A talent agent in Los Angeles needed a pair of shoes. In February, Justin was shopping in the Louis Vuitton store on Rodeo Drive. He was asked by the boutique’s shoe manager if he had ever had a pair of made-to-measure shoes created for him. Met with a polite no, the manager smiled and said, “Let’s go to the shoe salon.” Justin sat down on a midcentury sofa. Every dimension of his foot was measured. A thick book of leather swatches appeared. Then came a series of questions. Brogues, oxfords, or wing tips? Do you want calfskin? Classic, waxed, suede, grained, or patent? What about alligator? Python? Or ostrich? Then he had to talk colors—there are eight of those. Next came the sole, with four types to choose from, including the labor-intensive Norwegian and the Goodyear, made with a double-stitch knotting technique. Finally, the head of the shoe department in Los Angeles asked: “Would you like a belt made to match your shoes?”
The clock started. In six months an Oscar-winning actress will look under her table at the Polo Lounge and say, “Those are great shoes.”
Louis Vuitton shoes have been in existence for only 20 years. To augment its shoe production, the company bought a small family shoe workshop in 2001, four years into Marc Jacobs’s tenure as creative director. It is in Fiesso d’Artico, 20 miles outside Venice, in Italy’s Veneto region, which is known for shoemaking.
Michael Burke, chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton, explains the reason for the very French company’s locating its production facilities here. “Veneto is the cradle of shoemaking manufacture and skills,” he says. “In Veneto we have found everything we need: prototype engineers, designers, craftsmanship knowledge, and creativity. This is the worldwide headquarters for shoes.”
The first Louis Vuitton shoe collections were small, mainly shoes for runway shows and capsule collections of classic men’s loafers and women’s pumps. In 2009, four years before Nicolas Ghesquière would replace Jacobs, this larger, 150,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility was built nearby, and the company had a new—and steep—mandate: Shoes are to be as important as Vuitton’s storied trunks, first made in 1858.
After Justin chose an ostrich-skin wing tip, the order came here, where both made-to-measure and ready-to-wear shoes are crafted. The facility, a gray concrete box, looks far more like a modern art museum than a shoemaking factory. Indeed, right outside the entry is Jean-Jacques Ory’s seven-foot-tall, white-lacquered high heel with an insole depicting Botticelli’s Venus. Inside—past a gallery with a wall of Warhol’s shoe illustrations and an installation spotlighting fantastical, furniture-like high-heeled creations from Ghesquière; across the center courtyard with a reflecting pool and sunglassed French designers speaking Italian while smoking Marlboro Lights; and down a hallway past the women’s department—sits a man in one corner of a large factory floor. While the rest of the hangar-like space is more automated, with workers and machines making ready-to-wear shoes, sneakers, and moccasins, this calm corner, with a workbench and exotic skins, is dedicated to made-to-measure.
The man’s name is Roberto Bottoni, and he’s painting a white alligator boot a color of red somewhere between blood and Pinot Noir. Slowly, deliberately, Bottoni paints the scales. Holding the left shoe, he coats the instep, up and down the scales. The fiftysomething shoemaker, who’s worked here since the facility opened, sets it down, then grabs the right. He drags the stubby, square brush up over the toe cap and back down again. He’s creating the burnished patina effect the company is now known for. He studies the shoe. He seems to be working to get the shoes to look exactly the same, even though guys who wear custom shoes enjoy the snob appeal of the colors being slightly off—sign of a human, bespoke hand. Bottoni sets it down on his table, crowded with hammers and picks and shanks with faded green handles and scuffed blades. He turns on his stool to face the sewing machine. He stitches together the upper of what will be a patent-leather monk-strap. He sets that down. Then he turns to a wing tip sitting upside down. He starts stitching. A few minutes later, he turns to another machine, which makes a thicker stitch with a needle that punctures the layers of leather.
This is what Bottoni does from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, looking out onto a pair of four-foot-tall concrete lace-up loafers—I Left My Shoes in Guilin, a work by the Taiwanese artist Ken-Tsai—except for a mandated hour-long lunch served for free in the employee cafeteria. He’s a one-man assembly line.
Each pair of made-to-order Louis Vuitton shoes comes from Bottoni, with some assistance from his midtwenties apprentice, Pierpaolo—in New Balance sneakers and a nail projecting through his earlobe, a contrast to Bottoni’s Crocs and lab coat. But the optics are clear: To keep this know-how going in Veneto, the next generation has to be trained. Behind Pierpaolo, robots are creating monogrammed canvas sneakers.
We walk back toward the entrance and into a mock store. I am told the store experience should be bespoke as well. Shoe managers are brought here from Louis Vuitton boutiques all over the world. For four days they practice how to sell, how to fit, how to lace the shoes, how to arrange the paper in the shoe box. And perhaps how to recognize a VIP customer—VIC, in Vuitton parlance, “very important client”—in Beverly Hills and ask, “Care to purchase a pair of custom-made wing tips?” Oh, and they practice how to smile.
Step In Louis Vuitton made-to-measure shoes, from $2,650 to $15,000. Available through boutiques in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City. louisvuitton.com