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The First Lady of Sole

5 minute read

Several years ago, in her spare time, Olga Berluti made a cow — a beautiful life-sized bovine effigy entirely crafted in the exquisitely finished leather for which her family firm is famous. Then she added a finishing flourish of sequins and swatches cut from a favorite haute couture dress. She named the irresistible beast Torella, after her grandfather Torello Berluti, who had brought her into his custom-made shoe business when she was a teenager just out of convent school. Possibly it was the convent school that inspired Mlle.

Berluti’s impish notion of “disobedience,” which is what she calls the touch of creative folly that distinguishes the shoes she produces for some of the world’s best-dressed men. Since taking over Berluti’s Parisian headquarters in 1980, this fourth-generation (and the family’s only female) bootmaker has applied the impeccable hand-craftsmanship of the Berluti workshop to discreet design innovations that, she says, her grandfather would have found unthinkable: novel, deeply burnished patinas; unheard-of new colors of terra-cotta, viridescent sable, musty mulberry or pinot-noir purple; decorative “warrior” ridges, sometimes asymmetrical, 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 a silk ribbon might have been at the court of Versailles.

Olga’s initiatives also included getting more closely involved with her clients than were her forebears. Her work is done, she says, “with four hands,” consulting closely with her customers — who nonetheless are not always right. Her approach to comfort and fit is quasi-medical — the result of her own long consultations about foot physiology with her physician and surgeon clients — and she is well-known for refusing to make the wrong shoe for a client’s foot shape or lifestyle.

The diminutive, energetic and reflective Mlle. Berluti — who manages to combine Parisian chic and warm Italian sensibility — 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. A carpenter and then a shoemaker, he set out for Paris in 1895 and stayed 10 years, establishing his reputation for custom-made shoes during the Universal Exhibition of 1900.

His son Torello, raised in the Senigallia workshop, in turn headed for Paris in 1928. There he made his fortune with his “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 “Napoléon 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-Elysées, that is still the Berluti flagship.

Torello’s son Talbinio took over the business in the 1960s and ’70s and added a line of luxury ready-to-wear shoes, making the label available to an ever-larger international clientele with (somewhat) less money. By the time Talbinio passed the torch to his niece Olga, Berluti’s client list read like a Who’s Who of 20th century arts, letters, science and industry: James de Rothschild, Gaston and Claude Gallimard, Cursio Malaparte, Alberto Moravia, Robert F. Kennedy, Edith Piaf, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marcel Dassault, François Truffaut, Sergio Leone and Andy Warhol.

To Berluti’s patented tanning process, called Venetia, which produces an unusually supple leather, Olga sometimes adds a number of variations, including 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 shoes themselves are all made in the Paris workshop, although they can now be ordered, and fittings done, at Berluti boutiques in London, Milan and Tokyo. A second Paris shop will open in September, in St. Germain-des-Prés, where Olga’s new fall collection will include a sleek but sturdy short boot with a newly developed rubber sole incised with the pattern of a 1930s-era Rolls Royce tire. The special rubber of the sole is designed to cushion the human skeleton from pavement shock — orthopedic but sleek and chic — while the footprints it leaves behind are worthy of Agatha Christie.

In her grandfather’s storeroom Olga found jumbled piles of handmade wooden lasts — widened here and there as arches fell, rounded out over bunions and aging bones — that traced the history of Berluti clients. She decided the lasts must be saved, so she cleaned and polished them and then dressed them up in fantasy coverings of feathers, brocades and lace. The collection (which she calls her ex-votos) is displayed on tables all around her colorful atelier apartment, a cobbler’s masquerade ball whose guest list includes the Duke of Windsor, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Cocteau, Luchino Visconti, Mistinguett, Jean Renoir and Frank Sinatra.

One of the first of Olga’s many innovations was in fact the reinstatement of an ancient Italian shoemaker’s tradition: the insertion of a thin piece of leather under the sole of every shoe, meant to provide extra support but also to carry the signature of the shoemaker and to represent the anima, the soul of the shoe — just as Olga is the effervescent anima of the house of Berluti. When her grandfather and uncle first introduced her to the workshop, she says, “all they spoke about was duty and work. No one ever told me how marvelous this profession is.”

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