Sole Searching: Artisanal shoe shop celebrates fourth year in business

Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

This local business is fighting department stores, the modern industry and casual Fridays all at once. Cobbler’s Union is a company of shoemakers founded in Barcelona in 2014 that set up shop first in Inman Park, but now lives in Ponce City Market.

It may seem deceptively simple, but Cobbler’s Union makes and sells their own shoes. They use traditional methods in a factory in Spain and sell the shoes on their website and in their Ponce City Market storefront. They plan to scale into a more global brand with several locations worldwide.

The owners, Daniel Porcelli and Santiago Pereiro, describe Cobbler’s Union as a modern luxury company. To Porcelli and Pereiro, modern luxury means a lot of things, but chiefly it means a great shoe.

“The values may be old-world in terms of craftsmanship, materials, design and attention to detail, but other parts of the business are modern and contemporary,” Porcelli said.

They employ a direct-to-consumer approach they liken to the traditional European shoemaker’s business but bolstered by the resources of the digital age. As consumer habits change and more people shop online, Cobbler’s Union wants to update the business of traditional craftsmen to stay relevant. To Porcelli, the standard approach to distribution puts manufacturers at a disadvantage for building returning customers and a strong brand.

“They go to a trade show, they wholesale and someone else has the relationship with the customer,” Porcelli said.

That strategy can become very necessary when a brand of small-batch and handmade shoemakers has to compete with the less-than-authentic methods many department store shoe brands use.

But the dress shoe market has changed in other ways. Where do classic dress shoes fit in a world where Mark Zuckerberg wears the same T-shirt every day? Porcelli knows his business has to adapt.

“We are in the middle of a big movement… Today, in many places people don’t have to wear a suit, tie or even a classic shirt,” Porcelli said.

So what’s a cobbler to do? For Cobbler’s Union, the answer is to double down on a good product. Pereiro and Porcelli say they’ve done their market research and see it’s evidence in their success.

“Our goal is to promote our craft… We believe style is powerful. When a man comes into contact with a beautiful product like a shoe, in this case, he is transformed,” Porcelli said.

Porcelli wants the web space to emphasize the product. He describes keeping the design and layout as clean, with beautiful pictures that emphasize the integration of the product into the lifestyle of the customer. Their strategy for e-commerce is simple but true: bring people to the website, convert them to customers and then convert them to returning customers. He wants the shopping experience to emphasize service and connection to customers, not just through the products but before and after purchases as well.

“Our goal is that people come into contact with our brand in a 360 degree way. Every contact point becomes relevant,” Porcelli said.

That’s part of being modern luxury for Porcelli, is dedicating the time and attention to the customers needs and questions. But there are other ways a budding luxury brand can use data.

“We use technology from how we manage our supply chain, to how we manage our relationships with customers to our website,” Porcellis said. “Of course, it’s evolving because you don’t have the same resources at day one as you have after a year or after four years,” Porcelli said.

When doing business online, a brand begins to think about how it fits a variety of lifestyles around the globe. Cobbler’s Union admits they do most of their business in the United States, but other markets also play a large role, and that can require some thought.

“We sell a lot of shoes in Paris,” Porcelli said. “The value we provide to Parisian men may be different than to those in Atlanta.”

Keeping customers interested is a challenge: how many shoes do you really need? Cobbler’s Union releases a new shoe every other month or so to show returning customers something new.

“From a business perspective you have to look for the optimum product mix,” Porcelli said.

Product development can be a long and expensive process, but Porcelli and Pereiro think it’s important to provide consumers a variety of options, including a range of prices. But ultimately, it’s up to taste.

“The most important way we bring anything to market is that we love every single thing that we have in the store,” Porcelli said.

In the store, the shoes are displayed with the reverence of an archive, each on a tree and exactingly arranged on heavy wooden tables. Belts and similarly smaller (less pricey) leather goods make up an interior layer of the display. At the center of each table, a centerpiece of antique curios and coffee table books assures you that you are in a men’s store.

Lifestyle products occupy waist-high shelves: candles, room sprays, Italian wool socks (Marcoliani) and Saphir shoe polish in 12 indulgent shades. Books fill the lowest shelves, displaying titles such as “I Am Dandy,” “The Craft and the Maker” and “Poems That Live Forever.”

The brand recently held a party to celebrate finishing its fourth anniversary. In attendance were friends, investors, frequent customers and a wonderful serving staff. A table at the front with tapas and sangria alluded to the Spanish heritage of the brand and a brilliant sunset illuminated the room full of guests.

Drand Dixon is a frequent customer who attended the anniversary party. He said he usually stops by the shop every other week out of curiosity and always finds something new to interest him.

“This shop has a masculine feel that appeals to my Ralph Lauren, old money and mahogany  feel that I love to associate with,” Dixon said.