Today we have the great pleasure to present a chapter on Maison Corthay, taken directly from my book "The Parisian Gentleman" (Thames and Hudson), released in October, 2015 and sold in bookstores and online HERE (European English version) and HERE (American version).
I take advantage of this occasion to warmly thank to all of our readers around the world who honored us with the purchase of the book, which represents two years of meticulous work with my friend and comrade Andy Julia. I'm also pleased to announce that a second volume at Thames & Hudson entitled "The Italian Gentleman" is in the works and is scheduled to be released in Fall, 2017.
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The Hero of a Sartorial Revolution
For many lovers of refined footwear, Pierre Corthay is not simply a Parisian bootmaker with a worldwide reputation or the artistic director of a luxury house that bears his name. He is nothing less than a cultural hero.
The very opposite of the commonplace contemporary entrepreneur driven by spreadsheets and business plans, he stands out as the archetypal artist and artisan, who believed in his destiny and made it happen through sheer force of purpose.
In the case of Pierre Corthay, even that is rather an understatement.As might be expected, Corthay’s story is a handmade tale of great encounters. In 1990, with barely a penny in his pocket, he decided to buy the workshop of the Parisian bootmaker Henri Richomme, in rue Volney. He was then just beginning to make ends meet as head of the Berluti workshop, after six years of unpaid « Tour de France » apprenticeship and eighteen months as a worker at John Lobb, and didn’t have the wherewithal to acquire the workshop of Monsieur Richomme, who wanted to find someone young to take over on his retirement.
That sort of practical detail was not going to stop Corthay, however, and he worked out an old-school deal with the ageing bootmaker, who agreed to be paid in instalments. Corthay thus bought the workshop, paying each instalment as the customers slowly trickled in, earning his independence shoe by shoe.
For Corthay, the first two years were tough.He had yet to make a name for himself, and the market for bespoke shoes was far from thriving. Customers who knew about such a refined product were few and far between, even near place Vendôme. According to Corthay, he made only ‘one and a half pairs of shoes per month’, hardly enough to pay his instalments and expenses. It was impossible to pay himself a salary, let alone employ anyone else.And yet Corthay’s life took a radical turn thanks to Stéphane, the paradoxically famous owner of a little underground second-hand clothing boutique in the Batignolles area of Paris, a word-of-mouth address among conoisseurs for thirty years. In this rare place one can find wonderful vintage treats, such as bespoke Savile Row suits or clothes from the best Parisian houses, including Cifonelli, Camps de Luca, Smalto and Charvet.
One day in 1992 none other than the great Suzy Menkes, then fashion editor for the International Herald Tribune, pushed that secret yet illustrious door in search of a Parisian bootmaker for an article she was writing. Stéphane told her that she absolutely must go and see a young bootmaker who had just set up shop and who promised great things: Pierre Corthay.
The conversation changed Corthay’s destiny.Not only did the high priestess of fashion fall in love with Corthay’s work, but also she let the whole world know about it. A few days later her article appeared on the back cover of the International Herald Tribune. In the little workshop on rue Volney the hitherto mute telephone started to ring, and it never stopped. A few months later the sultan of Brunei ordered 150 pairs of bespoke shoes, and Lanvin farmed its bespoke orders out to Corthay.
The world had just discovered his incredible genius.
Thirteen years after Corthay’s unconventional acquisition of Richomme’s workshop, in 2003, history repeated itself.
He was not happy with the Italian subcontractor in charge of his ready-to-wear collection, which had just been launched and was getting some attention. He therefore decided, rather impulsively, to open his own factory near Paris so as to be able to control the whole process. Yet again, he was far from having the financial capacity for such a venture. And yet again, it was his craft that provided the solution, with a little help from his brother Christophe, who is also a Compagnon du Devoir, and ‘Toulousain’, another bootmaking Compagnon, who was there from the start. They managed to put together the funds they needed thanks to a providential order from the American tycoon Robert Rubin.Rubin had just opened his famous private golf club, the Bridge, in the Hamptons in New York State, and wanted to offer the first sixty members a pair of bespoke golf shoes to make up for the planned lack of golf carts (after all, the membership cost each person about $750,000 – before tax). Rubin, who was a great admirer of Corthay’s, paid for the full order in advance.
Thus, without the support of any bank or investors, but thanks to this one order – and the toil and sweat entailed in handmaking those sixty pairs of golf shoes in just a few months – Corthay managed to acquire his own factory in Neuilly-Plaisance, just outside Paris.Corthay’s story sounds like a fairy tale, full of magic encounters, inspired business decisions, lean spells, hard work and happenstance. In 2008 and 2009, however, the fairy tale turned to a nightmare when the Japanese market dropped dramatically and its orders suddenly stopped, putting the firm in jeopardy and forcing the factory to slow down its operations.
Corthay’s maverick life course and off-the-wall career took another turn – one that probably made more economic sense – when, in October 2010, Xavier de Royère, a discreet but active businessman, stepped in. He was then an executive of Loewe, the Spanish leather goods company, and bought Corthay’s company, bailing it out and taking it to even greater international fame.
As young as eight years of age, Corthay had become enamoured with leather, and spent his Wednesdays having tea with one of his father’s cousins, who owned a small leather goods workshop.
At that time Brussels rules and regulations did not reign supreme in workshops, and so the boy was able to touch and use real tools under the supervision of his cousin. At thirteen, yearning for independence and full of entrepreneurial spirit, he built a small workshop in his own bedroom and started making small leather pieces – belts, purses and card-holders – which he sold (or gave away to girls he fancied!).
It was only logical that Corthay should join the Confrérie des Compagnons du Devoir and start his own apprenticeship as bootmaker, a craft he deems to be ‘the most comprehensive ’ of all the distinguished skills that are taught and passed on by this unique corporation of artisans.
‘At the time ’, he says, ‘I was the odd one out in the corporation. In the late 1970s the skilled manual trades were not well regarded among the French youth. In the school system, opting for that sort of trade was seen as a failure and not a means to learning a noble craft. It is as true now as it was then – for reasons of standing, the parents would rather have their children study law or business.’
Six years of apprenticeship and travelling took Corthay all over France: the Old Port of Marseille for two years, then Toulouse in the south-west, La Roche-Bernard in Brittany, Lyon, Strasbourg and, lastly, Paris. Like all those who complete their Tour de France apprenticeship, he has fond memories of those intense times, as well as an enduring respect for the masters who welcomed him and taught him the techniques of the trade.
The old bootmaking master Jean Dréan is a very special member of Corthay’s personal pantheon.
He lived in the small town of La Roche-Bernard in Morbihan, and was the last member of a family spanning nine generations of bootmakers, who had plied their trade continuously since 1705. An awe-inspiring character if ever there was one, as Corthay explains:
‘I had heard about him thanks to one of my companion brothers and I had my mind set on working with him before he was too old. I wrote again and again asking for work and after being rebuffed many times, as he considered himself too old for it, I finally talked him into having me in his workshop for a summer, without wages, just accommodation.
For three summers I lived with him, ate with him and worked with him to perfect my technique and sharpen the precision of each gesture. Jean Dréan was the one who really taught me the basics of this craft. Working with him was like a final internship. It was only after that that I felt ready to take the big leap and start out professionally.’In 1984, with his toolbox under his arm, Corthay knocked on the door of John Lobb’s Paris workshop, where he met the great Georges William Dickinson, then the general director of the most respected bootmaking institution in Paris. It was a difficult period for the shoe trade: the older generation of workers was nearing retirement, and fewer and fewer people were choosing the craft. The workshop employed a number of accomplished veteran bootmakers who worked at home.
In these circumstances, Dickinson did not hesitate to give the young man a chance to shine. Corthay started as an apprentice stitcher under the tutelage of ‘Monsieur Louis’ Portella, a great workshop manager of the time.
Corthay remembers his brief year-and-a-half stint at Lobb’s with great affection, especially the various colourful characters whose names he can still recall thirty years later: David, Gaspard, Laurent, ‘Monsieur Yves’, ‘Madame Marie-Claude ’.
‘When the old bootmakers were coming to the workshop for their delivery, the young apprentices that we were leapt on their shoes to scrutinize each and every detail and learn as much as possible from their work. Can you imagine that these artisans had been trained before the war? Their skills were like an endangered species. I was ever so lucky to have known such magnificent craftsmen before they disappeared.’
