The lady with the power of heeling

Timothy Barber
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FOR more than a century, we have been heeling exceptional people,” says Olga Berluti, doyenne of the bespoke shoe business and maker of some of the most sought-after men’s footwear around. You sense she could mean “healing” too – she has an almost moral belief in the value fine shoes bring to her customers.

For Berluti, shoes are a religion – and she’s not the only one. Her customers have been known to hold black-tie gatherings at swish international hotels, where dinner is followed by a session of ritual shoe polishing, all under the watchful tutelage of Berluti herself. And it’s not just wax that they rub into their shoes – having in some cases paid several thousand pounds for a bespoke pair, it’s probably only fitting that they dab in a bit of champagne as well.

“The Russian army officers under the Tsar would rub chilled champagne into their boots,” Berluti says, via an interpreter. “The properties of the champagne remove the acidity of the wax that’s applied, so it’s actually a very good thing for preserving the leather.”

Right, but it’s hardly a normal way to use up a bottle of bubbly. However, boring old normality is not the realm in which Berluti likes to operate. A tiny lady in huge sunglasses, whose great uncle opened the first Berluti shop in Paris in 1895, she has built the brand into one of the most rarefied and exclusive in its sector, and she hasn’t done it by conforming to the norms of the trade. After all, we might think we have a fine tradition of hand-making shoes here in London, but you’re unlikely to find a plain pair of Oxford brogues in Berluti’s Mayfair boutique.

Instead, you’ll see rows of long, elegantly pointed items that are practically sculptural objects in their own right. They come in a kaleidoscopic range of colours, with lots of little design twists and tweaks. Some even have little calligraphic inscriptions running across the leather, taken from old French texts.

What really catches the eye is the character of the leather, and not just of the shoes. In the centre of the boutique stands a full-sized bullock made entirely from gleaming, polished hide. Berluti is highly protective of the patented methods by which skins are worked up with essential oils, polished again and again and coloured, but the effects created – and extended to the bags and other leather goods into which the company has branched – are remarkable. Some shoes seem to have a translucent quality, while the forthcoming ready-to-wear Pierre collection are designed to reflect the same smoky effects as leather that has been aged and exposed to light for 20 years.

Still others look like solid blocks of polished wood, but feel nothing like it to put on – absolute comfort is as important as look. Berluti, who says she is kept awake at night thinking about shoe designs and has a special night workshop as a result, is at least as animated by the science of shoemaking as she is critical of those who treat shoes as a peripheral accessory.

“Shoes aren’t just a garment, they support your body and weight, it’s a mechanism that needs to be very precise,” she says. “If you don’t know about shapes, volumes and movement of the body, you can’t build a shoe – you’re just a stylist amusing yourself without knowing the rules.”

As you’d expect, you need deep pockets to join the club of Berluti patrons. The new Pierre collection, which will be available in the autumn, has starting prices of £420, while for bespoke shoes, which will take six months to be delivered from the time a customer visits the boutique for measuring, prices start at around the £2,000 mark. Some, however, pay many times that for rarer, more elaborate items.

Difficult as it is to imagine her pulling on a pair of dungarees and whistling a happy tune while stitching leather, Berluti sees herself fulfilling an artisan role, servicing the needs of her clients. These have included Andy Warhol, Robert de Niro and – back in the day – the Duke of Windsor, who she describes as one of the most elegant men ever. For her clients, she says, such luxury is a necessity rather than an indulgence.

“The shoe is the last armour of modern man,” she says. “It precedes and announces you, it’s the first thing people see of you. It is dead, but if you choose it properly and look after it, you are going to give life to it, and you’ll tame it. You’ll wear it for 10 or 20 years, you’ll give it to your son, it’ll be with you for important moments in your life. It’s the opposite of consumption.”

Berluti is at 43 Conduit Street, W1S 2YJ 020 74371740

Pierre boot
From £1,000

Alberto tassle loafer