are over seven billion people on earth, and we all wear shoes. At least you hope that most people wear shoes.
So these days when I see a new brand, I’m happy. More people making what we make. That’s a good thing. That’ll push leather suppliers to make a better product. It’ll push factories to get better. It’ll push the customer to understand how to buy online.
The name of the company, Cobbler Union, the first word that came to mind was “union” because it’s not about me, it’s not Porcelli Brand. I don’t want to be Ferragamo. And a big thing I saw is that everyone in the industry was very pretentious. Number one, by naming their companies with their own names, and two, by thinking they had invented shoemaking. And I felt there’s two important people in this industry: the consumer, and the makers. I’m not that special. The heroes in our company are the artisans.
But no one treats them as heroes. If you go to Northampton, or Spain, or Portugal, they’re treated as factory employees. The only people who are treated as true artisans are the bespoke shoemakers. Just to put it into perspective, a Goodyear welted shoe goes through 220 processes. It has about 70 different components, and 20 to 40 people touch the shoe. Every single one of those people is an artisan, in my mind. Many of these people have devoted 40 years of their lives to be able to be able to finish a heel the right way.
Because otherwise we get into a different industry, which is the Aldos of the world, where everything is prefabricated. The shoes we make, absolutely nothing is prefabricated. And that’s what I love. In English speaking countries, a cobbler is a shoemaker. Like, okay, that’s not pretentious, right? I want to be a cobbler. When I have my apron on, I’m a cobbler. And then the union idea, is that all of us are important. I want to celebrate everything, from Saint Crispin’s to whatever latest brand out of Portugal is.
What I do not like is the bullshit. I have no tolerance for bullshit. I don’t like when someone says they’re made in Italy, but they’re making things in Romania. I don’t like McDonald’s. I don’t like anything made in China. High-end shoemaking is telling the truth. We want to be part of that community, that union. That’s how we protect and preserve the industry. Telling the truth. We are now making our drivers and sneakers in Portugal. We tell the truth. So I’m not Tod’s, making something in Portugal, and saying it’s made in Italy. I think it’s a problem in Europe that people are doing that.
Stitchdown: So on that, you call your shoes the “bespoke inspired.” And I don’t doubt that’s true in some ways—you used to work for a bespoke shoemaker and you’re inspired to do this, by that. But do you ever worry that the use of that terminology might be misleading to consumers who don’t fully understand the terminology? Or even people who do understand it? How do you square that as somebody who obviously knows that bespoke is a very specific thing and can’t be replicated by something that is ready to wear?
Daniel: You know, I’ve never been asked that question. And I love it. The phrase bespoke inspired, I believe it may have been Hugo Jacomet who said that, and I thought, maybe we can use that. I can tell you that I’m bespoke inspired as a businessperson because that’s where I got my inspiration. But I think I agree with you that it may be detrimental. Especially in the US, because people don’t know the difference between bespoke and made to measure, outside a very small circle of people who are fanatical about it. So if you we consulting with us, and you’d say “hey, get rid of that,” and I may agree with you.
But the truth is that I’m inspired by the bespoke shoemakers. The only Instagrams I follow, and I like, are the bespoke shoemakers. I love those. I’m inspired by how difficult it is, how beautiful the work is. The inspiration, it’s true that it’s there.
Stitchdown: Backing up to the beginning: is it accurate that you started with your spectator shoe? It’s not where most people would start.
Daniel: It was the first shoe. I can’t remember when I saw spectator shoes for the first time, but sometime in the 2000s before Norman and I started working together, one of the shoes he made for himself was a spectator shoe. And we met in our hometown, and he actually wore the shoes there. It was Christmas Eve, and Christmas in Patagonia, we celebrate it like New Year’s. So everyone is out on the boardwalk and he’s wearing spectator shoes in a place where no one dresses up. And people were screaming things at him.
Stitchdown: Ha! What kind of things??
Daniel: People were like, what the hell are you wearing? They were wearing swim shorts. It’s a beach town in the middle of nowhere. But I think it’s the most beautiful shoe you can make. It has a lot of complexity, a lot of different parts. The wingtip, which I love. It’s a full brogue. The contrast. It takes me back to the 1910, 1920s. I would’ve loved to live in that era, even for a week. It was a special time in the world, and the spectator was a big shoe at the time. But it was the first shoe, and we keep in the collection. And we don’t sell any. No one buys the spectator. We just sell very few of those a year, but it will always be there.
