Despite my adolescent yearnings, as I slide towards my own spacetime appointment in Missolonghi, I realize that I have nothing in common with Lord Byron. I can say, however, that one day I awoke to find not myself, but my shoes, famous. Internet famous, at least, that particular degree of shameful notoriety restricted to a subculture and unknown to well-adjusted people (fortunately, with the advent of the Internet, the latter number fewer and fewer among us.) The work of modern poetry in question was a pair of bespoke buff leather slip-ons whose high instep featured the decorative interlock pattern that gives the style its name: butterfly loafers. My e-friend the Russian picador and style blogger banis had unbeknownst to me reposted the image, a photo taken six years ago when the pair was new. Somewhat surprised, I watched as the republished photos made their way across various blogs to something called pinterest and eventually someone’s Facebook page. They were my first order from Anthony Delos, the French bespoke shoemaker who, we now learn, will be joining LVMH’s burgeoning men’s fashion juggernaut Berluti.
Before I go any further, here for the magpie eye of the casual reader is a link to the original post by banis. And here also is a photo of the shoes today, more than six years on, including a small amount of patination by Delos early on in their lifespan using darker polish on the seams and stitching. He realized them with a poetry and sensuality I knew by then my writing would not have.
A potted history of both Delos and Berluti is in order, since one was a small, humble but plucky bespoke shoemaker and cobbler and the other is Patrick Arnault’s attempt at creating, in the words of recent press, “the most haute couture menswear brand in the world.”
Based in Saumur, historically a center for riding and bootmaking, Delos apprenticed with the Compagnons du Devoir, an association of French craftsmen in various disciplines, from tailoring and bootmaking to cabinetry and chocolatemaking. The Compagnons require a young artisan to literally become a journeyman and complete a tour of training stages with various masters all over France. Having trained with shoemakers and orthopedists in Aix-en-Provence and Lyons as well as Cologne in Germany, Delos then spent four years as a bespoke shoemaker at John Lobb in Paris. As suitably informed readers of this blog no doubt know, Lobb Paris’ bespoke operations are rather better regarded than those of its former parent establishment in St James’s, London. Certainly, Lobb Paris’ bespoke creations seem to retain all the best elements of its British ancestor (classic proportions with enduring strength and quality) while introducing a hint of French sleekness and attention to detail… but then, that’s a bit of a trope of expensive menswear writing, isn’t it?
While still quite young, Delos left Lobb to open his own bespoke shop in Paris in 2004, and that is where, in 2006, I discovered him while wandering around Montmartre. He made me five pairs of shoes and boots, each one carefully discussed and thought over, rendered in trial shoes made out of spare lengths of leather in order to make sure the fit and pattern were right, over numerous visits and follow up visits where I got to know him and his several apprentices well. Delos did some of the work from his home in Saumur, visiting his shop in Paris to see clients and carry out fittings. In addition to making me wonderful shoes, some of which may have tested his natural classicism, he also carried out repairs for me, including completely refurbishing my old pair of Maxwells (described in an older post), referred me to fellow Compagnons whom I could trust to repair my briefcase without having to send it back to London, and generally treated me with the honesty, courtesy and competence we’d like to expect from bespoke craftsmen but frankly, rarely receive. Delos’ shop was more than a custom shop, it was a full service cobbler’s carrying out repairs of all kinds of shoes for people in the neighborhood – about as egalitarian as a bespoke maker could get. And in that tradition of honorable craftsmanship he also was approachable and attentive when an order needed correcting, not because of anything he did wrong, but because I hadn’t realized how a try-on pair should fit. What sets one artisan apart from another is how he or she makes things right when the customer gives him or her the chance to, because inevitably, no matter how talented, prestigious or expensive the maker, problems do arise in one form or another. However, if you have a productive relationship with your shoemaker or tailor, you can also expect fit to improve over the course of orders, since he’ll have the opportunity to make additional corrections to your last or pattern – and because you’ll have gotten to understand each other better.
The above implies that a first order will necessarily be imperfect, but with Delos I’d say mine was actually pretty amazing. I had been looking for someone to make me a pair of butterfly slipons. They’re a relatively uncommon design; those that the English shoemakers offered ready-to-wear were too low-vamped and didn’t come high enough up, while French shoemakers referred to the design as a “fermeture Satan” because it is devilishly hard to pull off. I took a chance on my happenstance discovery of Delos, and ordered the pair from Delos based on his time at Lobb and a reassuring half hour’s discussion with him about him and shoemaking where he seemed sincere, down-to-earth and knowledgeable. In fact I had talked to a few other shoemakers in Paris about the possibility of making this pair, including Berluti, where I learned that their bespoke price at the time was not as insultingly high as I thought it would have been, and was informed that their bespoke shoemaker was away but would call. He never did.
