I wanted to start with the idea of evolution, not revolution," says Jean Christopher Descours, 31, who three years ago became CEO of J. M. Weston, the venerable 78-year-old men's shoe empire. He is standing (wearing a pair of black Savile "Richelieu" loafers) in the Weston boutique on Champs-Elysées, amid dramatically lit displays of men's footwear. "After all," Descours admits, "I was only two when my grandfather bought the company."
His reserve is probably prudent. The J. M. Weston name rests on tradition—every French president since George Pompidou has owned a pair—and competes toe-to-toe with such heavyweights as Olga Berluti, Church English, and John Lobb. Descours wanted to make his mark, "to modernize and go global," in his words, but without rocking the boat. Fortunately the young executive possesses a solid background in finance (he graduated with honors from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques) and, perhaps as important, the confidence that comes with being in the third generation of owners.
Descours's opening move was hiring Michel Perry, the eponymous shoe designer known for his slightly eccentric women's collection, to create Les Nouveaux Classiques, new, more fashion-focused lines. Next he brought in the new-on-the-scene French architect Marika Chaumet to transform the look of J. M. Weston stores from a stuffy English private men's club aesthetic to a modern and minimalist mixture of glass, chrome, and muted leather. "Now," says Descours, gesturing at the shelves, "you can really see the shoes."
For all of Descours's forward thinking, he knew he also had to maintain the loyal clientele that depended on Weston for consistent, classically elegant footwear. Consider that the emperor of shoes himself, Manolo Blahnik, is a devoted customer. He first discovered the brand as a young man living in Geneva. "I have been wearing them for forty years," he says. "They are beautifully made and last forever. Anytime I am in Paris, I take it as an occasion to buy a new pair."
Pierre Passebon, the Paris-based antiquaire and owner of Galerie du Passage (a recent exhibition there showcased Karl Lagerfeld's photographs), bought his first pair in 1965. "Back then it was the height of dandyism to slip centimes [dime-size coins] under the band of your Weston loafer."
Given that longevity and legendary quality have proved main factors in the company's success, it is no surprise that Descours met resistance at the outset. "Even my father was a little nervous," he recalls. "For twenty-five years Weston had worked so well. Then I come along and shake things up."
Descours instituted a strict hands-off policy with the tried-and-true favorites, and Perry's "new classics," though edgier and skewed a bit younger, are only subtly different from the rest. The Savile Line's "Richelieu" walking shoes, for example, have a slightly longer and sharper-cut foot ($650). And Perry modified a short boot ($395) with discreet rubber soles. The "trainer," a leather and suede sneaker ($375), is for "le weekend," says Descours.
The four J. M. Weston signatures still—and as Descours states, always will—remain. The "Hunt Derby" ($1,480), a sturdy laceup, and the "Golf Oxford" ($595), with thick ridged soles, are the most substantial-and masculine-looking of the group. The "Chelsea" boot ($725) is elasticized on both sides to facilitate slipping on, and "Le Mocassin" ($485), a loafer, is reportedly a favor- ite of Jacques Chirac's.
No matter the style, every Weston shoe goes through a considerable process, a point Descours emphasizes. Craftsmen spend eight weeks painstakingly creating each pair by hand. The leather soles undergo a special vegetal tanning procedure lasting more than a year, which makes them both supple and remarkably durable. All Weston shoes come in up to seven widths. "Comfort is key," says Descours, cautioning American clients against their inclination to buy shoes a little big. "It's bad for your back."
Descours's plan has clearly succeeded. In just three years Weston has opened a string of popular outposts in cities around the world, including Boston, Moscow, Hong Kong, Antwerp, London, Brussels, and Zurich. (Plans for boutiques in San Francisco and Chicago are under way.) And Perry's designs now account for 35 percent of the sales. These are reassuring numbers for Descours, and for Perry, who encountered more than one upturned nose when he arrived at the factory. "Luckily," Perry says, "the artisans soon realized I actually knew something about making shoes. I wasn't just some styliste."
Shoes, $375-$1,760. J. M. Weston, 129 Newbury St., Boston, and 812 Madison Ave., New York; 877-493-7866.