Stitchdown: Good! How would you describe the Cobbler Union design aesthetic? What’s the driving force behind how your shoes look? Because they’re beautiful.
Daniel: Thank you. I believe that a luxury product of any kind, and in this case our shoes, needs to have certain qualities. One is the quality of quality construction. It was a big deal even with Norman. We said, if we made ready to wear, it has to be Goodyear welted. Attention to detail is very important. The stitching. Little details like the heel cup, which is completely unnecessary, but beautiful. The beveled waist has been very important for us. And then it’s design. For me it was always, what is it saying? My aesthetic is classic. I’m a classic guy.
From an aesthetic perspective, when you get into the shoe industry at the pinnacle, you end up liking the French stuff and the English stuff. One of my biggest inspirations was Pierre Corthay. I had the fortune of going to his atelier in Paris—it’s insane. Although as you look more into it, the French shoes can be very long and very shiny, and nothing you or I would wear. But many of the French shoes, especially if you look at J.M. Weston, are classic.
I’ve learned quite a bit from the American consumer. I like Alden. In the last couple years, I’ve come to appreciate the aesthetics of a more rounded shoe. A lot of bespoke shoes have a lot of shape. The Japanese shoemakers who are the best by far, to Pierre Corthay, there’s a lot of shape. I now think that a beautiful aesthetic is a rounder shoe with something tailored—that’s the perfect look for a man. And that’s where we are today as a brand. In our third generation, we’re working on aesthetics, and quality and materials, but we’re working on a collection that’s rounder. It’s going to be a very English shoe.
Stitchdown: I’d love to talk about materials for a minute. Which tanneries are you sourcing your leathers from?
Daniel: I think this is where, in our industry, it gets really boring, because we all use the same tanneries. In England, the most famous one, Charles Stead for suede. They’re fantastic, extremely reliable. And then in France, the two that are now part of the same company, Du Puy and D’Annonay. If you think about the higher consumption for high quality leather right now, because of the luxury industry, the big big players are using most of the top quality leather, and then they’re buying the tanneries. So you always have to be looking for new tanneries as you search for high quality. Du Puy and D’Annonay are the best, no one can argue that. But they may go through a stretch where they’re not sending you the best.
And of course the cycle is long. When you pick one, you’re going to make shoes for about 18 months with that leather. And it’s a lot of discovery for us, as a young brand. We’re not Crockett & Jones, who have been using the same leather, the same shade, for 40 years. We have no boundaries. We can discover new things. I became very passionate about museum calf, for example. I love it. It creases funny at first, but then it’s insane. It’s fantastic. As we bring it to market, sometimes people go, well, it creases too much. But just give it time. Treat it.
I think we’re all learning together about new leathers. About what top quality means today. It is not the same as 10 years ago. It’s not as high quality as before, and it’s about 30%, 40% more expensive. At Cobbler Union at least, we pay more for leather every year, but we haven’t increased the price of our shoes. And we use calf. So it’s a very young cow, about two years old or younger. The hides are very small, so the number of pairs you can get from a hide, it’s challenging. And there’s not a lot you can do with the, the leftovers. People think you can make wallets and belts—no. It doesn’t work.
Stitchdown: You mentioned them earlier, but I wanted to clarify: the quilted heeled cups that you have on your insoles, they’re certainly beautiful. Are they functional in any way?
Daniel: The heel cups have a little bit of cushion, but then we also put a little bit of good memory foam underneath. In Goodyear welted shoes, if you look at, say, Allen Edmonds shoes, you will see nothing, and that’s okay, technically. You’re sitting on cork. I like a little bit of cushion. But it’s not a Nike. I remember one of our first advisors, a guy who was working in Goodyear welted shoemaking for 40, maybe 50 years. He said “you should NEVER put anything in between the insole and the foot.” And on a Goodyear welted shoe, step number one is applying the insole to the last.
