Course: Atelier Bag Making (‘1 year’, but technically more like 7-8 months)
Techniques Covered: Hand-sewing and machine-sewing
Period Covered: September 2014 – April 2015
Location: Florence, Italy
Subsequent visits: September 2017
IMPORTANT: Please note that this review is solely based on my own personal experience at the school, therefore it contains my thoughts and opinions with regard to the subject matter, published freely and without malicious intent, negligence, or false “claims” about the school or persons associated with it. Statements made by people other than The Leather Crafter in this post’s comments section were given of their own volition. This blog & its author shall not be held liable for them.
I have been in Florence for a little over six months, attending school for pretty much that entire period, give or take a few weeks if you count the holidays. I have just finished my course at Accademia Riaci. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a few messages–mostly via Instagram–from people asking me about the school because (like myself when I was going through the research process) there didn’t seem to be much information about it at all online, and practically zero reviews. The school has a website–pretty much its only source of information on the web–and they have also seemingly invested in Google in order for the school to be visible in Google Maps, but as of my last checking, there have been little or no reviews or non-school-sponsored content online. There were forum postings and some other Italian content, but not the kind of review I was really looking for.
Because of this and because I felt like I needed to share some of my experiences and critiques of the school and the course, I’ve decided to write an in-depth, honest, and hopefully helpful review for prospective students or for those who might just be in the research process and are comparing schools or whatnot. This is not in any way sponsored by the school, nor is it intended to persuade/dissuade people. It’s just my no-holds-barred honest critique, with pros and cons and additional information that people may find useful. In writing this, I felt like I was back at university, doing a company audit for some of my business classes (I’m talking about Operations Management, bottlenecking, yada yada). I guess it kind of is.
INFORMATION GATHERING / MAKING SURE IT’S LEGIT
When I was more or less decided on the idea of studying Bag Making in Italy, I was very thorough in my research. And like most (or all) people who tried looking into the school, I was met with diddly and squat, information-wise. A school with nearly zero information online in this day and age is utterly a troubling thing, especially when they’re competing in the same fields as more renowned schools like Polimoda or Scuola del Cuoio, or Istituto Marangoni (which has recently opened a campus in Florence).
One thing I’ve learned, though, is that–strange as it seems–not a lot of places here have websites or an “online presence”, especially when you’re talking about a place like Florence, where cobblers and artisans and traditional workshops are still very much active and very much dependent, literally, on brick and mortar spaces.
Similarly, I thought that perhaps Accademia Riaci was one such institution who had yet to venture into online advertising or social media marketing (or none of their students were at all tech-savvy?), and therefore had only their not-so-impressive website–which was more of a red flag against their Graphic Design course, more than anything. And since that wasn’t the course I was looking into, well… I decided I could overlook it at that point.
So where was I able to scrounge up some information that helped me make my decision? First, I literally looked at every single page of their website, trying to figure out as much as I could. For a graphic designer/ visual artist like myself, it was very hard to ignore the poor design of the site, but in a way it was also consistent with the type of website you would expect from an old-school company with a relatively small budget and operation. Basically, think of 90’s-esque website templates, a lot of watermarks over low-res photos, and no streamlining of text volume and font consistency. But I digress. I also visited their Facebook Page, which was not too impressive either and was also full of those god-awful watermarks but it did lead me to some links (after scrolling back to the very beginning I think) like an article about the school (not written by the school, and I remember checking out the website, just to be sure that it was legit), as well as several albums (hello, more watermarks) from students with photos of their projects and them at school. At that point, I think my major concern was trying to make sure that Accademia Riaci was a legit, real place and not a hoax, and I wanted to see photos and get more information about the classes and what the students were making. I also checked Google Maps (which is how I surmised that they had probably invested in getting “starred” on Google), and zoomed in all the way to street view, where I think you could see the bronze name plate beside the doorway at Via de’ Conti 4 with the school’s name on it. Not an airtight guarantee, of course, but I think tampering with a Google Street View image would take major skills and bucks–which, clearly, the school didn’t quite have to spare for such a shenanigan. It also helped that a friend of my sister’s had actually heard of the place (they visit Florence quite often), so that put me quite a bit at ease.
THE DEAL-BREAKERS / DEAL-MAKERS
Very simply: the price.
I had also inquired over at Polimoda and Scuola del Cuoio–strangely enough, there aren’t very many Bag Making schools in Florence–and Accademia Riaci offered me the best arrangement in terms of schedule and scholarship. Polimoda’s bag courses were focused on design and CAD (which wasn’t what I was looking for since I already had an art/design background), but not actual bag production, so it ruled itself out. The other serious contender was Scuola del Cuoio, which I had eyed since about 2010, but was just too expensive. I had also looked into Istituto Marangoni in Milan/ Paris, but it too was focused on design instead of production, and was also much more expensive.
In general, short courses will come out more expensive than long courses, so I ended up looking at the long courses instead of my original short-term plan. Scuola del Cuoio’s longest course was only 6 months long and very expensive (more than 9000 EUR if I remember correctly), and they didn’t offer scholarships, only a 20% early bird discount. Though more reputable and well-known to me, I had reservations about the tuition fee. On the other hand, Accademia Riaci had a 1 year (they call it 1 year but technically it’s just 7 or 8 months) course which was also quite expensive at about 12,000 euro (including the “registration fee”), but the difference is that they had scholarships and I was able to work out a scholarship that made Riaci’s one year course much more affordable than Scuola del Cuoio’s six-month course. That, plus whatever research I was able to gather, encouraged me to take a chance on the lesser-known school.
So how did my scholarship work out? Riaci offers several different kinds of ‘scholarships’, some of which are merit-based, and some of which are like a service-exchange basis.