Berluti was founded in 1899 by an Italian immigrant to Paris. Several generations of the family ran the firm over the course of the 20th century. By midcentury it had acquired sufficient reputation to draw not only French celebrities and luminaries (from Yves Montand to Jacques Lacan), but Kennedys and Shrivers, and, famously, Andy Warhol, whose custom has become one of the legends today’s Berluti is still metaphorically dining out on. By the 1980s, Alan Flusser was able to write that Berluti also offered a sizeable ready-to-wear collection in addition to its bespoke, although he qualified that the designs were generally somewhat heavy and substantial (how things have changed). Still, the house certainly had a degree of flamboyance even back then, attracting the likes of Manuel Noriega while American news programs were still calling him a “Panamanian strongman,” and infamously, in the 1970s, making the most expensive shoes ever made. The pearl-studded court shoes are still, to my knowledge, in the Guinness Book of World Records (a Google image search may turn them up) and were made by Berluti for the coronation of the late Jean-Bedel Bokassa as Emperor of the Central African Republic (since you’re wondering, the shoes cost $80,000 in 1970s dollars). In addition to his eccentric pretensions, Bokassa was a scoundrel of pervasive rottenness whose ties to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing helped bring down that conservative French president’s government. When Bokassa’s turn came to be on the run, a more clever scoundrel, the infamous Bernard Tapie, bought Bokassa’s French properties for pennies on the dollar. Perhaps Bokassa should have realized the hubris of using the former Bourbon crown jewelers, Arthus-Bertrand, to make his crown. No word on what happened to the shoes.
In any case, in the early 1990s LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault purchased the firm, reportedly in order to make sure his bespoke shoemaker stayed in business. With the LVMH purchase appears to have come a drive to raise the profile of the brand, spearheaded by the irrepressible last of the line, Olga Berluti. Olga has a previous history as a costume designer. Perhaps her best known work was on Farinelli il Castrato, and that film’s opulence, ornateness and slight perversity find clear parallels in the ethos she has crafted for today’s Berluti, via oracular pronouncements about the importance of leather tanned by moonlight and polished with champagne, about tramps with the feet of princes who painstakingly save their franc notes for a pair of Berlutis, about selecting specially damaged leather from the hides of “rebellious cows” to make shoes for Andy Warhol. And yet, for all of that moonshine, her Berluti has been incredibly influential among high-end shoes, largely responsible for the resurgence of the wholecut oxford (a shoe made from a single piece of leather), for the vogue for drop-dead gorgeous antique patinas on new shoes (which were offered gratis in any color imaginable on new Berlutis), and for undeniably creative designs involving scarifying or tattooing leather – in other words, not just inventing new shoe patterns but manipulating the surface of leather itself. Some of those creative designs, of course, have been misfires, including something called the Indio, a monstrosity looking like something Victor Frankenstein would make as a final project for a shoemaking course at The Learning Annex. His creator dreamed him up (literally) while snowed in with Byron in Switzerland.
Delos ‘absorption is not the first convenient acquisition by Berluti after all, Berluti moved into its current Paris flagship location at 28, rue Marbeuf after London bootmaker Henry Maxwell vacated its Paris shop there around the outbreak of World War II. Like the outposts of many other British bespoke makers in the French capital, Maxwells Paris closed at the beginning of World War II, never to reopen again. And as written earlier in this blog, Berluti has recently purchased the Left Bank shop Arnys for its location and some sort of co-branded bespoke scheme.
All these recent acquisitions are in keeping with LVMH’s stated goals for Berluti, and accompany a focused push into expensive ready-to-wear.With Delos, Berluti gains the halo of a prestige acquisition, a talented and relatively well-known artisan who recently was voted “Meilleur Ouvrier de France,” a sort of best-in-class honor for the craftsman creating the finest set of bespoke shoes in a competition. It also will effectively remove a potential competitor turning out bespoke work of the finest quality at somewhat lower prices than Berluti. Lastly, it will gain Delos’ knowhow and skill making bespoke shoes and creating samples for new designs – although my understanding is that there already are bespoke shoemakers at Berluti, including Delos’ former colleague at John Lobb Paris, Patrice Rock. Because good bespoke is typically not scalable or very lucrative, my suspicion is that Berluti will gain much more financially from using Delos’ name in their press to draw customers to the Berluti ready-to-wear or factory made-to-order - one of their ready-to-wear lines is produced without sizes stamped on it anywhere in order to look more bespoke, they told me at the shop. The sort of… person… who would find that selling point attractive is the sort of person Berluti would be looking to draw here.
I tried to send Delos an email of congratulation, but his website now directs to Berluti’s site. I have a bit of regret to lose the bespoke shoemaker who made me four pairs of wonderful shoes and a pair of boots that are the most spectacular thing I ever put on my feet, who dealt with me honestly and honorably, who made things right when they needed to be put right. Perhaps I feel a bit possessive of Delos as, to my knowledge, my initial visits with and postings about him years ago happened to be some of his earliest coverage on the internet and, supposedly, drew the interest of a number of French and American bespoke shoe enthusiasts who became satisfied customers. I have always pointed out that while my occasional posts may have caused a few people to open his door, his talent and diligence made them satisfied and repeat customers.
So I don’t believe this acquisition will lead to cheaper Berluti bespoke pricing or greater accessibility of Delos shoes via international bespoke visits. Berluti’s focus now is providing wealthy customers across the world with ready-to-wear with bespoke inspiration, however diluted (visible and recognizable logos obligé). But as Delos once pointed out to me, bespoke artisans need the large luxury brands too: in addition to helping them out with their bespoke, these artisans make the samples and one-offs these brands use in designing their ready-to-wear lines.
What do I believe? Not in much, nowadays, except a few simple and reliable things: a good night’s sleep, a good cup of coffee, and Tony Iommi’s opening riff to “Paranoid.” But at least one can walk in beauty, without being a choirboy.