For Rino Orsato, one of Vancouver’s most recognized and celebrated shoemakers, shoes are more than a well-honed craft. They also tell a story. In Mr. Orsato’s case, his large shop—filled with humming machines, shelves upon shelves of shoes in the making and a few photo albums housing moments spent with famous clientele—tells the story of a man who started with a simple skill and built himself a legacy.
“We opened Rino’s Shoes in 1958,” says Mr. Orsato, now in his early 70s. “This year it will be 50 years in business for us.” In that time, as other shoemakers have come and gone, his shop not only remained but flourished. His secret? Expertise in making many different kinds of shoes, including dainty yet sturdy dancing heels, durable and waterproof police work boots, and the first ski boots to sport buckles instead of laces. He soon became well known for his excellent workmanship and innovative ideas. “Thirty-five years ago, before anyone else, I made soccer shoes with the laces on the side,” he says in a thick Italian accent. “Now, everyone does this—Nike, Adidas—so many others follow what I do for years.”
But he says this with a smile in his eyes and humility in his voice; he isn’t bitter that large companies are now doing en masse what he does by hand. He is simply stating the truth. And with such a large roster of celebrity customers—including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Leslie Nielsen and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, to name just a few—he has created a dedicated following for his creations.
“I never wanted to be a shoemaker,” Mr. Orsato remembers. “I wanted to be a mechanic. But I tried and only shoemaking stuck. I was good at it and it made me money.” Today, a single pair of custom made shoes can cost anywhere from $400 to $2,000 and takes between two days and two weeks to make, depending on how complicated the job is. He explains how ink footprints become plaster moulds, and how the heel and sole are made last because “the part which gives support is the most important”.
It is obvious Mr. Orsato is not only an expert but an artisan. “I grew to love shoemaking because I got to create,” he says. In late 2008 Rino’s Shoes was bought out by the Dayton Boot Company, but the shop name remains the same. “Now I don’t worry about the paperwork anymore,” says Mr. Orsato with a warm chuckle. “I just get to do what I know best—make shoes.”