The first route is signing up as a ‘ Student Course Reporter’–those students whose photo albums in Facebook and on their website ultimately helped in legitimizing the school. Basically they would be required to document classes, etc., and provide student reports to the school, all in exchange for a small discount on the tuition fee. I didn’t sign up for this one but I think the discount is maybe 10%?
Another scholarship option is via competition. I did not go through this route because there wasn’t any active contest at the time, but I remember seeing banner ads for something like a competition resulting in partial or complete scholarships, so that’s also something to consider.
Lastly, there is the merit-based scholarship, which is what I received. I had no background in bag-making, but they told me that I could apply with a portfolio (plus essay) of my illustrations, which would still allow me to receive a scholarship for the bag making course that I was interested in. It’s not directly related but I guess you can tell a person’s general artistic proclivities and skills via other art media.
Once my application was accepted, they offered me a unique arrangement which gave me a higher scholarship value combined with additional requirements I would have to submit to the school in the form of illustrations. I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on it–it seemed like I was exchanging the scholarship value for its equivalent in illustrations–but it meant less cash out for me and I think that was the deal-maker in the end.
APPLICATION & ENROLMENT PROCESS
The start of the application process began just by emailing the school to inquire about the course, prices and dates, etc. There were several back-and-forths with them sending me different options depending on my budget as well as how much time I had available. You can take as little as a day or a week’s worth of classes, or as long as several years if you decide to take an undergraduate course or additional master courses. After I had decided on the one year Atelier course (not to be confused with a normal one year course–although I have no idea what the difference is), and after I had applied for and gotten my scholarship, it was a matter of submitting documents like copies of IDs, transcripts, etc., as well as paying the non-refundable confirmation fee of 3000 EUR (which is like the enrolment fee–a weird European school system thing that makes all tuition fees markedly more expensive) within two weeks of acceptance.
Payments of both the confirmation fee (two weeks from acceptance) and the balance of the tuition are done via wire transfer to their HQ in Tokyo, Japan (yet another strange bit of information, but yes, the school is actually helmed by the Japs, or bought by the Japs from its original Italian founders? Something like that), for students enrolling from Asia. Wire transfers are sent to a bank in Italy for students enrolling from Europe. But since we were still wary about the school and everything, my dad insisted that we make the payment direct to Italy, which felt safer just because of its proximity to the school haha. For the balance of the tuition, the school provided me with a staggered payment schedule over several months, timed so that all payments are sent out a few months before the start of term. You can also choose to pay in one go, which I did in order to save on paying the wire transfer cost & other charges multiple times. The school does not accept payments via credit card or Paypal–a fact that is strange to me because I feel like that would have made paying so much more convenient. But anyway, I emailed them the payment slips and once they confirmed the receipt of payment, everything was a go. And I still had my fingers crossed that this was not a hoax.
STAYING IN FLORENCE
Once you’ve been confirmed officially as a student, the next part is about paperwork and documentation and all those annoying nitty gritty details about staying in a foreign country, especially with all the failings of a third world passport. I’ve documented some of the processes/ general experiences here:
Other things you will need to take care of almost immediately upon arriving in Florence: getting your Codice Fiscale (your tax identification number which you will need for grocery memberships, getting a lease, etc.), Permesso di Soggiorno (Permit of Stay–more relevant for students staying in Florence for longer than 90 days), and other details like knowing where the nearest grocery store is, etc.
START OF CLASSES
Before coming to Italy, I asked the school for a list of the tools I would be needing, so I could check in case they were available locally or if I had them already and could just bring them. A note when conversing with anyone from the Riaci office–they really are just messengers and so the information and explanations they can provide are quite limited. For example, they provided me with a tools list but did not know what the tools did apart from parroting back to me the vague description in the shop website (they had sent me a link to an online shop where I could buy the tools). So if I had similar tools or tools that could perform the same functions that would deem it unnecessary for me to spend another truckload of money, they couldn’t tell me.
This really stresses the importance of industry immersion–even basic things like what the tools do–at every level of an organization, from the CEO to the secretary answering the phones. I don’t want to get too business-school-y here, but each person there represents the school as an institution (and as a brand), so oversights and missing information and lack of industry knowledge are so not the best ways to gain the trust of your students. And not the best ways to gain their loyalty or respect, either.
Because of the aforementioned failings (on top of many others, as you will find out later in this review), I could have brought my own metal rulers, blades, triangle rulers, scissors, masking tape, and a whole slew of other things—and saved tens or hundreds of euros that I ended up having to spend buying those things here.
On the first day of school, I brought the tools I purchased from the website, as well as some other tools I figured I would need (ie grading ruler, binder clips, etc.), but I didn’t purchase or bring any leather yet because we weren’t exactly advised to do or bring anything. My advice? Be prepared in order to cut time wastage, because there is a lot of that on the first day, and generally throughout the first week. Our first class was machine sewing class, and we were tasked to make an apron. You can imagine that there were more than a few WTF faces going around. And since none of us knew to bring leather, we had to buy leather from the school. Ten euro for a crappy piece of scrap leather to fashion into an apron. WTF. I churned mine out quickly so I could move on to making a bag. The teacher wanted us to start with a basic shopping tote in order to better gauge our skills, etc. Fine. I had to buy leather from the school again. Twenty euro for another dusty old piece of leather. Two words: captive market. Bottomline? Bring an apron and enough leather (and other materials) to make your first bag. If you want to not make a shopper tote, be prepared with a sketch, photo or some basic patterns too. Save yourself thirty wasted euros.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, because, as I’ve said, the secretaries can’t really tell you much, so all the information I got out of them was vague at best. Basically, there is one teacher for machine-sewing class, and one teacher for hand-sewing class, and they have fixed class hours throughout the week (ie machine sewing teacher has classes Monday afternoons, and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, while the hand sewing teacher has classes Tuesday and Friday afternoons). Depending on what you signed up for and for how long, that will dictate how often you attend the classes and at which times. So for example, a regular-pace student like myself would have X number of hours with the machine sewing class, and Y number of hours with the hand sewing class, but a student doing a short intensive course could be attending twice the number of classes per week. The teachers and their respective times are constant; the student attendance varies.
