In the middle of Paris, a stone’s throw from Champs Élysée one find not only Berluti’s large flagship store, but also their large workshop for bespoke shoes. A big, well-trimmed business where shoes of absolute world class are manufactured. Shoegazing paid a visit.
The Champs Élysées is Paris’s great parade street, and one of the streets that cross it is Rue Marbeuf. On a corner next to Cifonelli is Berluti’s flagship store, a two-story complex where, in addition to the company’s shoes, you will find their clothes and accessories, both clothing and bespoke. Luxury and French flair en masse. On the other side of the street one floor up we have the bespoke workshop. In addition to a smaller showroom where they receive all the regular customers who call directly here without going into the store, the floor contains about ten different rooms where all parts of the production for their bespoke shoes are made. Here, the major French bespoke shoe manufacturers differ from their British counterparts. Almost everything is done in-house, by their own employees, instead of the main part of the production being done by freelancers. The big advantage is control, and it’s hardly a coincidence that the high lowest level of its bespoke is something for example Berluti and John Lobb Paris are known for.
I start the visit in a well-stocked showroom. Here literally shoes in all its shapes, and colors, are found. Everything from completely insane creations that no sober person should put on their feet, to stylish minimalist dress shoes of the finest kind. High boots and hiking boots, sneakers and sandals. A jumble of creativity and craftsmanship.
A framed photograph shows the icon Olga Berluti, or Olga Squeri which was her birth name. She was the fourth generation Berluti in the company since the journey was initiated by Alessandro Berluti, raised in the Italian shoe region of Marche, but who moved to Paris and worked in shoe manufacturing. It was his son Torello Berluti who founded the actual brand Berluti in 1928. Then it was just bespoke, Talbinio Berluti, generation three, initiated the RTW venture.
Then it was Olga Berluti who made Berluti what it is today, with all the flair and artistry the brand is associated with. Among things she did worth mentioning we have the introduction of the crust leather Venezia on which patina was painted, and the loafer model Andy, which she developed together with Andy Warhol.
Olga Berluti joined the company in 1959, took over the helm at the end of the 1960’s, and not until 2011 she retired. In between, one of the world’s largest luxury conglomerates, LVMH, had bought the company in 1993, and since incorporating the Paris tailor Arny’s in 2012, Berluti has been a fairly traditional luxury fashion brand, with all that it entails, even though it has always been maintained and continued to invest in the foundation – the bespoke shoes. CEO of the company is since 2012 Antoine Arnault, son of Bernard Aurnalt who is the chairman and chief executive of LVMH, and current Creative Director is Kris Van Assche.
My ciceron during the visit (which was a bit over a year ago) is Jean Michel Casalonga, workshop manager, who for the day wears a pair of sharply chiseled, hiking-inspired ghillies on thick rubber soles in a light brown patina – very Berluti. Unknown for people in general, but a very well-respected name among people in the bespoke shoe industry. He joined Berluti 17 years ago, as a lastmaking apprentice, while studying physics at the university.
– I nagged my way in, you might say. After the 20th call they gave in, and then I still had a kind of scholarship that allowed me to work for free for a while, says Jean Michel.
It was the lastmaking that attracted the most, the very heart of a shoe.
– Making beautiful shoes is not that difficult, nor is it to make comfortable shoes. But to make beautiful and comfortable shoes is a real challenge.
Nowadays he leads the work in the Paris workshop, although he still works as a lastmaker, he spends a lot of time keeping the pieces together in the workshop.
Berluti has two workshops for their bespoke, the main workshop here in Paris, where they had twelve employees during my visit, and the famous bespoke shoemaker Anthony Delos and his workshop with staff down in Main et Loire out towards the coast near Nantes, where they are eight. Production is constantly increasing, since 2010 it has more than doubled, which obviously has to do with Berluti’s expansion around the world. In 2002, they had seven stores of their own – today there are over 50. For the company’s lastmaker who basically visit all these stores to meet the customers, this means a lot of traveling.
– Before when I was just a lastmaker, I had at least a hundred travel days a year, it was quite tiring, says Jean-Michel Casalonga.
Now that he is the workshop manager it is a bit more calm, about 40 travel days a year. He is responsible for Paris and the United States. Anthony Delos is in charge of Japan and Asia Pacific, Patrice Rock has China, and then Virgile Mouturat is responsible for Europe and the Middle East. In addition to the four lastmakers and one lastmaker apprentice, they have six pattern makers and closers, who also click the upper leather, so they do the whole process individually, plus one apprentice there. Then six bottom makers and one apprentice on that side, and finally one that paints patina.
– We hope we will be some more soon, at least 23-24. That would be good for the workload we have at the moment, but it’s difficult to find good staff, says Jean Michel.
As we wander around the various rooms of the workshop, where there are shoes in different stages of completion everywhere, I am struck by the comfortable and calm atmosphere here is. It’s concentrated work, some small talk between some who have the workbenches next to each other, but no rushed, stressed feeling at all. On the one hand, it’s obviously work that is relatively meditative in nature with many slow processes. Then it’s also very advantageous to work as a bespoke shoemaker in this way in France, in that you have permanent employment and only work their 35 hours (something for example some Japanese can squeeze in during three days).
This is one of the reasons why French bespoke shoes are always on top when it comes to the price point. Bespoke from Berluti start at about € 5,800 for the first pair, € 4,800 for upcoming pairs. It simply costs to be on top.