The Heeling Power of Olga Berluti

Shoemaker extraordinaire

Some people have the ability to read hands; shoemaker Olga Berluti reads feet. Studying a client's foot with the intensity of a sculptress and the precision of a surgeon, she immediately knows its exact size and width, and if this person prefers soft-leather loafers or hard-leather boots. When she became the first female artistic director of the maison de Berluti in 1990, she not only inherited a family business but a Paris institution. Founded by Alessandro Berluti in 1895, the atelier and shop was a carefully guarded secret. An endless list of celebrated men—John F. Kennedy, the Duke of Windsor, Aristotle Onassis—sought out fashionable Rue Marbeuf off the Champs-Elysées for a sleek pair of Berluti shoes. When Olga, Alessandro's shy great-granddaughter, took over, the house's traditional forms exploded into inspired collections renowned for their chic design, unparalleled comfort, and signature exquisite colors.

It began in 1962, with a visit from Andy Warhol. Recognizing a kindred spirit, 17-year-old Olga fashioned a pair of flat-tipped moccasins. Despite her grandfather's response—"trash"—Berluti showed them to Warhol, who expressed his admiration by sending the shoes back for repairs for years thereafter.

"For a tradition to remain alive," says Berluti, "we owe it both respect and disobedience." And since her now-legendary first exploit, Berluti has pushed the boundaries of shoe design while remaining faithful to the effortless elegance championed by her grandfather and great-grandfather before her. Creating at least one new collection every year, Berluti offers a bewitching range of styles. There's the classic Club collection, slender shoes with an oval tip; a playful Lasso collection, Berluti's tribute to the American cowboy, with a thick leather cord woven through the shoes' sides; even the orthopedic Physiologiques line, developed after years of research into the physiology of feet.

Most innovative, though, are the lines that treat leather like a living skin, transforming it into a pliable material that can be scarred, pierced, or tattooed. "I had an African client whose skin showed tribal scarifications," Berluti explains. "I wanted to make a shoe that integrated his heritage into the design." After an intense study of African art and endless scar-related queries to plastic surgeons, the Warrior collection was born. These bold, masculine shoes (strictly made-to-measure) have a thick unilateral seam running from arch to little toe, scarring the flawless leather in an ingenious union of beauty and violence. The Tattoo collection is covered in images or words of the client's choosing. For the new, ready-to-wear Piercing collection, Berluti gathers the leather like fabric on one side, puncturing and binding it with a single confident stitch.

Thanks to the house's acquisition by LVMH in 1993 (LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault is a customer and a fan), the line has gained a rapidly expanding international presence. The fanciful atelier on Rue Marbeuf is now joined by another shop in Paris, three in Japan, two in London, one in Milan, and another set to open in Moscow next year. All offer ready-to-wear and made-to-measure styles, although custom service does require an appointment with a shoe master.

While the designs may be thoroughly modern, the production process remains firmly in its stylish past. The birth of a custom-made pair of Berlutis still takes nine months, during which the client is invited for at least one follow-up fitting. After Berluti's trademark foot exam, the diagnostique du pied, the client chooses from among fine leathers (including alligator and ostrich) and settles on a patina (ranging from natural browns to bright fuchsia). A precisely carved wooden maquette of the foot becomes the basis for a mock pair, painstakingly constructed from a single piece of leather. To gain Berluti's approval, the final pair must fit like a second skin. "There's nothing more vulgar," she says, "than a man uncomfortable in his shoes."

But the transformation is only truly complete when Berluti applies her colorful oil-based dyes, developed over more than three decades. Not allowed to touch the instruments or materials during her four-year apprenticeship, Berluti turned to experimenting with colors, bleaches, and new patinas. "I was fascinated by shoes sent back for repairs," she says. "They were at the end of their life, but told stories of sun, the moon, the rain. And recaptured the owner's life." Determined to imitate the passing of time without sacrificing the shine of a brand-new shoe, Berluti studied chemistry and spent night after night alone in her workshop mixing oils, creams, and pigments.

Beyond her devotion to the technical and creative aspects of shoemaking, Berluti is obsessively dedicated to her clients. Their unfinished shoes at all stages stand beside the old wooden maquettes, dressed in bright fabrics to preserve the aging wood. Personal artifacts are scattered throughout the atelier—the leather case where Berluti keeps her dyes once held Marcello Mastroianni's grappa bottles—and every corner seems to yield another anecdote. The stories include names like Cocteau, Visconti, and Fellini, but to Berluti they're family, and a source of inspiration. "It's the men who've passed through this door that have made this house extraordinary," says Berluti. Smiling, she adds, "I am merely a simple worker." Anyone who has walked a mile in her shoes would undoubtedly disagree.

Olga Berluti bespoke shoes start at $3,350; ready-to-wear ranges from $740-$1,250. At 26 Rue Marbeuf, Paris; 33-1-53-93-97-97.