There are also ‘Independent Study’ periods where you can use the machines, work in the classroom, do your own thing, etc. These periods are an utter waste of time for the first week or so, generally because the students haven’t been taught enough to know what to do with the independent study time. This means bad news for students who are only taking a week or two-week courses. Several students use this period to trek out to buy supplies and leather instead. If you already have experience in leather bag making, then the time won’t be wasted because you can start other projects or continue working on your own, but for people like me who started with no experience, there wasn’t much we could do on our own at that point without consulting the teacher first. That meant a lot of wasted time. In terms of “lessons”, the courses aren’t structured in a way that keeps the students at the same pace or working on the same thing. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on how you like to work. Basically what happens is that each student is in charge of his or her own projects, and ultimately, the pace. Each person can go as quickly or slowly as they want to, and they can work on any bag that they want to, with the teacher guiding the student in making the patterns, etc. For a beginner student with no experience in bag making or any related skill or field, things will likely proceed more slowly. Same goes for students who are unprepared or have no idea what kind/s of bags they want to make. A lot of time can be wasted thinking of what to make and how.
As for myself, I don’t have experience in leather bag making but I do have a background in graphic design, illustration, and all sorts of crafts. I like working autonomously with guidance/ advice from the teacher, but I also work fast. I hate wasting time like we did during the first week so I do a lot of research and preparation beforehand, so when I get to class and have time with the teacher, I get right to pattern-making and all the rest of it. In that regard, the non-structured approach works for me, because following a strict lesson plan would have probably slowed me down or made me impatient. This is not the case for everyone, of course.
At the peak of tourist season (which never seems to die down in Florence), which was right around summertime last September, that was when we had the highest volume of students.
To compare–I asked some of the second year students and they said that last year, there were only about 3-4 students in a class. This year, we started out with around 11 or 12. There are about 8 of us who are long-term students (those staying for at least one academic year), and there were 3-4 short-course students who came and went depending on what they signed up for. 3-4 students is an ideal class size, but the classroom can take maybe 6-8 without getting too cramped (8 is already pushing it, so imagine when there were twelve of us in there). And worse than the utter lack of physical real estate for each student to be able to work efficiently and comfortably in, is the fact that 12 students are sharing 1 teacher for 3 hours. So in a class last year, the 4 students each got 45 minutes with the teacher per 3-hour class, whereas this year each student only got 15 minutes*. Insane.
This overblown class size is probably the result of yet another oversight or mismanagement of the school, because that was definitely not the class size promised us when we enrolled. Is it because the school tried to expand too quickly before it had the facilities and infrastructure to be able to support that growth? Or because they were blinded by receiving payments and so they kept taking in more students even when the school was already at more than capacity? Or maybe there was no one in charge of keeping this sort of thing in check? It could be any or all of those things, or more. Did we bring that up? Yes. Was anything done about it? Of course not.
*During the peak season when there were short-course students alongside year-long students and masters students
THE CLASSROOM / WORKSPACE
The classroom is a single, high-ceilinged but small room with one radiator (sometimes insufficient for winter) and no ventilation or fan (which makes it hell in the summertime). There is one window but somehow the orientation of the building or courtyard does not lend itself to ideal wind circulation. The room is maybe 16-20 square meters or so (to compare–that’s roughly the size of a standard hotel room), with four sewing machines, two cutting/working tables, one supply cabinet, one leather rack, and two smaller tables for the glue, paint, etc. Imagine all that stuff inside a hotel room. Exactly. Going back to the tools that were supposedly “provided” in the classroom, I (and several other students) had asked the school before coming to Italy what tools would be available inside the classroom, and they told us which things would be provided–scissors, rulers, cutters, hammers, etc. But even a first grader can tell you that one piece of each tool is not enough to split among twelve students. Three pairs of scissors (with only one of them working properly) are not enough for twelve students. Two tables and 3 working sewing machines (one is perpetually problematic) are not enough for twelve students.
End result? A lot of waiting around, and a lot of time yet again unnecessarily wasted. Because I didn’t want to be in the leather school version of The Hunger Games, I ended up buying a truckload of my own tools, including stupid things I could have brought from home like metal rulers–I had to shell out 13 euro for it! WTF.
(UPDATE: NEW PHOTOS OF THE CLASSROOM/WORKSPACE AS OF SEPTEMBER 2017)
Alarmingly, mostly Asian. It’s understandable of course once you find out that the school’s HQ is in Japan, and so they have a strong recruitment hub there and across Asia. Majority of the students I have encountered in class (bag making, since I’m not as familiar with the student mix in the other courses, although there are a lot of Japanese students too) are from all over Asia–Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines (me!), but there have also been students from the United States, Ireland, Canada, South America, etc. People generally get along. Don’t steal or borrow other people’s tools/stuff without asking for permission. Don’t be a douchebag in general, and you’ll be fine. Just like with any school, you’ll find sometimes that common sense and common decency are not that common, so a pinch of tolerance up your sleeve can be quite handy.
In terms of skill level and experience, some of the students are tourists on holiday, some are casual hobbyists, while a lot of us are those looking to change careers and are looking into pursuing this as a business. The school asks for portfolios and stuff upon application in order to gauge skill level, but I don’t see the point because everyone takes the same class with the same teacher, and the difference in skill and experience is only evidenced by the differences in pace and autonomy of each student.
As the class name suggests, this class is for bag projects created via the use of a sewing machine. Suitable for those looking into large scale bag production as it is (generally) faster than hand-sewing, but also good for learning how to deconstruct/ construct bags and their patterns (at least for me). As I mentioned in the ‘first day of school’ part earlier, it’s a good idea to show up prepared with peg photos of bags you want to create, or sketches of the design, and even sketches of how the pattern will be made. That preparation will save you a lot of time in class when you could be asking the teacher questions or doing the actual patterns and sewing. General know-how on working with a sewing machine is good too.
NOT SUITABLE FOR
People who are looking for something more experimental, crafty and artisanal–you’re better off focusing on hand-sewn bags and the techniques and tools that are involved in working with hand sewing. If your vision is to run your own workshop and make everything by hand in limited quantities, then this class, though useful also, will not be as relevant to you as the hand-sewing class.
EQUIPMENT & MACHINERY
There are 4 sewing machines–2 of the standard table kind, and 2 with removable tables–all of which are well-worn and require some elbow grease to wrangle. They can be quite temperamental, but I think that’s to be expected of most sewing machinery. These two kinds of machines are basic, at best. Even with the slew of bags that can be produced, there are a lot of styles and techniques that require other types of equipment that the school currently doesn’t have. I’m not sure where all of the tuition money went, but it definitely didn’t get us any new machines.
Hand-sewn bags are like anything handmade–artisanal, personal, unique, and generally, it reflects the time and effort you put into it. It’s often a longer process than sewing with a machine because, well, hands simply don’t make stitches as quickly as a machine does. But it does allow you to do several things that machines can’t, especially when working with thicker leathers, or constructing bags with seams that machines can’t reach. You can use a variety of leathers for hand-stitched bags, but mainly we work with Italian vegetable-tanned leather, which is the same leather used in making saddles and men’s belts. It’s also great for experimenting with because this leather can be carved, shaped, and manipulated in a bunch of different ways, and that’s another aspect of hand-sewn bags that’s fun to play around with.
NOT SUITABLE FOR
People who are focused on larger scale productions or CAD-based design production. Hand-sewn bags are generally more artisanal and not the type that would really be produced in mass volumes. So if your brand vision is something on the scale of the likes of Michael Kors or Longchamp, then this class might not be as useful to you. Of course, I think it’s still good to know those extra skills and they’re great to have in one’s arsenal, and bags may be produced with a combination of both machine and hand-sewn techniques. So ultimately, it’s up to each student to decide where they see themselves heading and what skills they want to focus on.
TOOLS & MATERIALS
The main weapon of choice is Italian vegetable-tanned leather, which, as I’ve mentioned, is great for experimenting and trying out a whole slew of techniques and tricks. There are also tons of tools that are available online or at the school (which you have to share with the other students if you don’t have your own set). The secretaries won’t be able to tell you much about the tools, but the teacher can. If you’re unsure about what tools to get, you can try making do with the communal set at school first, and then after a few weeks of getting the hang of things, you can then decide which ones you want to purchase for your own collection. A strange finding–leather working tools are not Made in Italy, for some weird reason. You can find affordable “beginner” level ones from Taiwan and the US, and some beginner to professional level ones from the UK, France, Germany, and Japan. A lot of the sites aren’t in English.
EXTRA COSTS TO CONSIDER THAT YOU WILL LIKELY HAVE TO SPEND FOR (AND MATERIALS YOU CAN READILY BRING INSTEAD OF HAVING TO BUY HERE)
Upon enrolment, the payments you will need to make are for:
1. The confirmation fee, which is a small portion deducted from:
2. The tuition fee (depends on what course you take), and
3. The facilities fee (depends on how long your course is)
Tools are scarce, as I’ve explained, and the secretaries are less than helpful in detailing what’s available in the classroom and what’s not, so I would advise you to bring your own:
1. Scissors (leather scissors if possible but you’ll also need regular scissors for cutting paper and such)
2. Masking tape (half inch or inch thickness)
3. Curve edge ruler (if you think you will need it)
4. Metal ruler (to use with a blade) (some online leather shops have cork-backed ones which I think will help in making it less slippery on the leather)
5. Cutting mat (if you plan on doing some work on your own in your hotel/ apartment)
6. Triangle or edge ruler
7. Compass and/ or protractor
8. Fine sandpaper #800-1000 grain (used also in polishing gems)
9. Barbecue sticks with pointy end (used as a makeshift tool for edge painting)
10. Rotary cutter and spare blade (ie Olfa, the ones that can be used for leather)
11. Mini screwdriver set, both phillips head and flathead (the ones used for eyeglasses)
12. Old white cotton shirt/s (used for waxing and polishing, should be a shirt you can cut up and throw away)
13. Binder clips (because if you read my bag making entries, they are lifesavers)
14. Grading ruler (the rulers that have millimeter or inch grids on them)
15. Disposable latex gloves (just a pair or two, for when handling dyes)
16. Plastic cups (save your yogurt cups or plastic drinking cups)
And a big chunk of your moolah will be for purchasing leather. The “student-accessible” leather shop is not the cheapest, so you will need to spend a few hundred every few months–depending on how quickly you make bags, of course, and depending on how much the leather is and how big of a pelt you get. How much leather you need is also dependent on what classes you are taking–machine sewing or hand sewing, or both.
