The Rake visits Berluti for LVMH’s, The Journées Particulières
In its fifth edition, LVMH open the doors of 57 Maisons to the public in 93 sites across 15 countries. Ahead of the three day global event, The Rake pays a visit to one of the brand's most historic Maisons in Paris, Berluti.
“The object of art is to give life a shape” said Jean Anouilh, the absurdist French playwright. If you put Berluti’s bespoke shoemaking into the spotlight when probing the substance of this quote, you end up with a compatible and stimulating study. Established in Paris in 1895 by a 30-year-old Italian-born cordwainer named Alessandro Berluti – the house has perpetually operated at the zenith of bespoke shoemaking. Dean Martin, Marcello Mastroianni and Andy Warhol – all relied on Berluti’s pioneering vision of custom shoemaking to shape their own indelible contributions to showbiz and art history. And for these cultural icons – along with its discerning worldwide customer base, their shoemaking journey starts with the carving of the last. “The last is first” as the craftsman like to say. Yet, in the modern era – there’s a fading number of craftsmen who are able to state this phrase as true specialists in the art of bespoke last-making. Next door to Cifonelli, on rue Marbeuf, sits the impressive atelier of Berluti. A sanctum of old-world artisanship, the workrooms are occupied by three master shoemakers including one master craftsman of lasts. Dressed in a traditional leather shoemaker’s apron, and sporting thick-rimmed glasses, Jean-Michel Casalonga is the revered artisan upholding Berluti’s peerless bespoke last-making reputation. Casalonga, in fact, became the house’s youngest maître bottier, or master shoemaker, at age 30 in 2008. With sculpted lasts in the background, carving tools – a long work table lit up by the natural light seeping through the portes-fenêtres, The Rake was fortunate to meet Casalonga in this iconic shoemaking habitat. One of nine rooms stretching around the mansion block, with other areas dedicated to cutting, closing and finishing, the atelier bequeaths shoemaking expertise in every step. But like the Maison’s founder Alessandro Berluti who had a particular talent for sculpting wood, Casalonga is the current successor tasked with keeping the dying art of carving bespoke wooden lasts alive. And not only is he responsible for the technical mastery of carving each last, but he’s the bespoke manager, which in France means he has a direct relationship with the customer. So even as the last-maker, he is in front of the customer, taking measurements, and speaking about the project that they have in mind. At Berluti – a typical pair of bespoke shoes designed by Casalonga takes around 50 hours. It takes 20 hours for the upper: the pattern, selecting and cutting the skin, stitching, broguing – all detailed by hand, whilst the bottoming, the construction of the shoe takes approximately 30 hours. If they make a double sole or perform Norwegian stitching with lots of detail it can take even more time. But the quality of each step can only be as good as the foot-shaped piece of wood carved by Casalonga. Wielding a paroir – a medieval tool, he slices wooden shavings with even more precision than France’s pinpoint goal kicker Melvyn Jaminet who also happens to be the number 15 for the town of Casalonga’s birth, Perpignan. In euphonious tones, and with a crispness, not dissimilar to the narration style of Joanna Lumley, but in a French accent Casalonga also makes time to give us a detailed insight into the traditional processes of last-making, whilst enlightening us on how the LVMH-owned house are shaping its future:
What happens on the first consultation, and what is next step? We take 12 measurements, but it can rise to around 20 if it’s a riding boot style. We need to take the measurement of the calf, the height of the calf, the length of the leg, and a few other measurements. I also take the print on the carbon paper, this is very important because I take the measurements but in my own way. The carbon print is crucial, because even if I didn’t see the fit I can have a better vision to see the anatomy. Knowledge of the anatomy of the foot is imperative. I speak at length with the customer to thoroughly understand the expectation. After the first meeting I will work on the design of the last. How do you make the last? Starting with a block of wood called hornbeam, I will gradually sculpt the last for the shoe using a steel-cored tool called a paroir. This shoe-shaped last will then be honed and smoothed, first with a rasp, then with sandpaper. The last-maker must be extremely precise during this very technical step to ensure the last respects the foot’s morphology while retaining the elegant line of the shoe. Do you cut both left and right of the last? I cut left. This is one specific. When I take the measurements, I will control the volume in general. If there is a big difference I will cut the left and the right. If there is a little difference, I do an average and I do a mock-up with that to make sure it fits the customer. Not only his foot, but his eyes. I like to say that we fit the fit and also to fit the eyes. It has to be comfortable and please the customer. After the trial I do the adjustments, fit on fit. It is more consistent that way because it keeps it in proportion. Berluti is known for its diversity of toe line. We have round, pointy, square, half-square, super-square, the latter like vintage ski boots. We seek a lot of inspiration from the past, but we are very creative as last-makers to find a new line. The proportion is so precise that’s its very helpful to do a copy of the last. I will focus on the left foot, and do a mock-up, and add the adjustments.
