Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Quality Week Pt 1: Shoemaking; Berluti, Paris

The beautiful thing about keeping things in the family is the fact that you attach sentimental meaning to everything. This was no different with Olga Berluti when she fashioned her first bovine effigy from the finest leather; she named the irresistable beast Torella, after her grandfather Torello Berluti. She was, at a young age, roped into the custom-made shoes family business to tame her somewhat intractible nature. What she was able to do over the years, especially at the helm, was introduce new innovations into the custom process "such as novel, deeply burnished patinas, unheard-of new colours of terra-cotta, viridescent sable, musty mulberry or pinot-noir purple; decorative "warrior" ridges, sometimes assymetrical, inspired by African tribal scarification; small pinch pleats and punch-hole "tattoos"; and a leather-strip "lasso" threaded along the side of a shoe like silk ribbon might have been at the court of Versailles."

The article takes a closer look at the Berluti custom shoemaking process and how Olga takes a hands-on approach, especially taking into consideration her high profile clientele; something she terms "four hands". Her approach to comfort and fit is quasi-medical because of her own consultations on foot physiology. A process she engaged with her physician and surgeon clients. Incisively articulated: she refuses to make the wrong shoe for a client's foot or lifestyle.

Olga Berluti refuses to call herself an artist; she prefers "workman, like the workers of the Renaissance"- or like her great-grandfather Alessandro Berluti, born in Senigallia on Italy's Adriatic coast. Somewhat of a dilettante in carpentry, he trekked to Paris in 1895 staying 10 years, in the process honing his shoemaking skills and establishing his reputation for custom-made shoes during the Universal Exhibition of 1900. This, however, did not signal the end of the family's work back in Senigallia. Torello, his son, learnt the craft in this workshop and then also made his way to Paris in 1928. Speak of young blood injecting new ideas and innovation, Torello made his fortune with a model called the "Pope's shoe" - a variation of his father's original seamless three-eyelet Oxford - along with the "Renaissance Prince's shoe" (a seamless moccasin) and the "Napoleon III," a high top model with the first ever elastic side gussets. In the early 1950s he moved into the wood paneled shop on the rue Marbeuf, near the Champs-Elysees, that is still the Berluti flagship.

In the 1960s and 70s Torello's son, Talbinio, took over the reins and added a line of luxury ready-to-wear shoes, making the label available to an ever-larger international clientele with somewhat less money. There is some serious exclusivity to Berluti clientele, by the time Olga took over the reins from Talbinio, the client list read like a Who's Who of 20th century arts, letters, science and industry: James de Rothschild, Gaston and Claude Gallimand, Cursio Malaparte, Alberto Moravia, Robert F. Kennedy, Edith Piaf, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marcel Dassault, Francois Truffaut, Sergio Leone and Andy Warhol.

Some of the processes involved in the construction of a Berluti shoe are rather idiosyncratic and unique, a patented tanning process called Venetia, which produces an unusually supple leather. Others include, washing the hides in the lagoons of Venice, burying them in the Alpine snow at Cortina, and bleaching the finished leather by moonlight "for transparence." The discovery of jumbled piles of her grandfather's handmade wooden lasts, which traced the history of Berluti's clients, led Olga to a decision to preserve them. This entailed cleaning and polishing them, and dressing them up in fantasy coverings of feathers, brocades and lace. The collection is displayed all over her atelier apartment. A signature of Olga's innovations was the reinstatement of an ancient Italian shoemaker's tradition: the insertion of a thin piece of leather under the sole of every shoe. This was meant to provide extra support but also to carry the signature of the shoemaker and to represent the soul of the shoe - just as Olga is the soul of the house of Berluti.

PG: Man to man, generation to generation.

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