You will also need to spend for hardware and accessories, depending on your bag design. This means chains, closures, studs, buckles, etc. The school will provide you with the addresses of the shops so you can go buy stuff on your own. You won’t have to spend too much on this unless your bag design is riddled with bling, but generally this is a smaller cost than the actual leather (unless you’re covering your bag in Swarovski or something, but I don’t think we’re quite at that stage yet).
Another chunk of your moolah will go to purchasing tools IF you intend on having your own set. There are tools in school but as I’ve mentioned, only one of each thing, so if you don’t like waiting around or sharing (like me–I am not a sharer at all haha), then you will have to buy your own. For hobby-quality tools (good enough to use for school and personal projects but probably not sturdy enough for long-term use), I’ve already spent a few hundred–awls, bone folders, creasers, bevelers, mallets, hammers, pricking irons, stitching ponies, etc. If you’ve got major cash flow and wish to skip the cheap stuff and go for the good stuff, then you will of course have to spend thousands. But for the average cash-strapped student, I would advise you to get the hobby-level stuff for now, and only invest in the good stuff once you’re sure of what you will be needing and what you feel comfortable working with. There’s no use in wasting thousands on tools you’re not sure about using just yet.
If you already know what tools you need (I didn’t, because I was a beginner), then you can also purchase those before the start of term, or order them online and have them delivered to the school (that way you won’t need to carry it in your luggage and you’ll have more luggage space for clothes and things).
GENERAL SCHOOL FACILITIES
The school is located at Via dei’ Conti 4, just a minute or two away from the Piazza del Duomo. It’s housed inside an old building with an open-air courtyard in the middle, on the second floor, above a furniture workshop of sorts. It’s sparse, not really fancied up or modern, but basic, like they kept the original floors, ceilings, and just painted the walls white when they acquired the lease or something. The classrooms are small and generally sparse. Some wooden tables and chairs in classrooms like the ones used for language class and design classes, but for bag making class, it’s standing-room only unless you’re sitting in front of a sewing machine. Yeah, and imagine us working there for like 3 – 9 hours straight. The most “advanced” classroom is the one that has a few computers in it (used by the graphic design/product design students I think), and then the secretary’s office has got a few computers in there as well as a scanner (basic office scanner, not a serious artsy scanner)/ printer/ photocopy combo machine. The more “complete” classroom would be the shoe-making classroom, which is a lot bigger than the bag-making classroom, has more machinery that bag making students sometimes have to borrow, and they actually have seats in there. I think it’s because shoemaking is the core course offered and is therefore likely the oldest and most developed of all the courses offered by the school. There’s a small room next to the secretary’s office which serves as a small display of works (there are a couple of display cases) as well as a sort of student hangout (although there aren’t a lot of chairs so students don’t really hang out there). There are a few bathrooms, not the cleanest or most modern but they work most of the time, so that’s acceptable. Ish. They also don’t have hand soap. I don’t know why. So either pack your own or bring some hand sanitizer.
As far as we can tell, the school’s head office and main decision-making body is based in Tokyo, Japan. They have a handful of secretaries working in shifts in Florence, but they don’t seem to have any decision-making or change-making powers.The bigger, more ‘sensitive’ kinds of issues are all emailed to Japan and then we all wait until we go extinct, basically.
In Japan, I don’t know how their actual organization is structured, but it sure seems like there is The Owner (whom no one seems to ever have seen or met, curiously), and just more secretaries. Sure is a strange organization, if that is the case. As far as I can tell, the secretaries here in Florence organize schedules, coordinate with the teachers and with Japan, buy stuff, and do other secretarial things and recruitment-related things. I’ve encountered at least four secretaries at school, but it honestly doesn’t feel like four secretaries’ worth of work is being done/accomplished. Oh, and they scan and print stuff for you too.
Another word of advice based on a friend’s experience–they don’t help with the visa stuff. They say they do, and they pretend to, but they don’t. Teachers are hired (I think) on a contractual/ hourly basis, and the interpreters are hired on a per-class basis (they have several interpreters in circulation, although lately, less). They are all third-party service providers, and so they do not have any “say” in the school operations either. I found this out after an incident a few months ago wherein I spoke up about certain injustices (the school announced that they would suddenly start charging students for certain materials which were supposed to be included in the tuition) and afterwards the teacher told me I did the right thing because she herself couldn’t say anything to the school. Fast forward to today: still no resolution on that matter.
SCHOOL ADMINISTRATION, COMMUNICATION & ACCOUNTABILITY
Some of us who’ve sent issue-raising enquiries to Japan (it’s the same email address they all use but you have to ATTN your emails to the Japan-based secretary) have gotten some responses (intended on placating us in the short-term, I think), but no real change or improvements to address the issues raised have been put into action. So far, it’s been all talk.
Because of the way the organization is structured (refer to the chart I hastily drew up), there are often gaps in intra-organizational communication and accountability. Since all the secretaries are using the same email account for most things (some of them have individual ones too but usually it’s the same main email account), I don’t know if they have a check-and-balance sort of system amongst them in order to ensure that each email/issue/matter/”ticket” has been read and addressed, and by whom.
In my experience so far, they do not have such a system in place. As a result, there is a lot of oversight and a severe lack in accountability. For example, you can tell one secretary something but later on you might be dealing with another secretary who’s not up to speed, and requests, issues, etc. get lost in the fray and are not looked after properly because they are faced with changing hands and no consistency in terms of who the point person is and who is accountable for each issue. Basically, you get a lot of passing-the-blame mixed with the Italian don’t-care attitude, which make for seriously poor customer service–and that is a major function of the secretaries for us students (the customers).
It has also been the case on more than a few occasions that the school failed to communicate to students important news, changes in schedule or teacher, changes in venue for outings, etc. Their excuse? They wrote it on the whiteboard. Here’s the thing–for what we’re paying, they couldn’t be bothered to send us individual e-mails and/or SMS messages?