Who taught you to make a last and how long do you train? I learned with Patrice Rock, who used to work at a competitor company with a very famous last-maker and shoe tree maker. I am on two sides with Patrice who showed me lots of tricks to craft shoe lasts. He has an interesting background – as he was an interior designer. It means he has a more aesthetic and design approach. Design is interesting because both the usefulness and the beauty are so important. Patrice and I were always together and taught me a lot, and one day he said you’re ready to be in front of the customer. It was empowering, but stressful at first as you feel a little in danger. But then you realise at some point you need to be by yourself to formulate and develop your own approach. I know you use very specific wood in last-making. What wood is it? In France specifically, we use hornbeam (charme) in French. The other day I was visiting the prestigious École Boulle in Paris, and they have a 27,000 square foot workshop. I was talking with a teacher there about wood, because he’s an ebonist. He showed me lots of colour variation. I said: “Do you have hornbeam”. “No, it’s too strong for us.”, he replied. I know that hornbeam has very good properties for humidity. The wood will not move if the humidity is changing. It is very important for us to maintain shape and volume. With hornbeam you can be sure that even when the customer returns after 5 years the last retains the exact volume. The wood is also hard and strong, which is convenient when putting in nails. With this wood you do around 10 pairs of shoes with the same last without any problem.
Would you say your style of last is rooted in the tradition of French shoemaking? Yes, British also. In England you have lots of last-makers. I’m not sure those last-makers have a close relationship with the customer. In France the human contact is a stronger tradition. It is a shame that this is disappearing though. Lots of companies replace the last-maker with polyvalent craftsman, or some brands decide not to involve the last-maker in the customer relationship. This dissociation is a pity. Berluti is the opposite – as it supports the last-making tradition by backing the craftsman who are adept at both technical craft and maintaining customer relationships. The latter requires human skills such as empathy and patience. At the end of the day we’re following the request of the customer. I say that every single day that I create shoes, but I’m not a designer. My designer for a particular creation is the customer. They’re the artistic director for each commission. Berluti also supports that I’m focusing on the last. I don’t have to delve into the craft of the upper or bottoming anymore. I’m super-specialised in one step. Is Berluti helping you with training the next generation? I’m extremely happy and proud to work at Berluti for so long. When I started 20 years ago there were three craftsmen here who taught me a great deal. I feel at home because I am now passing on the knowledge that I gained. Today, I am a manger and there is great respect between everyone. It is extremely comfortable working with the team so it really does feel like home. From day one at Berluti I’ve been given valuable guidance, and so I like to return what I’ve received to the younger generation of artisans. Every two years we have a new apprentice. They focus on the bottoming, because this is the first part you learn when you want to become a bespoke shoemaker. But I always take them to meet customers – to help them understand customer relationships which is the key to success. I try to give them an introduction into the mindset of being a last-maker.
The Berluti patina is very well-known. Please can you give us an overview of the process? The process 20 years ago was very exclusive. Berluti was one of the only brands creating patina. Today it is more common, but we have a different approach. We create the patina on the finished pair. If we make something wrong we need to redo everything. First, we need to select the right skin. We have to keep in mind the final product. Sometimes you can select a skin which doesn’t match the colour of the sole or piping. You need to know that for a specific colour you need to select a specific skin. It can be very confusing for the worker. We need to anticipate from the very beginning the result of the colour gradient. At the start of the patina process we wash the skin – to not only clear the grease, but the stain of the wax and all the smaller things. By washing the skin, we create some contrast. We use pigments to alter colours. It is like being a painter, you need to create shadows and light to give life to the shoe. It about giving a brand-new shoe a natural aesthetic, which requires a certain artistic sense. Is that the final step? After finishing the bottoming, we let the shoe dry for two weeks. Then we take out the last, do a copy of the last, and we make shoe trees with external guys. For security reasons we cannot make shoe trees in-house because the tools are deemed a certain danger. We work with an external craftsman who is one of the last shoe tree makers in France. We ship the finished shoes with the last to the shoe tree maker. The shoe trees come back to us, and then we do what we call ‘cocooning’. This process involves cleaning the shoe, cutting out the extra lining, putting the insole in, and stamping the Berluti order number inside. Each order will have a specific number. You will know which customer it is, which shoemaker worked on the pair and which last-maker. The purpose of this is to help distinguish the shoe’s exact provenance.