But in bespoke shoemaking, of course you do unique things. Part of the inspiration came from a trip to the Aston Martin dealership in Miami. You could customize your seat, your dashboard. I thought, this is pretty cool, but there aren’t too many things we can do with shoes. So it sounded like a good idea, for something unique. Now John Lobb is doing some of it, but most people don’t, because you need a specific machine that no one has. We may take it out of some of the shoes in the future, not because of cost. But once in a while people have issues, it comes unglued. You’ll see that a prefabricated sole will give you fewer issues than the beautiful one that we make. In a very funny and unique way, a sole from Aldo may last longer.
Stitchdown: In addition to the heel cup, especially on your oxfords, you have a closed channel, you’ve got fiddleback waist, you’ve got very high quality leather. And most of the shoes are right around $400 or under. How do you manage to keep the price there, with that level of detail, and level of work in the construction?
Daniel: The first answer is that we’re vertically integrated. Selling direct to consumer only is the way we do it. We’ve been approached by different people to sell through a wholesale channel. We can’t. When you think about the other ventures in direct to consumer, Warby Parker and others, their margins are actually higher than ours. Selling at $395, we’re able to run the Cobbler Union business efficiently. We design, we make, we sell. Some shoes should be higher. The price is tight. It’s a very, very good price for the market. We try to have very little waste. The number of shoes in what we call our “econ collection,” shoes that we cannot sell because they have imperfections, it’s very low. Our return rates are very low. So that’s how we do it. Efficiency is key to our survival.
And as passionate we are with the product, we are with the customer. We believe what will keep us in business is the lifetime value of the customer. We made mistakes like anyone else, especially a young brand, but we’ve had very good success with returning customers. And that also allows us to keep the prices where we are because we have a healthy customer base. People keep coming back. I think very, very solid value at our price. And quality for that price gets better as we learn. I can not compare Cobbler Union to Crockett & Jones, or Edward Green, because that would be irresponsible. They’ve been doing these for a century, a century and a half. What I can tell you is that we have a level of ambition from a quality perspective and a service perspective that’s as high or higher, and our desire for learning may be higher. But they are our benchmark. John Lobbs are now selling I think for $1,700, so our value continues to get stronger.
Stitchdown: Back to some more technical stuff. How would you explain or define your Goodyear welting process? I think much like a lot of—well, some of the British brands, but really more of the other European shoemakers—you make a very sleek and elegant shoe using Goodyear welting. Maybe unlike an Alden, or unlike a Tricker’s. What’s your approach there, to create the shoes that you end up with?
Daniel: Coming from a bespoke shoe, you always have a beveled waist. So as we developed our collection, we worked with a master shoemaker to come up with our own sole. And at the time, I was obsessed with that and I thought it was the key to our success. So we did the beveled waist, and came up with a different shank. And in a way we created a mess, because that’s a lot of handwork for $395. So from what I’ve learned, now a lot of the new shoes will not have that. Especially because also in the US, you will not find a lot of cobblers who can resole that whole thing. They can resole the shoes, but not recreate that beautiful waist.
But for me, a Goodyear welted shoe has to be slim. It wasn’t going to be a Blake constructed shoe, but it can be slim. And I actually like the welt. Visually from the top, as I’m looking down at my shoes, I personally don’t like shoes without a welt. I know a lot of people like them really sleek. But I like what a welt does to the shape of a shoe. I really like to see the stitching, and some of the finishing. But it’s still slim. Our soles are about five to six millimeters. In some of the boots we’ve put a midsole. But when we look at the Red Wings and others, I view that as a different category. That’s a construction boot that can provide a really cool look for some people.
But when men see our boots, I tell them, this is the type of boot that you see in Paris and London. It’s a boot that you can dress up, some more than others. It’s a boot that men used to wear in the 1800s. Through the 1800s, men didn’t wear shoes, almost through the end of the century—they wore boots with a suit. That’s why even with the boots, we like to keep them slim.
But we want to help Cobbler Union customers have a shoe that they can resole wherever they live. If you think about cobblers in every city, they’re not growing. You can’t find too many cobblers anymore. It’s not a profession that too many people are embarking on. But we want to make sure when the shoes are resoled, they are resoled really well. So we want to help with that.
Stitchdown: What benefits do you get from producing your shoes on in Spain?
