I remember looking at leather bags in Florence when I first visited years ago. My hands slide across the smooth leather, what a beautiful souvenir it would have made. Later a friend and I struck up a conversation with another coffee-drinker at a coffee shop in Philadelphia. I don’t remember much about her, except that she had the most beautiful leather bag. “I got this in Florence” she said while holding it close. Why hadn’t I purchased one before?
This time I wasn’t going to leave without my prized leather bag, yet finding an authentic Italian handmade bag is increasingly difficult, as the NYTimes points out. In all honesty, the bags that I had fallen in love with before were likely made in one of many illicit workshops that have been diluting the “Made in Italy” brand. I watched as a tourist lovingly ran her hands over the leather of a bag I’d seen available in many of the cookie cutter boutiques: “I’d get this for her, but she’d never appreciate it.” Truth is, I don’t think it was worth bring appreciated.
One of many iconic boutiques selling cookie-cutter so-called “Made in Italy” leather goods. Image courtesy of Florence Photos.
I noticed many shops with the sign “Leather Factory” over the door, enticing tourists only in town for a day or two to come in. Romanticizing the idea of Italian leather and not staying in Florence long enough to learn the difference, tourists are lured in, leaving with prized souvenirs of mass-produced, cheaply made handbags. In my short time in Italy, I must have heard every sales trick in the book, and the tourists happily fell right into the traps. “This is the best Italian manufacture, in my opinion. And because you’re my first customers of the day, I’ll offer you this bag at a special price.” I was the second customer, so no such offer.
Luckily, I had heard about a leather school located within a church in the center of Florence. I had intended to visit towards the end of my trip so I could get a feel of the leather-scene beforehand. But as fate would have it I came across the church on my first day.
The Scuola del Cuoio was created after World War II by friars at the Monastery of Santa Croce to give orphans the opportunity to learn a practical trade and contribute to society. Through their humble and honest mission, the Scuola has become one of the most reputable places in Florence for high-quality handmade leather goods. This was evident to me as I walked through the showroom. The leather was buttery, some so luxuriously soft I felt they’d the perfect blankets to wrap up in during a winter storm. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before I was leaving with what has been coined my “MBA Bag”.
The showroom is separate from the school, as indicated in the video above. The bags available for purchase have been designed and made by master craftsmen and their selective team of assistants. I watched as one assistant cut thick black sheets of leather in what was apparently to become a new leather bag. Nearby another craftsman was working on the finer details of an unfinished wallet. Clients of the Scuola range from members of the royal family like Princess Diana, in addition to movie stars and presidents. The school doesn’t hesitate to make custom projects; even while I was there, they offered to make the bag I was looking at in a different color of leather.
Once I finally selected my prize, the bag was whisked away to be customized.
In my opinion, the Scuola del Cuoio makes designer-quality handbags, but you’re not paying for an elitist brand name. Prices were much less than I anticipated, going up or down depending only on the type of leather and the intricacy of the craftsman work (why I think wallets are surprisingly more expensive in relation to the handbags).
We all have treasures we bring home with us on our travels, hoping they’ll keep the memory of our adventures alive. What is one of yours?