Measured tread on Moscow paving stones
By Anna Tolkach
Watching Moscow parades on TV, where soldiers and officers show off in festive uniforms, few might realise that many are wearing Belarus-made knee-high boots — made in Minsk. Kremlin’s Guard of Honour has been wearing boots made at Frants Zhilko’s workshop since 2003. It was founded almost twenty years ago and, almost from the very beginning, produced footwear for specific purposes, rather than standard shoes. It specialises in non-standard sizes and in making shoes for those with problem feet, tailoring its designs for special customers.
“I abandoned fancy shoes rather quickly as I’m not an artist and can’t be confident that I’m creating a masterpiece worthy of adoration. I’m more of an engineer, enjoying finding solutions to problems. This is how my workshop began to produce specialised footwear,” notes Mr. Zhilko.
Everything began with Mr. Zhilko creating boots for folk dance groups. He then shifted towards sports footwear, making riding boots. In the 1990s, these were a rarity. The only other such factory in the CIS was situated in the Moscow Region and soon closed. Mr. Zhilko went to Klin and found the factory’s former director. The latter wouldn’t reveal all the secrets of his craft, but sold the wooden blocks (used to manufacture boots for horse riding) for a nominal price. Frants returned home with two heavy bags.
“At first, my boots were rough and awkward. We had to try various glues until we found the most suitable. We also asked athletes for feedback and, as a result, developed our own blocks,” he recollects. “Now, I take my goods to international exhibitions two or three times annually.”
Frants Zhilko gives his knee-high riding boots a ‘solid four’ out of five marks. They are stiff, as is necessary, with a reinforced toe (to protect from horses’ hooves). Moreover, the heel needs to be tough.
In 2003, Mr. Zhilko attended a trade fair in St. Petersburg, at which his boots were admired by the military. The former President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, had just decided to reform the equestrian squadron of the guard of honour, so all the equipage was required. Mr. Zhilko’s knee-high boots were chosen for the purpose and he had to produce 20 pairs within a month. It usually takes two weeks to make just one pair, but his craftsmen worked hard to meet the deadline. Those boots are still being worn today, although they no longer shine. His workmanship has a good reputation so, this autumn, he has been asked to replace the Kremlin Guard of Honour’s boots.
His workshop enjoys strict discipline, employing five people in the boot tailoring studio. All pieces are made by hand; even the heels are made from layers of leather. The Belarusian Guard of Honour also wears his wonderful boots, which last for years. They ‘survived’ a trip to Venezuela, withstanding heat and humidity. Mr. Zhilko’s footwear is also worn by those who guard the Interior Ministry and by the border troops.
“Military men tend to ask when they should take their boots for repair and are surprised to learn that our boots don’t need maintenance at all: their life span is 2-3 years, without improvements,” explains Mr. Zhilko. However, they usually last longer.