The first time we pulled into the town of Oliena, we knew who we were looking for. On a side street off the piazza is a small boutique belonging to Franco Corrias which showcases leather goods. His handmade creations fairly glow on the shelves and in the store windows. In recent years, he has expanded his production to include wallets, bags, belts, sandals and more. He often works with other artisans from the town to include masterful embroidery on his pieces.
But, truth be told, we had come for the cosinzos.
Cosinzos are the traditional Sardinian shepherd boots, used both for working out in the countryside and for showing off in the piazza. In every mountain town we’ve visited, no matter how small, there is at least one person still making them by hand. There’s no market for the boot outside of the island yet, but still competition between shoemakers is tough. Vanity and pride are involved in each purchase and everyone has their own fierce opinion of who is amazing and who is worthless. Cosinzos, and their makers, have a history that is intrinsically interwoven into the culture of the island.
On the most basic level, they're hardy and durable and made with care, which means they will last even longer than the shoes we’re used to thinking of as hardy and durable. And the cost is more or less equivalent for a top of the line work boot and a custom-made, for-your-foot-only cosinzo.
They’re also undeniably good-looking, with plenty of details that can be customized to vary the level of elegance. These details can also convey where you’re from, as different areas historically have their own small variations, like the shape of the toe or whether or not it has a decorated tip. People to this day take true pride in their own town’s particular style, so any good cosinzos maker ought to know the differences.
More generally, it is one part of a very specific look that was born over the last century and that can still be seen today by the new generation of Sardinian rude boys. In a moment of intense globalization, this indigenous look is found only and persistently here. It includes a tight-fitting black velvet suit, the pants of which have horizontal pockets (at times highlighted with contrasting fabric), a shaved head, a flat velvet cap and, traditionally, a beard. There are opportunities to personalize the look - a white collarless button down shirt vs a black turtleneck sweater, for example. But, without exception, the look is always finished off with cosinzos.
Lastly, there is a bit of folklore to the boot. As Corrias showed me the classic style, he pointed to the slick sole. It was perfect for the rocky terrain he said, but also for leaving no footprints behind. These mountain towns are historically known for banditismo, which can only be explained as part criminality and part traditional Sardinian rule of law. He did wink at me as he said it but, all the same, I didn’t see a gripped sole in sight.
We were lucky enough to find Corrias in his workshop above the store - a precious mess of leather remnants, wine bottles, machinery and tools. An artisan’s workshop tends to be a magical place of grit and grime, with detritus and scraps falling slowly away to reveal the thing of beauty that will be created. There is something inspiring about watching someone’s hands do what our own cannot, fondling and manipulating with care until we can recognize the work as some precious thing, an object that will eventually find its way, clean and polished, to the atelier’s shelf. For now, though, we reveled in these beautiful, shining objects still mixed in with the chaos and dust.
Corrias took the time to measure our feet in 5 different places, while sharing a bottle of Nepente wine with the group gathered in his studio. He memorized the numbers and asked us a few pointed questions as to how we wear our shoes. Do we like extra room at the toe? Do we normally wear such thick socks? Do we plan on using them as work boots or are these for show? Toe rounded or square? Fold over flap to protect the laces? Color?
A month passed and we were back to pick up our new cosinzos. They sat eagerly on the worktable, looking up at us with their gleaming rounded toes, a bit of arrogance in their stance. The fit was beautiful, like slipping on a pair of glasses and having the world come into focus. The leather was tight and precise and the stitching impeccable. Ivano (ever the purist) had chosen a heavy, black model; mine were light and slim. They were a beautiful combination of true craftsmanship (Corrias') and the purest vanity (ours).
Many thanks to Franco Corrias for the hours we've spent in his cozy workroom, the many glasses of Nepente we've shared, and his dedication to keeping us in style while out chopping wood.