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Feature 26 Aug 16

Belgrade’s Ancient Crafts Guardians

A traditional shoe-making shop is finding a way to survive and thrive in the modern world. Now, a fourth generation of the family is preparing to take the reins.

Ivana Nikolic
Kiri took the shop over in the early 1980s. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Nikolic.

Mijomir Aleksic – better known as Kiri – beams with pride as he talks to a visitor in his atelier in the Belgrade suburb of Kaludjerica. The main room of the shop is filled with traditional footwear called opanci, in all sizes and types, and the warm smell of fresh leather is heavy in the air.

The shop that bears his name is fully stocked with handmade leather shoes and regional national costumes. One of the rooms is ‘occupied’ by two men hand-making new pairs of opanci. Upstairs, several ladies are sewing costumes at the two huge looms.

Kiri is a vibrant man in his fifties who has spent his life producing opanci. It’s a craft he learned from his father and his grandfather before him, and he looks proudly on what his family has achieved so far.

Although times have changed a lot in the near-century that the Aleksic family has been producing opanci by hand– including a shift from opanci to modern shoes - Kiri isn’t worried that this family tradition will cease to exist.

“My elder daughter Katarina holds a master degree from the Faculty of Organizational Sciences and she works here. I think she will continue working here and take over at some point,” says Kiri.

When she does, she’ll be the fourth generation of the Aleksic family to carry on the traditional handicraft, and will continue as one of the few hand-crafted shoe producers left in Serbia.  

Traditional attire

A man hand-making new pairs of opanci. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Nikolic.

Quaint and old-fashioned looking, opanci are peasant leather shoes fastened around the leg with a strap. Coming in all sizes, shapes, types and adorned with various fashion accessories, opanci are no longer in regular use but are now mostly used either by traditional folklore dancers or sold as Serbian souvenirs. Opanci were the only footwear available in Serbia and the rest of the region until the mid-20th century.

Kiri’s grandfather started hand-making the leather shoes some time in the early 1920s.

From the beginning, the entire process has been done by hand in the exact same way as it was done for centuries.

The family business has had many ups and downs since its founding nearly a hundred years ago: it has witnessed one world war and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, as well as numerous regime and clientele changes.

Kiri took the shop over in the early 1980s and no matter the circumstances, the most important thing, he argues, is keeping the shop very much alive.

“We have somehow always managed to survive. My grandfather used to say that you cannot get rich out of a craft, ‘but you can always live from that’,” he says, looking around the shop.

It’s an idea that Kiri has taken to heart. He began producing traditional national costumes at the shop in the early 2000s, and the concept proved a good one. The shop now produces costumes for films, TV shows and folklore associations. Costumes now make up a significant part of the business.

It all started when his friends asked rather a silly question, Kiri recalls. “People would ask me – hey why don’t you sell [traditional woolen] socks? “If you know how to make opanci, then you also know how to tailor trousers!”

“As if that was the same thing,” he says, laughing.

Surviving wars

A lady sewing costumes at the loom. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Nikolic.

While Kiri’s father and grandfather owned a shop in the Belgrade suburban settlement of Umcari, Kiri opened his own in Belgrade in 1981. Kiri sees one key difference between the three generations.  

“Between the two wars [WWI and WWII], the footwear craft was blooming. Around 90 per cent of people wore opanci and 19 such shops existed in Umcare only,” Kiri says.

Also, he continues, craftsmen used to compete amongst themselves: who could make the smallest opanci and who was the best maestro for example. Nowadays however there is only a handful of such shops across Serbia.

However, things changed when the communists took over in Yugoslavia at the end of WWII.  People making classic opanci were branded as ‘kulak,’ meaning they were capitalists and became enemies of the regime. But modern shoemakers were part of proletariat, and therefore welcome in the new Yugoslav communist society.

“My grandfather also knew a shoemaking craft so until 1950s he focused only on that. But after 1950s, the Yugoslav borders opened to foreigners and my family started selling opanci as on the Croatian coast,” Kiri says.

Kiri was doing the same until the wars in Yugoslavia broke out in 1991. “From around 1985 to 1990 I could live decently but it was hard during the1990s. Luckily, I also have the shoemaking craft so I was mostly doing that.”

No regrets

Serbian traditional costumes. Photo: BIRN/Ivana Nikolic.

Despite political changes and wars in the former Yugoslavia throughout the years, Kiri’s shop has grown into a small factory currently employing nine people. That success is a source of pride and security for Kiri.

“I remember when I opened a shop after finishing high school my friends were teasing me, saying it is funny and stupid,” he recalls.” But years later, they were made redundant and I am still running my shop,” he adds.

“I was right when I said opanci are shoes for 21st century,” Kiri concludes with a huge smile.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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