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The Joy of Shoes
SEPTEMBER 2006
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Bespoke Man's Lace-up
Olga Berluti, from the Warrior collection, calfskin with scar decoration, 1995

Man's Lace-up
Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
By Cathy Newman

It is said that the men who belong to Olga Berluti's Swann Club polish their shoes with Venetian linen dipped in Dom Pérignon and expose them to the light of the full moon, but that is false. It is the quarter moon that is important, Berluti explains: "The moon gives transparency to leather. The sun burns; the moon burnishes."

More about the Swann Club (named for the protagonist of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past) later. For now, know that Olga Berluti is the creative director of, and designs handmade, exorbitantly expensive men's shoes for, the company that bears her family name.

Olga Berluti loves men's feet—a passion, not a fetish, she says. The passion began with her convent schooling in Italy. A long corridor led to the chapel and a 14th-century statue of Christ. "I would approach the altar," she remembers. "The nailed feet of Christ were exactly on the same level as my eyes. I stared and stared. I said to myself: When I am older, I will remove the nails. I will relieve the suffering of men's feet."

Berluti, small and slight with short black hair and eyes so dark they seem to be all pupil, does not seem tethered to the ground. She lives simply, does not eat meat and does not wear leather ("My life is flesh and blood already"). She wears only natural fibers—always white. On her feet: white cotton sneakers in summer, white wool shoes in winter. She is an ascetic in a universe of extravagance. "I sublimate myself. I suffer. I have spent my life at men's feet," says Olga, Our Lady of Shoes.

She speaks in Celtic rune and Delphic pronouncement. "Man is a vagabond deluxe. We are moving through to the perfection of gesture," she says. So what if the utterances make little sense. We are talking mystique and shoes with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio. We are talking shoes with the sleek, menacing profile of a mako shark, shoes decorated with piercings, tattoos, sometimes scars. They are shoes, she says, for the hidden warrior inside every man. Shoes, also, for the man with four to twelve thousand dollars to spend on a made-to-order dream.

Her atelier, in an 18th-century building in Paris's Marais, is a stage set. A shoemaker's bench with rows of apothecary bottles sits in the corner. Do the bottles contain essence of sorrow? Tincture of pain? No, merely fragrant oils and dyes. The lasts—she calls them ex-votos—of Berluti's famous clientele rest on low tables. There are lasts that belonged to Pablo Picasso ("We made his sandals"); Jean Cocteau ("He liked to wear shoes without socks"); Andy Warhol ("He asked for his right loafer to be patched—and be very visible").

Once a year Olga Berluti invites clients to the Swann Club soiree, a black-tie affair, with champagne, not just to drink, but to clean shoes. "The alcohol makes them shine, but it must be chilled; it must be a very dry, a grand champagne."

In Olga Berluti's world, the relationship between man and shoe is complex. "Shoes adopt and tame you, and you adopt and tame them, like domesticating a wild animal," she says. "You buy a pair of shoes you adore, but they are too edgy, too avant-garde. Perhaps your wife made you buy them. You put them away, and little by little this style, this color you're not used to seeps in. You buy a jacket that goes with them, or a different color shirt. One day, you realize you have become the man your wife envisioned. The shoes revealed something new, something unexpected in you."

But is not to take off one's shoes to reveal something not so lovely, something, in fact, rather ugly—that is to say, one's feet? The writer offers her own as an example.

Olga Berluti does not flinch. She reaches to cradle the feet. "No, no," she says passionately. "There are no ugly feet. Feet are spiritual. They enable man to stand up. They free his hands. Now, he can look at the stars."

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