On show is the best Italian footwear being produced, but as I walk around Milan's famous Micam shoe fair I am nearly as impressed by the fact that there isn't a single lens-loving fashionista in sight.
The prosaic exhibition centre 20 minutes outside the centre of Milan doesn't provide the ideal backdrop for it – certainly not compared to the 16th century Fortezzo da Basso in Florence, home of the dandy dripping menswear festival Pitti Uomo – but not only is there no peacocking going on, there are signs up saying no photography at all. The reason: if imitators see what was on display they'd be setting up production within the week. A real threat because if you can name it, at Micam you'll find it.
Hundreds of Italian manufacturers (plus many more from the UK, Spain and Portugal) have their upcoming collections for winter 2018/19 on display, seeking to attract interest from retailers who have descended on Milan from all over the world.
They're after high-end dress shoes, beautifully crafted boots, sneakers of all colours and persuasions, moccasins, driving shoes. And while some of the big luxury players are here – Zegna and Ferragamo 'stalls' are basically indistinguishable from high-end shops – the real story of Micam is the small artisanal producers. The family-owned business whose shoes continue to make the Made in Italy brand so revered around the world.
"We have 5000 companies in Italy and the vast majority, almost 90 per cent, are family-owned," says Tommaso Cancellara, CEO of Micam.
All in the family
And while there are big ones that employ a couple of hundred people, most work with only one to two dozen people says Stephen George Firth.
A shoe designer himself, Firth works for the family-owned Nazareno Carelli company who employ just five people. After 25 years of experience in the industry, he says there's good reason why Italian shoes represent 50 per cent of the entire production of luxury footwear.
"The cool thing about it, in Italy you can do anything… The leathers are always better, people understand things better. There's still craftsman, that's the cool thing," he says.
A risky business
What's more, Italians are prepared to take a risk with their designs, to create something daringly unique. You can see it in brands such as Ernesto Dolani and Elia Mauirizi. They are not interested in creating shoes that simply look nice or smart; a safe all-rounder for the weekend. Their creations have a terrific insouciance about them, as if they're made out of Italian flesh and blood. Looking down at my English country brogues, I can't help but think they almost appear remedial in comparison.
But while the product is there, the reality is the industry in Italy has been through a tough time of late, principally due to a massive drop off in orders from Russia.
"They went through an economic crisis a couple of years ago and their purchasing dropped by 60 per cent in three years," says Cancellara.
Cancellara believes in order to really forge ahead the industry as a whole has to better communicate just how good they are.
"We have the most sustainable production processes in the world but nobody knows," he says. "We have heritage and storytelling, but nobody knows. We have the best quality, the passion, the know-how and the tradition but nobody knows."
In search of quality
However, during my stay in Milan I meet one couple that are doing their best to spread the word in Ukraine. Sergii and his wife Diana own a men's shoe store in Kiev and have been coming to Micam for the previous four years to discover new brands. On this trip they have decided to add a number of pairs from Ernesto Dolani to their range.
"We try to bring to the Ukraine, brands of very high quality that have never been before. Unknown names, just to show to our people that not only Gucci, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo and other big names are worth purchasing. Our big idea is to make the client understand that brands are not so important. More important is quality, comfortable fitting and technology," says Diana, translating for Sergii.
Diana says that most men in Ukraine wear sports shoes, and that she want Ukrainian men to look handsome in classic shoes.
Translating for Sergii again, Diana says, "Ukranian women are very good. The goal is to make Ukranian men more handsome, more attractive in order to stop our women fleeing to other countries."
The writer travelled to Milan as a guest of the Italian Trade Agency.