Not to mention the fact that on at least one instance they changed what was written on the whiteboard the morning of the day of an art visit, so even if you checked the board before going home the previous day, your information would be wrong and it happened that several students ended up going to the wrong place and were left waiting for nearly an hour before they called the school to ask where the teacher was and were told that the art visit venue had been changed. Thanks a lot. All that tuition money and not one mobile phone with an SMS/minutes plan to contact students especially in cases of last minute changes to the itinerary? But believe me, you won’t get any sort of apology from them. Not a sincere one, anyway.
Another instance was when the machine-sewing teacher was sick and so they switched up the class so that the hours would be taken instead by the hand-sewing teacher. No one told us. So of course we all brought the wrong things and ended up wasting some more time. Some people even went back to their apartments to get their hand-sewing stuff, but generally a lot of time was wasted. Time that could’ve been saved by sending out just a few simple SMS messages to the students.
FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT & RESOURCE ALLOCATION
As I have already mentioned in some of the above segments, the school doesn’t seem to have much budget. This fact is reflected in the state of the campus, the age and quality of the machinery, the stinginess with the “tools” and “materials” provided, and their severe inability to set aside the budget for SMS messages, apparently.
I can only attribute several or all of the aforementioned failings (those mentioned all throughout the review) primarily to sub-par resource allocation & poor financial management, and also to the people who are responsible for running the organization, since a lot of the problems are human resource in nature as well.
First of all, we know that there is substantial cash flow going into the organization via ever-increasing enrolments yearly. That’s tens or hundreds of thousands of euros from multi-year students as well as several short-course students, plus each of those students paying facilities fees, enrolment fees, etc.
But where does this money go, exactly? The workforce is small, so not a big chunk is dedicated to the payroll. The facilities are old and somewhat outdated, so the money has not gone into infrastructure or machinery or equipment, either. They can’t seem to be bothered to send students SMS messages, so I guess the budget doesn’t include a phone plan. And I’ve already mentioned that the quality and amount of tools and materials in the classrooms are way below par and utterly insufficient for the number of students who use them, so the cash isn’t going into buying more tools, either. And judging by how difficult it is to find information about the school online or on the streets, very little or no money has gone into online or OOH advertising/ marketing. I’ve already talked about their sad little website–clearly that wasn’t a budgetary priority, either.
So it really makes you wonder what the hell the school has been doing with all the money that is paid to them. Aside from payroll, lease, glue, paper, office supplies, equipment maintenance, minimum payments for website URL/ hosting renewals, and maybe a tool a year, or two, we students clearly do not seem to be getting our return on investment.
In this regard, one cannot help but wonder if the money is being properly managed, and if enough efforts have gone into ensuring the efficiency of the school’s spending. Are suppliers overcharging the school? Are the costs of maintaining older equipment & machinery becoming more expensive in the long run than investing in new ones? Is the school’s workforce as lean as it can be, or are there underperformers and role redundancies? Several questions come into play, and we have no answers.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
I’m going to rely on some of my marketing background in trying to categorize the different areas that need working on, based on some of the 7 P’s of the marketing mix (There were just 4 P’s when I was studying this at university haha):
PRODUCT – The school’s product is education, which is really a service. Although the teachers are OK, the classes themselves and the way they are structured (or unstructured) are incredibly vague. The format of classes, methods of teaching, etc. are important bits of information for prospective students, and none of these details are posted or explained online. So for people looking through the information on the website, they can’t actually be a hundred percent certain of what the school’s product is. Like I know it’s a school and I know I’m looking for an education, but it has to be a lot less vague and a hell of a lot more detailed than that, otherwise the product is no product at all, but a general idea that doesn’t offer anything unique or different from the other schools. Accademia Riaci has to figure out what kind of education they are offering, and they need to let people know what makes them different and what they can do. And more importantly, they have to follow through. They have to actually deliver–which they haven’t really been doing thus far.
PRICE – The school’s tuition fee & scholarship option/s relative to the other schools helped me in selecting it. However, I never felt like what I got (the overall education experience, the services, the materials, etc.) was worth what I paid for and, in my case, what I spent hours and hours laboring over (since as a scholarship kid, I had several illustration requirements to submit over the year). If we are looking at the value of a euro spent at Accademia Riaci, it might not be as valuable as a euro spent in a better school (if that makes sense). Basically, I feel that the education quality at Riaci is worth less than its listed price, even if it is cheaper than the other schools (Polimoda and Scuola del Cuoio). If Riaci wants to make students feel like they got their money’s worth, then the school has to make sure that the welfare of the students, and the quality of the education come first, and not just profit. The tuition fee can remain where it is, but the school has to make sure that the value of their service matches (and even exceeds) the cost that the students are paying for it.
PROGRAMS – I get the feeling from the school that they seem to be expanding randomly instead of logically, and expanding too quickly for the capabilities of their staff and infrastructure. It seems that instead of focusing on bettering their core courses–like shoemaking and bag making (which, by the way, still need a ton of work)–they are trying to cater to too many interests but not being the best in those particular fields. For example, instead of them starting courses for cooking and graphic design (which, as the website clearly exhibits, they are no good at), they would be better off having fewer courses but making these programs better. Since not a lot of schools offer leather working and artisan crafts, they need to nurture and develop these in order to be competitive, instead of, for example, offering a sub-par culinary course that probably can’t compete with more serious, dedicated culinary schools in Florence, and all over Europe, like Le Cordon Bleu. Wouldn’t it be a much better, much more focused product lineup to have only courses with artisan roots–shoe making, bag making, jewelry making, furniture making, etc.–instead of putting in courses that don’t make sense with the rest of the school’s core competencies? Underscoring the artisan nature of the courses offered would be a big differentiator from the other schools that focus primarily on design. And getting rid of the other courses that don’t make sense for the school will only help in improving budget & resource allocations, which the school sorely needs to address right now.
