Complex Made Simple

Sculpting bespoke footwear: the art of fine details

It is well known that footwear says a lot about a person. Bespoke shoes may be expensive, but the intricate details put in their creation make them well worth the money.

Berluti, one of the most prestigious men’s shoe companies in France, which has a legacy of bespoke shoemaking since 1895, has been owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH since 1993. It has expanded in recent years, adding custom suits and a ready-to-wear collection to its offerings, but shoes — bespoke shoes, specifically — remain a cornerstone of the brand’s prestige.

“Shoemaking is a relationship. You start with somebody touching the feet, which is something a bit intimate,” Jean-Michel Casalonga, the house’s youngest maître bottier, or master shoemaker, said.

Casalonga, 30, started as an unpaid intern at Berluti 11 years ago. He was studying for an advanced degree in physics when he decided to switch careers and become a bespoke shoemaker, an industry where young blood is rare. He dropped out of school and spent five years learning the approximately 250 precise steps needed to make a single pair of Berluti shoes.

A typical pair of Berluti custom shoes, designed by Casalonga or one of the company’s other two master shoemakers, takes 50 man-hours to construct over a period of at least six months. They start at about $7,000, and can run much higher. There is a fitting – six to 12 measurements are made, for volume, width, weight – for the last, a model foot precisely carved out of hornbeam.

Casalonga carves the lasts on a paroir, an appealingly medieval tool sourced from Paris’ flea markets – it’s essentially a giant machete attached at one side to a workbench. In his heavy leather apron and thick-rimmed glasses, Casalonga wields it expertly, slicing off shavings of hornbeam in great big sweeping motions, while constantly referring back to his indecipherable measurements and pencil notations.

Many Berluti shoes are made from hand-oiled Venezia leather, but also beaver tail, python and shark. Casalonga has made derby shoes and riding boots, and golf shoes that cost more than golf carts. His job has turned him into a student of masculine insecurity. He has given a boost to short guys who want to be taller, and a little extra toe for tall guys who think their feet look comparatively puny.

“It’s a bit like a sculpture,” he said. “For me, we work to make the foot more beautiful than it is.” A prototype — a fully functional shoe, made of second-rate leather — goes out to the client and is then cut up and marked for further adjustments. Then, the final piece with more carving is followed by hand-grinding the finer details with a coarse file called a rasp, and then sanding the rough parts smooth. Finally, the soles and uppers are constructed, painstakingly stitched together by hand using pig hair wrapped in seven strands of linen. The finished shoes are then coloured, also by hand, with Berluti’s blend of mineral dyes.

Berluti’s maître bottiers create custom shoes for the most image-conscious, cocksure and swaggering men on the planet, with special requests as unique as the shoes themselves are, including travelling to size clients up wherever they might be – their private yachts or magnificent palaces.

Casalonga knows the lining fetishists: the Japanese clients who want a little flash when they remove their shoes at a restaurant in Ginza, the Arabs who need their wingtips to stand out from the pile at the mosque. He has studied the foot bones — metatarsals, phalanges, etc. — and can tell if you play soccer or tennis, if you spend most of your days standing or sitting, if you’re a frequent long-haul flier and will need to account for swelling.

Casalonga is one example of the artistic epiphany that has led many others of his generation to cast off their parents’ white-collar career expectations and dedicate themselves to making things – be they pickles or violins – from scratch. But not all have Casalonga’s list of bespoke clients.

© The New York Times 2014