I was recently invited to 43 Conduit Street, the London home of distinguished Parisian shoe maker Berluti.
I’ll confess I was determined not to like Berluti. For one thing I’m an Englishman who likes his English shoes. For another, ever the sceptic, I’m instantly suspicious of things which attract universal praise; and there is plenty of painted prose around on the subject of Berluti shoes.
I suppose there was also an element of inverse snobbery in my thinking. The shoes are a bit beyond my price range and I was content to assume this was just another over priced ‘luxury’ brand.
I did know a bit of the history prior to my visit; four generations of boot maker starting with Alessandro Berluti in 1895 and currently headed by Olga Berluti – the world’s only female bootmaker; and I knew about the prestigious former clientele which included Frank Sinatra, Andy Warhol, The Duke of Windsor and Richard Burton.
I suppose I was just determined to remain immune. However, by the time I left, had I been able to offer my girlfriend a convincing excuse as to why I’d blown the monthly rent on new shoes I’d have bought a pair (fear is a terrible inhibitor).
From the moment I arrived at the store I felt my defences weaken. Stepping over the threshold the street noise outside seemed to disappear, everything was bathed in a warm yellow light, and my nostrils were greeted with the manly cocktail of freshly polished wood and leather. Placed upon a long central table were rows of beautiful shoes.
When a writer is stuck for a metaphor or simile you can always fall back on describing something as a work of art. Trite but true, this is exactly how I feel about these shoes and accessories.
I’d seen pictures of the shoes but even those on the company’s website don’t fully do them justice. Only when you see the shoes in the flesh can you fully appreciate just how beautiful a piece of leather can be made to look. The patina defies description and is the result of a secret tanning process invented by Olga Berluti called Venezia. The layering of colour seems to go on forever, and you can’t help but stare at them, as you would a Rembrandt, trying to work out just how each individual stroke and application contributes to the whole. If infinity had a colour it surely would have been crafted and blended in a Berluti workshop.
And this is one of the things that attract clients to Berluti; nothing is beyond the call of beauty. My host Abigail told me that clients can spend hours with their in house colourist to ensure the colour and mix of light and shade is just right. But it doesn’t end with colour, you can have tattooing, script and an exhaustive choice of leathers. Many of the techniques are unique to Berluti and most developed by Olga herself. But detail is everything.
The leather for a pair of Berluti shoes comes from calves raised in the Swiss Alps. At altitude cows are less prone to mosquito bites and in no danger of having their skin damaged by barbed wire. Indeed, the leather has to be perfect, as it’s coloured by hand imperfections are difficult to hide.
There are many eccentricities within the Berluti universe, and a reason or a story behind almost every one, from rebellious cows and the Andy Loafer (an article in its own right) to polishing shoes. For example, Olga Berluti recommends shoes are polished with champagne, because the acidity of the champagne removes the extra fat in the shoe polish, enhancing the colour transparencies of the shoes. And every year she instructs a group of Berluti customers who make up the illustrious Swann Club on how to polish their shoes.
All this artistry doesn’t come cheap, starting at £590 for ready to wear and rising to several thousand pounds for bespoke. It seems almost vulgar to end things with talk of money, but such is the relationship between art and life.