“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.