PROMOTION – I mentioned earlier that I suspected that they paid to get “starred” or something in Google Maps, but that’s about the only online presence aside from the website that I could find. For so many prospective students, online research is the primary source of information when looking into schools, and the scarcity of information available about Accademia Riaci online is truly a concern. If they don’t have budget for online marketing or advertising or SEO, then they had better shore up their website because as the sole and primary representative of the school online, it sure doesn’t get the job done, and it sure doesn’t give off the best impression–especially for students looking to take graphic design. But even without a gigantic budget, there are so many ways to do grassroots stuff or low-cost online strategies to build up the school’s credibility and reputation, yet none of them are being done. They have their “student reporter” system, but they’re in no way maximizing the potential and reach of student-written content, nor are they making what little content they do have easy to find. Also, with regard to the streamlining of the programs offered by the school, a more unified lineup of courses would also help to focus the school’s marketing message and improve communications overall, making it easier for prospective students to understand what the school is trying to achieve and convey.
PLACE – The school’s location near the duomo is one of its few assets, but the space that the school occupies leaves much to be desired. They already have a good location–easy enough to reach on foot, by bike, etc.–but the campus itself inside may not be in the best condition for all the courses they provide and all the students that attend. Aside from the physical space constraints (I mentioned the issues on class size relative to the classroom size), the layout and planning and allocation of resources can be further improved. There are so many unused or underused spaces inside, as well as overused and cramped spaces. The school is the student’s primary workspace, so they ought to ensure that each student actually has enough space to work and move and breathe.
PEOPLE – I talked about this earlier in School Administration, etc., but I would like to reiterate the importance of a lean-and-mean workforce, especially for a relatively small organization like Riaci, with its seemingly strange organizational structure. First, aside from the typical office and clerical work that the secretaries do, they must realize that they are also acting as the main information hub and ‘customer service’ department for the students. This means that it is not enough for them to know MS Office and to operate a scanner/ copy machine, but they need to be at least somewhat versed and immersed in the specific industry/ies that the students are entering into. Unlike larger institutions like Istituto Marangoni or Polimoda, Riaci doesn’t have departments, and therefore no department heads either, who would normally be the “experts” in their respective fields. Instead, Riaci hires contractual teachers whose classes operate on a sort of “assisted autonomy” basis. There isn’t really any consistency or unified way of working in terms of lesson plans, teaching methods, etc., nor are there any established departments dedicated to post-graduation student services like career placement or access to important industry events (which Polimoda and Istituto Marangoni both have). Instead of the school being focused on seeing its students succeed, Riaci seems to be more concerned with getting paid for every move that might inconvenience them or be even remotely outside of their job description (like you actually have to pay the school to place you in an internship that won’t be paying you at all–doesn’t make a lick of sense to me; or overcharging almost double for student accommodations booked through them). Now this might not be an issue for students who are passing tourists or casual hobbyists or those who aren’t seriously pursuing their respective crafts and turning them into businesses in the future, but for the majority of us, it really is like we’re being left out in the cold. As a student, I don’t feel like the school has my back at all unless I pay them. It is a startlingly different feeling from when I was looking into Polimoda (Florence) and Istituto Marangoni (Milan), both of whom had not only a deeper and more current knowledge of the industry, but also a more palpable passion and dedication to helping their students especially when it comes to career placement after graduation. They take care of their own. I can’t say the same for Accademia Riaci.
IS ACCADEMIA RIACI THE RIGHT SCHOOL FOR YOU?
Possibly, if you have some experience in a related field or some background in design or construction, which could help you adapt better to the unstructured nature of the classes. Because the teachers flit around from student to student depending on who needs them, a lot of the time you will be working in “assisted autonomy”, which means you’re in charge of what you want to do and have a certain amount of vision for what you want to do, and the teachers are there to provide the answers to your questions and to help you in realizing your vision.
A background in design or pattern-making or something similar will help because you will be able to sketch/design your bag ideas, and you will more likely understand the process and logic behind making the patterns. Ultimately, you are the captain of your ship. You have the vision, and the teachers will help to fill in the blanks to get you from point A to B.
Beginners with little or no experience can work in the unstructured format but will likely need more assistance/ guidance from the teacher especially at the beginning. And since students get equal hours of teacher time and independent study, a lot of independent study time will likely be wasted at the start because (at no fault of the student but at the fault of the school’s scheduling logic) obviously, at that point students haven’t been taught enough things yet by the teacher to know how to proceed on their own. When I was working on my first bag, I could only work until a certain point when I couldn’t continue any further without consultation with the teacher, and as a result, I wasted a lot of independent study hours for maybe the first week or two. If we had been made aware of the schedule and class structure (or non-structure) earlier on, then we could have prepared more things to do or to work on in order to not waste time. As I mentioned in the machine sewing class segment above, my advice is to do some extra prep before the start of class in order to cut the wasted hours (and consequently, the wasted moolah).
This advice might not work for everyone, as some people may be able to proceed on their own, while some may need to wait for the teacher’s guidance, but I think the most important thing is to know for yourself if the setup of classes in Riaci will suit your work ethics or not. Some people may prefer this work setup–this “assisted autonomy” (which is a term I just made up, btw)–whilst some people may prefer a more structured plan.
If so, if you are indeed looking for structure, then Riaci won’t be the place for you. Their unstructured approach means that there is no lesson plan or fixed set of skills that students need to tick off a list one by one until all’s been learnt.
The obvious ‘con’ of this setup is that there are a lot of things you might not learn, because you don’t know what there is to learn. You can only make so many bags and do so much research but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to cover all the techniques there are in the world. What you learn will depend on what you choose to take on, which, in my opinion, can also be a ‘pro’, because that does mean that if you have initiative and are studious, you can learn–not everything, obviously, but–a great deal more than those who are just waiting to be instructed on what to do next. And if you are working at a faster pace than other students, it means you don’t have to wait for everyone else to finish before starting on another project. You can go as quickly or as slowly as you want to, and you can start as many projects as you want to, try out as many techniques or styles as you want to.
Luckily, I seem to find myself in the category of preferring to work in assisted autonomy, so the unstructured classes, although a lot of time was wasted at the start (I needed to have done more prep, on my part), works better for me. This is because I like working undisturbed, with the teacher at hand in case I need to consult, but I don’t like having a teacher standing guard and breathing down my neck as I work. I don’t have experience in leather working, but I do have a background in design, illustration, crafts, making simple tote bags, etc., which altogether help me in making bags, from concept to pattern-making and to actual production.
I know I’ve gone on and on and I must be boring you with all the in-depth-ness that I’ve promised, but I had such a hard time looking for information about this school, much less any reviews or comments or anything about it, so I really hope that this long rambling thing might be useful to some other prospective student who may be doing online research right now and, like me, needed reassurance that the school was legit and basically just needed more information than their website cared to provide. I think I’ve covered everything that I wanted to, but just in case I haven’t and there’s something else that you would like to know, please do send me a message or comment or whatever (here or via Twitter or Instagram), and I’ll be sure to be just as brutally honest.
IN ADDITION: Be sure before you send any payments to the school, because you’ll find that it’s near impossible to get back any refund or money from them should you decide to change your plans or anything like that. They’ll offer small discounts for future enrolments but not your money back up front. Not sure if this is SOP, but common sense on our part can save us from that headache, in any case.
AGAIN: Please note that this review is solely based on my own personal experience at the school, therefore it contains my thoughts and opinions with regard to the subject matter, published freely and without malicious intent, negligence, or false “claims” about the school or persons associated with it. Statements made by people other than The Leather Crafter in this post’s comments section were given of their own volition. This blog & its author shall not be held liable for them.
IMPORTANT UPDATE AS OF SEPTEMBER 2017
In Florence for some business, so I dropped by the school so I could say hello to my teachers (if they were still there), and to see if any of my old schoolmates would still be there. Let’s just say, it was not the welcome I expected. Apparently, some of the secretaries as well as one of my teachers had seen this review and felt I had written negatively about the school, and that I should have spoken to them first or the director before writing anything online. Apparently they attribute this article to low enrolment rates the year after it had been published.
To all this, I call bullshit.
First of all, I have made my concerns and opinions very clear in person. While I was a student there, I was very vocal about all these issues, and I always reached out to the secretaries as well as offering my time and offering to meet to talk about them, and to even talk to the director should she be in town. Nothing ever happened. Not even while the director was in town. The incident which I mentioned earlier in this article about the scissors and additional tools–that was the only time they spoke with me separately (and still, nothing happened at the time). It is a reflection of the school if they choose to ignore students when they try to bring important issues to light. It is not the student’s fault if the school does not communicate back, or if the school chooses to do nothing.
Second, this article has been up since 2014, since I was a student at the school (and subsequently edited with additional information, etc.), and they have had plenty of time to talk to me about it. I have never hidden this article from the school (in fact I remember sending them a link and offering to share my thoughts, advice, issues I have been made aware of, etc.) They never responded.
Third, we have freedom of speech. Also, we live in a world where information is online, and a lot of information we get online are reviews written by people, in order to give insight, additional information, etc. Reviews are useful especially when you are doing research for hotels, attractions/ sights, places, museums, and even schools. Honest reviews are important because we need information that has not been paid for, but freely written. In this review, I have freely written about my experiences at the school, I have shared practical information about the school, and I have shared my advice for prospective students. Nowhere in this article is there libel. Nowhere is it written that you should not attend this school. My review and the information I have laid out aim to be as objective and helpful as possible, and the writing of this review has arisen precisely because the school does not have enough information about it online. The school should not be so quick to place blame on this article when, if they were only to consider it properly, the real reason Google directs people this way is because there seems to be more information here than on the school website. Does this not reveal a more important issue for the school and does this not tell them that they need to be improving their website and the information there?
Fourth, a lot of the negative feedback about the school came from the comments section. I am not liable for what other people choose to say about the school. If anything, the school should view this as customers voicing their dissatisfaction about their product. And they should take the opportunity to address these concerns directly, instead of feeling negatively towards me about it, and then doing nothing, and then blaming the review for their failings. They need to take responsibility and have the initiative to make the necessary changes.
So, after my school visit, I went to the secretary’s office to set a meeting, to ensure that all this talking-behind-my-back would stop and so they could speak to me face-to-face. While I have no anger towards my teacher for telling me what she told me, I do think it has all been extremely unfair and that the school should have reached out to me long before now. What happened after this? They cancelled the meeting. I tried to set another, indicating that I wished for a proper interpreter to be present so that there would be no misunderstanding, and they have not gotten back to me. It’s been nearly a week since that first meeting attempt. It disappoints me greatly because this very behaviour only underscores the very issues I have been writing about. I set this meeting not because I had any obligation to, but as a courtesy to them, so they could talk to me about it instead of behind my back. But their lack of response is very revealing, and sadly, does not improve their image.
I will update this again should I hear back from them.