They say you never know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but for Stefanie Schöninger, it starts much earlier. As the driving force behind bespoke bootmaker Atelier Stefani, the artisan believes the journey begins long before a stitch is ever sewed. In Stef’s eyes, the first step in a pair of bespoke Atelier Stefani boots is the one you make through her front door. After that, the future is shaped by you.
“My shoes are inspired by the individual character of the wearer, created to embody and reflect their unique personality. I want each customer to be able to immerse themselves in their shoes,” she says. “Over time they take on the wearer’s personality, showing the scars of past experiences and bringing back memories of places they’ve seen and adventures they went on. It’s the art of the craft, creating something that is a synthesis of sculpture and design.”
The Human Element
Looking at her body of work, it’s a fair assessment. Like the laces that weave each pair in place, Stef spins a certain majesty into her boots. Not content with simply imprinting a trademark style, the maker stamps the wearer’s personal journey into the very fabric of the bespoke design. Connection is the weapon with which Stef operates, with the bootmaker exploring every corner of her client’s personality, from colour preferences and leather choices all the way through to favourite travel destinations and cuisines. Designed to paint a complete picture unique to the wearer, the Atelier Stefani process is slow, but as The Balvenie Single Malt Scotch Whisky’s Ross Blainey will tell you, most good things are.
For the past five months, The Balvenie brand ambassador has been working alongside the artisan bootmaker on a unique project that captures the spirit of the Speyside icon. The new special release Men’s and Women’s footwear taps into the luxury whisky label’s culture rather than the individual, ensuring the finished product directly reflects The Balvenie connoisseur’s values. But this isn’t just any collaboration
“There is a human element that drives everything that Stef does. She wants the finished product to be an entirely unique personal experience, crafted with one goal in mind. It was the perfect synergy,” Blainey says. “Mastering the craft means you have the ability, but it’s the love, passion and heart that allows you to make something special.”
The Whisky Connection
Forged on heritage using centuries-old skills passed down through generations, the two brands share a kinship that goes beyond the physical. Capturing the very human element of The Balvenie in three prototype designs, Stef and Ross workshopped the boots together, before tweaking, selecting and building two final releases. According to Stef, she was inspired by the story of The Balvenie and felt a certain responsibility to capture the people behind the whisky, telling their story in perfect visual harmony.
“Storytelling plays a big role. The process with The Balvenie was interesting, because this time it wasn’t a person that could just tell me what their hobbies are and what clothes they love wearing,” she reveals. “During my conversations with Ross, I realised more and more how much our two brands are in sync with each other and that we share so many values… This was the inspiration for a detail on the women’s design that has a fish leather detail stitched on the side of the boot.”
“Of course, colour and The Balvenie’s iconic bottle shape also played a role, too, but the most significant details derived from the stories that Ross told me. Take the poem that 45-year Balvenie malt man Robbie Gormley wrote, for example. We took a line from one of his poems and engraved it on the inside of the boots.”
Atelier Stefani x The Balvenie
It’s immediately evident that the shoe is more a personal story for the wearer than something obvious to the passing eye. Details extend to engravings that are invisible to anyone other than the wearer, and most notably, branding is kept to a minimum as not to draw attention and distract from the relationship between bootmaker and wearer.
“Old beloved shoes tell their very own story, just like whisky that reminds of good times you spent surrounded by friends in a relaxed environment, unwinding and enjoying the moment. Whisky isn’t that kind of drink you’d have in a hurry. Bespoke shoes aren’t the kind of things you make with haste. They have sentimental value attached to them that you’d rather pass on to your children like other pieces of art”.
Construction for both Men’s and Women’s is primarily leather, Italian bison to be exact, from two different tanneries in Italy. Both work with attention to quality and sustainability which are the fundamental requirements for their leather production. Even the fish leather that’s integrated into the women’s style comes from a Canadian tannery that uses the fish skin from canneries to reduce water pollution and avoid it being thrown back into the water bodies.
Harnessing the Natural
To Stef and The Balvenie, the collaboration is about harnessing the natural elements to elevate the exceptional. As Malt Master David Stewart MBE did in 1983 with the now-iconic ‘Cask Finishing’ process, Stef isn’t relying only on mastery to tell her story. They are also creative at heart. Developing skills with each release while utilising the past as a beacon of knowledge and learnings, she’s continuing to go against the grain.
“Perfect craftsmanship means mastering the rules and acquiring the skills. Pursuing the craft is one side; making art that inspires and expresses the individual values that we all share is the other. This side allows room to break those rules and create something unique and personal,” she says.
“I believe my creations have a higher meaning than just a pair of shoes that you walk in. They are about bringing joy to the person that gets to wear them, making them feel special, creating memories, giving them the confidence to express themselves.”
It’s not just the wearers who get something out of the project either. In fact, the Atelier Stefani x The Balvenie journey has been a two-way street. While Stef’s focus has always been on crafting the story of others, The Maker’s project has had a lasting impact on her craft.
“I can’t even begin to describe how much I’ve grown personally throughout this journey,” she explains. “Every day looks different and every day I do things I’ve never done before. It’s scary and exciting at the same time. I love the challenge and I enjoy the diversity. These things weren’t given to me, I had to learn them the hard way, working day and night…but I’ve always known what I do it for. “
Sharing commonality with the boot-making practices of Atelier Stefani, The Balvenie stays true to its Five Rare Crafts, making whisky the way they always have and forgetting modern cost-cutting techniques at the expense of quality. Perfect craftsmanship means mastering the rules and acquiring the skills, a sentiment displayed by both brands with two products that, like a good whisky, will only get better with age.
Shop the Atelier Stefani x The Balvenie Boots
Available in both Men’s and Women’s styles, The Balvenie x Atelier Stefani boot is primarily constructed from Italian bison leather sourced from two tanneries in Italy. As is the expectation with custom boots, each tannery produces high-quality leather with strong attention to detail and sustainability in mind – fundamental requirements for a boot of this calibre. Displaying a personal connection for the wearer rather than something obvious to the passing eye, the boots feature intricated engravings. Along the side of the boot, a barley engraving tells a story about the origin of whisky, while a host of secret embellishments hide behind leather curtains along the boot’s upper.
Available in very limited quantities.