Tuesday, 22 November 2011

These boots are made for walkin'...

In the context of Czech towns and cities that might be interesting to foreign travellers, Zlín is quite unusual because most of its tourist attractions are modern.

They're also connected with the story of one family and their company, Baťa Shoes. Siblings Anna, Antonín and Tomáš Baťa came from a long family line of cobblers but the company they founded in Zlín in 1894 became one of the biggest shoemaking concerns the world has ever seen and still has 50 factories, more than 4500 shops and almost 50,000 direct employees.

There was an element of being in the right place at the right time for Baťa shoes (with the outbreak of World War One and huge orders from the Austrian army) but good management and integrity were key to the company's amazing expansion. Tomas Baťa was sometimes called the “Henry Ford of Eastern Europe” for his quickness to embrace the technologies of large-scale production, but he's best remembered in the history of Zlín for his integrity and social consciousness. Baťa employees were paid up to 4 times more than their counterparts in other countries and were assisted with housing, specialized training, medical care, insurance and retirement benefits decades (if not lifetimes) before before these things became the norm for factory workers elsewhere.

The Baťa family left Czechoslovakia soon after the occupation by Nazi Germany, and in the late 1940s the remainder of Baťa shoes was nationalized by the new communist government. The communists tried to portray the Baťas as ruthless and exploitative capitalists, but such was the regard for the family that Jan Baťa was cleared of all 64 charges against him by an extraordinarily courageous jury. The communists came up with new charges, resorted to a closed military trial to justify the seizure of company assets and in 1949 Baťa shoes was renamed Svit, Zlín itself was renamed Gottwaldov (after the first Czech Communist president Klement Gottwald) and the Canadian province of Ontario became the new world home of Baťa shoes.

Three places to find out more about the Zlín heyday of Baťa shoes are building 21 (the former headquarters), the excellent and extensive shoe museum, and street after street of the cute little Baťa villas - the cubelike houses built by the leading architects of the first republic for Baťa factory workers.

The distinctive Baťa villas use the same combination of exposed red brick and pale grey concrete as the factories you'll see if you arrive at Zlín central station by train. Wandering the streets of villas and trying to imagine how wonderful they must have seemed to the factory workers of the 1920s and 30s is possible all year round, and from May through September the 1930s interior of the villa at Nad Ovčírnou II 1295 is also open to the public (unfortunately closed during 2011 'for technical reasons').

The shoe museum takes its visitors through seven centuries of shoes ranging from peasant boots to embroidered royal slippers to a pair of 41cm monsters made for an American basketball player. There's also a recreated workshop and displays of techniques and tools. For non-Czech speakers there are translated booklets explaining all the exhibits, the history of shoemaking in general and the Baťa company specifically.

Building 21, the Zlín skyscraper, offers a wonderful view over the city from its new rooftop cafe and terrace, the chance to ride a continuous paternoster elevator and to visit the boss's office which was built in an 6x6m elevator (fitted with air-conditioning and running water) that could travel horizontally as well as vertically throughout the skyscraper! Unfortunately that was also closed on my last visit to Zlín, so I don't have any photos to show you, but the best way to remedy that is to plan a little trip to south Moravia and see it for yourself!

No comments: