Of shoes and men

Of shoes and men

The following text is an extract from my book "The Parisian Gentleman", published last October by London publisher Thames and Hudson. For those of you who would like to acquire this volume, go to your nearest bookstore or follow this link for the USA and this link for the UK.

This complete transcript of the introduction chapter of the shoe section of the book also gives us the opportunity to publish some unpublished photographic material by Andy Julia (originally shot for the book, but eventually not selected).

All the photographs in this article : © Andy Julia pour Parisian Gentleman and Thames and Hudson.

Of shoes and Men

Tokyo, 1 June 2012. I am sitting in the darkness of a cinema. I am slightly nervous. The credits of my film, La Beauté du Geste, start rolling.

The Cinemart is a pleasant venue, an arts cinema nestled in a small street of the boisterous Roppongi Minato-Ku neighbourhood. Tonight, the house is full.

As the first image pops up in the dark, a latecomer is lost in the central aisle, looking for a seat. I take his arm and offer him my seat; after all, it’s more important that he should be comfortable for the screening of a film whose every shot and word I know, and of whose every defect I am painfully aware. I end up sitting on the steps of the auditorium, thinking that if people should doze off, I could at least sneak outside and spare myself the agony of their boredom. I am also terribly nervous about the subtitles. Is the master bootmaker Pierre Corthay’s thirty-three-minute monologue really palatable for a Japanese audience who will be forced to read it? Is there anyone here who is actually excited by my stories about great artisans and bespoke shoes?

Ten minutes later I muster the courage to look around me and study the faces I can make out in the dark. I am surprised to see that people are wide awake, with respectful smiles and even moist eyes when Corthay tells of his years of training with his old master.

This is a simple film in which a French bootmaker, a master with an international reputation, explains what his work is about and discovers other incredible workshops belonging to traditional artisans. It has been screened in Paris, London, Tokyo, Dubai and Hong Kong to full houses, audiences who were moved and excited by the film. Perhaps, I think, this is a sign that men care about their shoes.

John Lobb and Berluti

At the dawn of the 1980s, the situation in Paris was very different. Men did not seem very passionate about their shoes, apart from a select few who had had some education on the subject of bespoke footwear, often thanks to their (rich) families. To indulge their passion they would go secretly to the rue Boissy d’Anglas (John Lobb) or rue Marbeuf (Berluti).

The market in Paris at the time could be easily described: at the top was the John Lobb workshop, present in Paris since 1902 and responsible for training almost all the great contemporary bootmakers; now the flagship of the Hermès Group, dominant and boasting a rich and faithful clientele of distinguished customers with a clearly anglophile taste (at least when it came to shoes).

Lobb Bottes formes - copie
Lobb Lasts - copie

Berluti was the first bespoke bootmaker to offer luxury ready-to-wear, which it did as early as 1959. This very special house came to embody the renewal of men’s shoes in Paris, displaying in the famous window of its shop in rue Marbeuf bold shapes that had generations of penniless would-be sophisticates staring open-mouthed – including yours truly.

Berluti Alessandro - copie
Berluti Adelaide

John Lobb having launched its beautiful ready-to-wear collection in 1982 (made in Northampton, of course), the situation was clear- cut: Lobb and Berluti shared the Parisian market for luxury shoes. The customers of the former were from the upper-class bourgeoisie, quiet anglophiles from upscale neighbourhoods. The latter firm catered for intellectuals and artists with a slightly wilder frame of mind in the spirit of the Left Bank (even if the shop itself was on the other side of the Seine).

Apart from these two, only very small, secret houses in Paris offered luxury shoes, such as Aubercy’s remarkable boutique on the rue Vivenne (founded in 1935).

Are you for J. M. Weston or Church’s?

A slight cut below these firms, two other companies were vying for a much larger market, that of classic high-quality shoes: the French house J. M. Weston from Limoges and the British firm Church’s, originally from the St James district of Northampton, the Mecca of British shoemaking.

In the mid-1980s a heated debate pitted the staunch advocates of Weston’s 180 loafer against the champions of Church’s Grafton. The Weston side praised the ‘hunting’ or the triple-soled derby, and Church’s supporters extolled the tasselled loafer. There was great discord on the boards of the big companies in La Défense, Paris’s business quarter. You could observe two enemy clans: the ‘nationalists’ (for Weston) and the ‘traitors’, who loved Church’s. Such ‘discussions’ were to give rise, twenty years later, to the first online forums dedicated to shoes, those mysterious objects of male desire.

180 Penny Loafer
Weston Chasse

As for me, although I was officially among the Westonians – parading my only pair of city derbies as a student after saving my pennies for longer than I care to admit – I had avoided the problem of which maker to side with by buying a magnificent second-hand pair of Church’s golden-brown Graftons. I can confess now that wearing them, I felt invincible.

The competition lasted until the end of the 1990s, when the Prada group bought Church’s and steered the brand into more showy territory. The rivalry, however, was the backdrop for the rise of a new mid-range market, with brands such as Bowen copying models from the two benchmark houses. In addition, two French firms with a more casual style were about to find their own clientele of customers concerned more with solid than with well-designed shoes: Heschung and Paraboot.

‘I Imagine You Mean Soulier, Monsieur, Not Chaussure?’

In the early 1990s the market changed radically, driven by the energy of Olga Berluti, who transformed men’s shoes from purely functional items of clothing into objects of desire. She brought back the dated term soulier to indicate the difference between luxury shoes and the more common chaussures.

This term that had almost fallen out of use was suddenly becoming the rallying cry for a new generation of lovers of luxury footwear, devotees who (including myself ) never failed to correct anyone who dared publicly to use the awful word chaussure instead.

Berluti Whole cut pair

Even if using such an old-fashioned word was only a whimsical and snobbish impulse, it did have an impact, and what may seem a tiny linguistic detail has become a telltale sign of the difference between a mass-produced commodity for consumers who do not care about what they wear, and a luxury article selected by knowledgeable gentlemen.

Replicating the Patina of Time

Coloriste Berluti - copie

As her shop in the rue Marbeuf had become the hub of Paris’s business and media elite, Olga Berluti had invented a concept that became instantly popular: patina.

It was another linguistic shift, and no small revolution: whereas ‘patina’ had previously been used to describe the natural colours bestowed by the passing of years, it now characterized a method of giving leather a special colour that resembled the patina of time, so as to give the shoe unique character.The artifice spread.

Although it is still seen as anathema by some purists from the rue de Mogador or from Limoges, it gave birth in the early twenty-first century to an altogether new business: the shoe-shining salon.

Of course, a single factor cannot possibly account for the dynamic trend of men’s shoes during the last decade. Yet the keen interest in the patinas from rue Marbeuf are the sign of a deeper transformation.

All of a sudden, the epitome of the functional item has become not simply a luxury object but a field of expression for a new generation of artisans and artists. Some of the bolder artists have gained public recognition, such as Hom Nguyen, whose imprint of a verse from Baudelaire ’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) on a pair of Berlutis stands out as a lasting achievement. Other experts, such as Paulus Bolten in Paris, have even organized ‘patina nights’ at which shoe enthusiasts are trained in the art of shoe-shining and Oxford- pampering.

Bolten pinceaux
Bolten Boutique

From about 2005 onwards, Europe ’s shoemakers (apart from the British firms, whose orthodox ideas and cult of low-key moderation forbid the vulgarity inherent in imitating the patina of time) delved into the business of made-to-order patina, and more generally that of customized shoes. In France, J. M. Weston was (and still is, by the way) the only firm to resist the trend, preferring to focus on high- quality leather and the beauty of its natural patina.

In Paris, some fine houses specialized in customizing men’s shoes and offering particularly daring patinas, thereby garnering a local and sometimes international reputation. Altan Bottier – a fine, traditional workshop famous for its ‘ready-to-customize’ shoes – is such a firm. Its signature model is a superb Adelaide oxford, the ideal candidate for the complex art of patina.

The same could be said of the shoes designed by Marc Guyot, who has been revisiting the golden age of men’s style for years, developing his own approach through a line of characterful shoes with patina on demand.

Marc Guyot
Guyot Souliers 1

I must also mention the excellent patina and design work of Caulaincourt, a young house whose reputation is on the rise in Paris thanks to the energetic leadership of its founder, Alexis Lafont.

Pierre Corthay and Anthony Delos

The bootmakers Pierre Corthay and Anthony Delos are the French heroes of the luxury shoe revolution that is also taking place in London (with the work of Tony Gaziano and Dean Girling), Budapest (László Vass), Milan (Riccardo Freccia Bestetti) and Tokyo (Koji Suzuki).

Corthay is a Compagnon du Devoir and Maître d’Art (a distinction awarded by the Ministry of Culture, recognizing the artisan and his skill as belonging to the country’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’). Delos, meanwhile, is a Compagnon du Devoir, an orthopaedic specialist and a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a prestigious designation that distinguishes the country’s most renowned craftsmen in fields as diverse as pastry-making, butchery and tapestry.

Like many French bootmakers, both men trained in the John Lobb workshop – the finest bespoke bootmaker in the world, according to all connoisseurs. Corthay went on to manage the Berluti workshop before opening his own bespoke firm in 1990. His younger brother, Christophe – himself also a Compagnon du Devoir – soon joined him. Maison Corthay grew impressively, offering ready-to-wear shoes with the boldest, neatest shapes and designs ever seen on the market.

The Corthay brothers even opened a factory in the suburbs of Paris so as to produce shoes ‘made in France ’ that are among the most beautiful in the world. Helped by the arrival of a new partner in 2010, the workshop was propelled to the international forefront of men’s shoes.

Bespoke-Guilliz - copie
Bespoke-Fantomas - copie

Anthony Delos, who is ten years younger than Corthay, followed a more gradual path, but has also emerged as one of the heroes of the French shoe renaissance. After supplementing his apprenticeship with a degree in orthopaedics, he set up shop near Saumur in western France, home of the Cavaliers du Cadre Noir (the French military riding academy). His small workshop, far from the madding Parisian crowd, has built an international reputation among shoe-lovers – often referred to as ‘calceophiles’. Finally, in 2012 Delos joined Berluti’s bespoke workshop.

Berluti Bespoke 15
Berluti Bespoke 14

These parallel trajectories show just how dynamic the market is for men’s shoes in France. It is telling that artisans with a traditional background have been able to garner international applause for the sheer excellence of their craft and the inventive elegance of their products.

France: In the Top Tier of Men’s Luxury Shoes

British shoemaking benefits greatly from the nurturing and promotion of particular skills and of a positive image, especially in Northampton, the historical cradle of such factories as Church’s, Trickers and Crockett & Jones.

However, despite lacking the international recognition enjoyed in the field by Britain, France is among the great bootmaking countries. Since about 2005 the market has fragmented, and a variety of very competitive new players have come not from the expected places – England or Italy – but rather from Portugal (Carlos Santos), Romania (Saint Crispin’s), Hungary (László Vass) and, most notably, Spain (Carmina). Faced with that growing and increasingly competitive global market, French shoemakers are doing well, thanks to time-honoured houses with an international reputation (John Lobb and Berluti), younger firms with an expanding renown (Corthay) and less conspicuous workshops, such as Aubercy – probably the best-kept secret of men’s shoemaking – whose jewel of a boutique is highly esteemed by the cognoscenti.

Aubercy Bottine BW - copie
Aubercy model plateau - copie
Aubercy Table Ronde

As for J. M. Weston, this superb firm has been such a driving force for the whole market that it stands in a category of its own. It is the only shoemaker in the world to own two traditional tanneries, near Limoges, one dedicated to soles and the other to the more refined task of producing leather for uppers.

Cuir tannerie Weston
180 machine Weston 1
180 machine Weston 2
Factory Weston - copie

Paris: A Proud Capital of Bespoke Shoes

France ’s capital city has long been in the vanguard of bespoke bootmaking internationally, thanks in great measure to the British crown jewel John Lobb and thus to the Hermès Group, of which it became part – in an operation that was managed remarkably well – in 1976.

Interestingly enough, John Lobb already had a pronounced Parisian accent, given that its workshop had been in the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré since 1902, staffed by French bootmakers working under the British flag.

John Lobb’s bespoke salon, on the rue de Mogador, is undeniably one of the most beautiful workshops in the world. This unique workshop, which has trained the best boot-, last- and pattern-makers in France (and, indeed, globally), is the ultimate reference for bespoke boots, a highly specialized and demanding art form that very few houses can really master.

Berluti was acquired by the LVMH group in 1993, and has also been able to keep its splendid bespoke workshop, and even expand it handsomely. It remains an international hallmark of bootmaking. Its recruitment of Anthony Delos in 2012 bodes well for the future of the workshop, where unique shoes are still made according to high- quality traditional standards.

Two other workshops, much lauded by connoisseurs, are an essential addition to these famous firms: the Corthay workshop, which boasts no fewer than three Compagnons du Devoir and produces the most marvellously sophisticated shoes, and the bootmaker Dimitri Gomez. Gomez, who works in the Crockett & Jones boutique in Paris, also makes traditional shoes that have garnered him international praise.

Dimitri Gomez
Gomez bottines
Gomez Crocodile

EDIT : Since the publication of this book, two French bespoke master-bootmakers have opened their workshops : Philippe Atienza (Paris) and Stephane Jimenez (Bordeaux).

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