May 28, 2014

“Not A Step Without Bata”: the Czech shoe company that took over the world

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One of the extraordinary stories told in Mariusz Szczygiel’s book Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia — which we’re very happy to be publishing this week—is that of Bata Shoes, a Czech footwear empire that, over the course of the twentieth century, spawned identical company towns all over the globe.

As I worked on this book, I began to realize that Bata Shoes (slogan: “I love my shoes!”) is a classic case of the “frequency illusion”: once you know about it, you see it everywhere, connected to the most unlikely people and places.

For instance, Jan Bata consulted with Le Corbusier on the design of Zlín, where the company was founded, to create the world’s first “self-duplicating” town, where the houses were so close together that you couldn’t help knowing what your neighbors were up to. Bata towns would be the birthplaces of, among others, Ivana Trump and Tom Stoppard. Students at the Bata School for Young Men included the Olympic athlete Emil Zátopek, whose incredible, unconventional talents recently got him named by Runner’s World as the Greatest Runner of All Time and profiled in Christopher McDougall‘s recent book Born to Run. And it continues…

For those who’ve yet to get Bata-obsessed, here’s an introduction in six videos:

“The Bata City” — six Bata cities around the world:

 

Bata’s owners still inspire YouTube mash notes:

 

A behind-the-scenes tour of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, whose current exhibition is “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture”:

 

Tennis shoes being produced at the Batanagar factory near Calcutta, the largest Bata shoe factory:

 

The trailer for “Bata-ville: We Are Not Afraid of the Future” — a documentary about a group of former employees of the British Bata branches in East Tilbury and Maryport, now closed down, who travel back to Zlín:

 

Emil Zátopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he won the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, *and* the marathon, for good measure:

http://youtu.be/3c4Z8cbcIiA

 

Ivana Trump, giggly on the late-night Shopping Channel:

 

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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