It seems that some Italian brands sell an infinite number of models. When I look at the catalogue or website of British, American or French shoe makers or when I look in brick/mortar or online stores the same models can be found everywhere.
To some extent, this is true, but look at what some retailers do with Alden (see Alden of Carmel
, for example) or with Grenson (see, Paul Stuart
, although the website doesn't have a good sample of what PS does with their Grenson shoes). Most of the major British, American, and French manufacturers have a large number of patterns that you just don't see in catalogues and that they don't make unless a retailer wants them to do so. Retailers tend toward the models in the catalogues because that's what the manufacturers tend to maintain stock in: it's nice to know that you can get a singleton 10D sent out if you need it without having to order 12 more pairs of the same pattern.
But some Italian brands seems to have as many lines of shoes as there are stores on the planet. Two people who would see the shoes of the same brand in two different stores would think they have seen completely different brands.
In many cases, this is true. I've seen literally hundreds of Gravati patterns, for example, and other manufacturers are similar. They also often you virtually unlimited detailing options -- you can make virtually any shoe that you want. To me, this is a strength: you can get exactly what you want rather than relying on what the manufacturer thinks you should carry.
Does this mean that some Italian factories are just that, factories? Do they do special orders only? I.e. is it the retailer who designs the shoes he wants to sell instead of choosing off a catalogue?
To a large extent, yes. The quality of a retailer's offerings from Gravati or Martegani depends on his ability to put together good shoes. I'll tell you this: when doing special orders for myself, I rarely hear No from an Italian manufacturer. That's not the case with British, French, or American ones.