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A well-dressed gentleman, twitching with excitement, approaches one of the windowless exhibition stands in hall three. A business card is presented to a comely gatekeeper, whose provocative outfit shows off a good deal of leg. The attendant takes down his details and disappears behind a sliding door which, for an instant, allows passersby a peek at the products – models in leather with kinky straps. The woman soon returns with news and the client is ushered inside.

For first-time visitors to MICAM, Europe’s premier shoe convention, this sort of behaviour might hint at something illicit. And they would be right – in a way. Since copycat artists hang about hoping to find “inspiration”, designers of fashionable ladies’ footwear have to be careful who they let near their merchandise.

Hosted twice a year in Milan (like clothes, the season’s shoes are previewed in spring and autumn), MICAM brings together buyers, journalists and the odd foot fetishist for four days to ogle shoes, handbags and innovative products – such as an aloe vera insole to eliminate foot odour. More than 1,600 manufacturers attend, with the majority representing the pricier end of the market. Though luxury shoes for women take up a good chunk of the 73,000 sq m of viewing space, casual styles as well as the latest for tots, teenagers and men are not overlooked.

Half of the 46,300 attendees are from abroad, giving MICAM an international flavour. Buyers from the post-Soviet ’stans can be seen mingling with premium retailers such as Barneys from New York and Japan’s Tomorrowland. But although companies from 26 nations participate, the focus is on one country: Italy.

Thanks to its shoemaking districts scattered along the peninsula in places such as Sant’Elpidio a Mare and Vige-vano, Italy is still the unquestioned leader in luxury shoemaking. Two-thirds of exhibitors at MICAM are Italian and at every turn the “Made in Italy” label is hard to miss. Outsiders are understandably keen to associate themselves with this tradition – one exhibitor promotes itself under the Carlo Liotti label despite the fact it is produced in Istanbul.

Italy’s 94,000-strong contingent of cobblers pull their economic weight. In 2006 nearly 250 million pairs were exported on sales of €6.5bn. But the industry is not without its problems. Output has fallen by a third over the past five years due to Asian producers flooding the market with cheap goods, leading to the demise of many mid-range Italian shoemakers. And while the luxury segment has ridden out the storm, it constantly has to fight against importers who pass off cheap shoes as Italian-made.

In response, last October Italy and its shoemaking partners in the EU persuaded Brussels to slap anti-dumping duties on leather shoe exports from China and Vietnam. Not everyone agrees, however, on whether this is the best approach. “We prefer to see action at the European level to protect the provenance of a product, like the DOC labels you see for wine,” explains Diego Rossetti, who manages luxury brand Fratelli Rossetti. “Some people take advantage of the ‘Made in Italy’ label when the only piece of the shoe that is made here is the tag.”

Rossetti, meanwhile, is optimistic about demand for his own company’s line of elegant footwear. “We see strong demand from the Russian market, there is no letting up.” It appears the collapse of communism has given rise to a population eager for higher-end heels. According to the National Association of Italian Footwear Manufacturers, Russia has risen to become the fourth biggest export market in monetary terms for Italian shoes, though it stands only 10th in terms of pairs sold.

At MICAM, blonde Russians with their partners in tow are a common sight. Not all are shopping. Ksenia Belova, for one, has a job to do. “I was contacted through an agency and received 30 offers to help as an interpreter,” says the 24-year-old, who is putting her language skills to use for Massimo Cecchini, a first-time exhibitor. “I speak English, Italian and Russian and I try on shoes so buyers can see how they look,” she says.

Cecchini and his brother-cum-manager Sante are happy for the help. Raised in the Marche region, home of Tod’s, they hope to make a splash with their laser-worked skins and models made from crocodile and iguana. “We switched production to Tuscany recently as they are a bit better with these finer materials,” explains Massimo, holding up a four-inch heel in mustard python.

A world away in hall four, Adrianna Liuzzi scans the floorplan. Liuzzi, who manages a shop in Dublin, needs to find vendors who sell wedges. “Everyone’s looking for them,” she explains.

Once Liuzzi’s located her prey, there comes the next challenge: sorting out the sizes. Her Irish clientele often require bigger models than their Italian counterparts. “I’m always asking for 42s. But a lot of them look at me like I’m crazy. They say nobody is a 42.”

One who is not fretting over sizes is Ferenc van der Vlies. His line of old school canvas shoes, offered in basic white and navy, is receiving rave reviews. “I call it the old man’s shoe,” says van der Vlies. “It’s simple and very comfortable to wear.” Japanese retailer United Arrows is already in talks for up to 500 pairs.

Van der Vlies is the brains behind Goliath, a storied Dutch shoe brand the 35-year-old has brought back to life. Famous in Holland for making footwear for cricketers and footballers, the label fell out of favour due to trendier competition in the 1970s and its branded delivery trucks and factory were sold off. The Dutch entrepreneur bought the rights to the label in 2000, three-quarters of a century after the first Goliaths rolled off the production line, and has vowed not to outsource manufacturing beyond the EU. “Europe gave away all its production. Now we are buying in plastic imports. I’m interested in returning to the old values, the old traditions of European shoemaking. That is the future for our business.”

Brought to heel

For 2008 Italian shoemakers are cautiously optimistic. Exports look to remain steady after suffering a drop of a third since 2001. They are also looking forward to the impact of anti-dumping tariffs approved by the European Union in October 2006. Passed by a one-vote margin, they saw duties slapped on leather imports for two years of 16.5 per cent for China and 10 per cent for Vietnam. But it may take more than taxes to stop the Chinese juggernaut: the country still shipped 185 million pairs of footwear to Italy in 2006 – half of the country’s imports.

Five players at Micam

01 Fratelli Rossetti
Founded in 1953 by two enterprising Italian brothers in the shoemaking town of Parabiago near Milan, Rossetti remains a family-run affair. Known for its quality leather footwear for men and women, the firm makes 400,000 pairs each year and 2007 sales are forecast to hit €80m.

02 Mary-Kyri
Adelaide-based shoe designer Mary-Kyri Pallaras is Australia’s answer to Manolo Blahnik. In just 19 months her label has put out five collections, as she caters to clients in both hemispheres. Several have made an appearance on the red carpet thanks to fans Kylie Minogue, Cate Blanchett and Princess Mary of Denmark.

03 Garvalin
Based in the Alicante shoe district, Spain’s Garvalin develops 300 models a season and makes nearly two million pairs annually. Its range covers pre-walking tots up to early teens, and they are a favourite with parents. Its Biomecanics line, developed in conjunction with several European research institutes, offers anatomical insoles to help massage kids’ feet.

04 Grendene
Cult brand Havaianas may have the fashion world’s attention with its cute flip-flops but Brazilian rival Grendene boasts some big numbers. Founded in 1971, its factories are able to churn out over 170 million pairs of PVC sandals each year and exports reach 85 countries.

05 Goliath In 1925 Sir van Amelsvoort opened a factory in the Dutch town of Tilburg that focused on making sports footwear for cricketers and footballers. In 1937 the Goliath name was registered. Reborn today as a leisure brand, it sells simple no-frills canvas shoes.

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