Snake, lizard and toadskin: my family’s handmade shoes

Hand-made shoes were once the nec plus ultra, and my family made some of the very best. Artists, aristocrats and business tycoons wore Graumann shoes made in Brno. This bespoke footwear gets a brief mention in my family saga, “Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre”. Although they were works of art, they would now be banned.

Hollywood’s Cecil B DeMille wore them, as did Alexander Korda. So too did Czech premier Milan Hodža, and there was even a loyal customer in Tibet who had them sent to him. In the inter-war years, Brno was a major industrial centre and a hotbed of modernist architecture. There was a lot of money around.

The Graumann stores in Brno, Prague and the fashionable Sudetenland resort of Karlsbad were havens of gentility, furnished in fashionable functionalist style of heavy glass and rare woods, leather armchairs and Persian carpets. The CEOs were Ferry and Fritz, the younger sons of my great-grandfather, a Brno shoemaker who had learned his craft in Vienna.

Theirs were expensive shoes made of skins now mostly frowned upon. Snake, lizard, crocodile, zebra, toad and cordovan, alongside more run-of-the-mill box calf, chevreau, pig and suede made of antelope hide. Toadskin was dyed in bright colours that enhanced its intricate patterns. 

My father’s cousin Bus worked alongside his father Fritz and spent hours buffing shoes to a high gloss, and in the case of cordovan leather, which is horsehide, rubbing it with a flat bone while applying wax and water to obtain the blue-black shine of patent leather.

“My father treated everyone with the same courtesy,” Bus recalled in his memoir, “but his preferred customer was the occasional shopgirl with bad feet who had saved for months for a pair of handmade shoes. These young women never queried the price, and paid at once when they collected their shoes, whereas the rich haggled, owing money for months.”

Bus’s parents were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, and from there to Sobibor where both were killed. His uncle Ferry committed suicide. Bus returned to the shop in Brno after the war to find it had been nationalised. 

Sitting at a work bench in the main shop was the family’s leather cutter who had been employed by two generations of Graumanns. “Graumann? Sorry, I don’t know the name. You must be mistaken.”