Daniel: We believe we are in the best and most competitive hub for shoemaking. If you think about the word cordwainer, the official word for a shoemaker, that comes from Cordoba in Spain. So in terms of heritage, experience, knowledge, Spain has always been one of the best shoe makers in the world. We speak the language—both founders are from Argentina, so that’s helpful. And also working in Spain we found that we can express ourselves. A lot of times if you were to partner with one of the English shoemakers, they allow you to make the shoes they make, but they don’t allow you to change the shoes. They don’t truly allow you to make the kind of the soles we’ve made, for instance. We’re always tweaking with everything. We’re more curious than a lot of shoemakers. We want to make a classic product, but we don’t want to be married to how people have been making it for too long.
Spain has allowed us to be free, to express ourselves, and try different things in the last five years. And there we have access to everything we need. And where we make our shoes, I may be wrong about this, but there are very few people who can actually fix Goodyear welting machines. But they are in the same town where we are. That’s critical. If your machine breaks In France, you’ve gotta fly people over. Spain is also more cost competitive, and that allowed us to go to market with a lower price. But by no means I am saying we wouldn’t make shoes in Italy, or Portugal. We’re actually making shoes in Portugal right now, the sneakers and the drivers. But one day we may make other types of shoes there as well.
Stitchdown: So you have a Cobbler Union retail store in Atlanta, and then everything else is direct to consumer from your site. Is that the plan going forward, or are you considering opening more stores, or doing anything different in either of those ways?
Daniel: We have a very specific growth plan for the brand. We believe that we’ll have in the next three years, we will have no more than four to five stores. There are places we like. We could have a second store in Atlanta for example, but of course we like DC, we like New York, we like London, Paris, Madrid.
The biggest thing we believe is that helping customers, no matter where they are, is where we want to invest most of our time and money. That’s more valuable than opening stores. But we’ll continue selling around the world without too many barriers. We like that we’re selling in 90 countries.
Stitchdown: Obviously you can’t have a store in every city in 90 countries. But how do you contend with sizing, and making sure from a customer service perspective that people get the shoes that they need? And from a business perspective, that shoes aren’t going out and coming back all the time?
Daniel: Well if you have an answer for that, then you’re hired. I don’t think any of us in the industry are there yet. Many things have been tried. 3-D scanners, other technologies. We believe in providing good reference points, and this what we’ve done from day one. You’ve surely seen brands using platforms where you enter the brands you wear, and the size you wear, and you’ll get the size you should buy from us. This is something you’d never have seen three or four years ago, a competitor’s brand on your website.
We do it on the phone, we do via email. We want to help men all over the world look at what they have in their closet, and what they love. What brand, what lasts, what size do you love? And then we’ll give you a good comparison on our end. And even with that you’ll still have returns and exchanges, because 80% of men around the world, and I’m quoting a recent study, wear the wrong size.
We’re not talking about sizing in shoemaking. We’re talking about fitting. And that becomes a very subjective thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 9, 9.5, or a 10. What matters is that the shoes should fit the way you like. And that’s why technically 80% of men wear the wrong size. In real life, those 80% of men are wearing the size they like. And so we’ve learned that helping men find the right fit is more important than finding the right size. But that’s where customer service becomes the holy grail. It’s easy to say it, but it’s very difficult to practice. It’s a second craft.
And that’s a difference between Cobbler Union and a lot of the European brands—we’re here. From day one we decided we want to be a European company in America.
Stitchdown: Last one: what’s the one thing, whether it’s a product, or other changes in what you’re going to be able to offer and how, that excites you most about Cobbler Union for the next year to five years?
Daniel: I call the next generation of Cobbler Union products “third generation.” Every generation lasts almost two years, because you have to make samples, and you have to buy minimums in terms of leather, and see what becomes a best seller, what doesn’t become a best-seller. And of course my own aesthetics evolve over time. What’s most exciting I think is the new lasts. To start, we’re bringing two lasts on which I like the room in the toe. It’s a little shorter than what other people might be making. There’s a market for longer shoes, but where aesthetics are going, where suits and pants are going, a shorter shoe gives you more balance than a longer shoe. So I’m very excited about that.