In 1985, barely a year and a half after arriving at John Lobb’s, Corthay received a phone call from Dréan’s former closer, who was then working for Berluti. Since he was retiring, he suggested that Corthay join the Berluti workshop and work under Jean Bourles. This major figure in the trade had trained with the legendary Roger Vivier, the footwear genius who invented stilettoes, created the pattern for Dior pumps and made the titillating thigh-high boots sported by Brigitte Bardot for the song ‘Harley Davidson’ in the 1960s.
Famous for his meticulous approach, Bourles turned out to be Corthay’s second major influence, passing on his taste for excellence and exacting perfection. A year later, in 1986, Pierre stepped into the great Bourles’s shoes as manager of the bespoke workshop. He stayed there for six years, until one of the firm’s suppliers, the last-maker Max Hameline, told him that the old bootmaker Richomme wanted to retire and was looking for someone to replace him.
Having honed his craft at John Lobb and then Berluti, Pierre Corthay soon forged a unique style that merged these antithetical visions of men’s footwear. While Berluti was adroitly and brazenly developing a flamboyant yet graceful approach with unusual patinas and radical shapes, John Lobb flew the flag for traditional bootmaking, leading the educated Parisian troops of classic style.
Corthay simply took the best of both worlds, creating shapes and patterns that displayed a very strong personality.The Sergio derby was conceived in 1996 for a famous photographers’ agent, and represents the typical Corthay style. It is at first sight a classic shoe. But its elegant, gently sloping toe bridging the gap between the ‘eagle claw’ toe (created by the mythical Hungarian bootmaker in London, Nikolaus Tuczek in the 1930s) and the conservative British toe.
The Vendôme Oxford displays a wingtip at the furthest fore of the foot so as to give a streamlined shape.
It is among the house ’s classic models, as is the Belphegor, a well-known pattern that echoes the Scottish ghillie (the traditional shoe to wear with a kilt). This model with its special lacing is striking, especially the sophisticated Satan version with its ‘pinched’ tip, for which the bootmaker must heat the leather and pinch it during the few seconds when it is hot enough. Talk about technical brinkmanship!
In 1999 Corthay made a bespoke model that remains to this day his greatest success: the Arca.
Then, in 2003, he released a ready-to-wear version of this two-eyelet derby with its elegantly pure lines, beautifully designed tongue and remarkably delicate Goodyear welting. It marked the beginning of Corthay’s international recognition. The Arca, which now comes in many versions, has become a classic of men’s luxury footwear, the emblem of men’s new-found love for beautiful shoes.
At the end of 2010, when Xavier de Royère became the controlling shareholder of Maison Corthay, he gave the firm the possibility of truly international expansion.He and his team opened several boutiques in major cities, including London, Hong Kong, Dubai and Beijing, and defined a business structure that enabled long-term strategy. Corthay was thus able to focus on design and artistic direction, while the bespoke workshop is still run by his faithful companions, his brother Christophe and Toulousain as workshop manager.
In 2013 the firm’s factory, where traditional Goodyear welting still reigns supreme, moved to Beaupréau in Maine- et-Loire, western France. In just a few years Maison Corthay has achieved unprecedented international expansion and has reached the status of benchmark for footwear connoisseurs all over the world.
In 2008 the French ministry of Culture and Communication made Corthay Maître d’Art (Master Craftsman).
This distinction, which has been awarded to 100 individual artisans (and not to their companies), singles out exceptional craftsmen in France and draws its inspiration from the Japanese living national treasures (Kakko Nintei). Corthay’s craftsmanship has thus been recognized as an essential part of France ’s heritage.
But the treasure he protects and carries within him is nothing other than the savoir-faire of nine generations of Dréans bookmakers, of Bourles’s demanding precision, of John Lobb’s old pre-war workers’ bootmaking secrets, and of the wisdom of all the masters Corthay encountered during his apprenticeship.
Corthay likes to quote an old African saying: ‘When an old man dies, a library burns.’
Thanks to his decisions, interests and activities, the ‘libraries’ of Dréan, Bourles and countless others have escaped the flames of oblivion.
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- Extract from "The Parisian Gentleman", by Hugo Jacomet and Andy Julia. 256 pages, 300 original pictures. © Thames and Hudson. All rights reserved.
- Photos © Andy Julia and Maison Corthay. Portrait of Pierre Corthay © Andy Barnham.
- See also the documentary produced by PG on Pierre Corthay, entitled "The Beauty of the Gesture", below :