Jackek Kaminski, a Polish present-day shoe artisan, stand in a grey suit among shelves on either side and above him, all filled with brown wooden shoe molds.

The workshop of a master shoe craftsman

Jacek Kamiński and his family have been artfully crafting shoes in Warsaw for over seventy years

Maria Sliwinska (opens in new window) (ICIMSS)
Piotr Kożurno

Buying and wearing shoes has become such a normal part of life nowadays that we often don't think about how or where they were made. Fast fashion and sweatshop capitalism has far removed us from the products we consume, although there are still some that hone and keep the craft of slowly, meticulously creating footwear by hand. This is how shoes have been crafted for centuries, as can be seen in this 16th Century illustration in the Behem Codex Manuscript, showing a shoemaking workshop in Krakow.

We visited a present-day artisanal shoecrafting workshop to meet Jacek Kamiński, a Warsaw shoemaker whose family has been creating shoes in Warsaw since 1943.

Jacek’s workshop is a kind of a museum, the walls of his small studio are filled with shoes, between which there are numerous diplomas, decorations and old photographs.

Even though Jacek initially wanted to become a physicist, he became a shoemaker, and he does not regret this decision at all. He started his profession in the workshop of his uncle Bruno after graduating from high school in 1979. It was his uncle who told him that there are many physicists in the world, but few shoemakers.

Jacek's workshop creates and repairs shoes for anyone who walks in, and he assures us he has had some famous clients in the past. The most prestigious client Jacek ever worked for was when he aided his uncle in sewing shoes for pope John Paul II. Jacek has also made footwear for many films, including “Quo Vadis”, “The Witcher”, “The Pianist”, and many other less known outside Poland. His work was also appreciated by Warsaw theaters lincluding the Roma Theater, the Grand Theater the Warsaw Royal Opera and the Berlin Opera.

Bruno Kamiński, the founder of the Artistic Workshop – Handmade Shoes in Warsaw in 1943, after being an apprentice of master shoemakers from Gdynia and Warsaw. During the Warsaw Uprising (in the summer of 1944) he was captured and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Luckily, he survived and returned to Warsaw, which by then had been totally destroyed by the war.

Soon after World War II, Bruno had to close his shop once more due to the negative effects Stalinism had on Poland’s independence and private business. Fortunately, Bruno’s skills were appreciated by the Grand Theater, where he became interested in historical footwear, sewing shoes for many performances. It was this period that made him a true shoe artist. He also made shoes for the top fashion house Moda Polska (Polish Fashion) active in between 1958 and 1998.

Soon Bruno's skills were noticed by Nina Andrycz, wife of the powerful politician Józef Cyrankiewicz, who was prime minister of Poland between 1947 and 1970. Bruno’s fame grew so much that the wife of Władysław Gomułka, the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, began to order shoes from him. She had small feet which made it hard for her to find shoes, so she especially appreciated Bruno's services.

One day Bruno was visited by two “sad men”, as the secret police were called. They weren’t very talkative and just told Bruno to come with them. People knew that this meant a special interrogation, most often with arrest and imprisonment. He was only allowed to take a tape measure with him. To Bruno's surprise, he was taken to Władysław Gomułka himself, the most important person in Poland at the time. Gomułka ordered shoes from Bruno, and paid him well for his work and for the shoes he had made for Gomułka's wife.

Bruno decided to show his talents on the international stage. He prepared a shoe in the form of a jet which he sent to the World Shoe Exhibition in Munich in 1957. Unfortunately, due to a lack of proper communication, Bruno did not read the competition terms and sent only one shoe instead of a pair of shoes. His work should have been disqualified, but the airplane shoe stood out so much that the jury decided to award him a silver medal. The shoe can now be seen at the Museum of the Leather Craft Guild in Warsaw.

For the next competition in 1958, Bruno prepared high-heeled shoes decorated with an orchid made of multi-colored leather. This time, meeting all the requirements of the competition, the shoes gained the full recognition of the jury, which unquestionably awarded a gold medal to shoes decorated with colorful orchids.

If you want to have really special, unique shoes for yourself, you can visit Jacek Kamiński’s studio located on the central street of Warsaw, Nowy Świat 22. This tiny pavilion and tiny shop has no colourful logos or screaming advertisements, but remains a hidden gem worth visiting. Many foreign customers come here to order their dream shoes and get them shipped internationally to their homes.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.