Last man standing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am

Dapper shoemaker extraordinaire Robert Clergerie sips his coffee and gazes across Victoria Harbour from a cafe next to IFC's Lane Crawford. He is here to promote his spring-summer collection and to celebrate Lane Crawford's collaboration with photographer Laurent Segretier - an exhibition of craftsmanship at work in his factory. Black-and-white photos mounted on brick walls capture the everyday scenes at the label's heart of operations.

After more than 30 years in the business, and now in his 70s, Clergerie is one of the few luxury shoemakers left in France to own the factory producing his own line. The factory, in Romans, is a source of pride and enjoyment because 'my pleasure is to be in the factory or the studio - I don't care about the commercial sense.'

Hong Kong-Paris-based Segretier had total freedom to photograph what he liked, and recalls that taking a train to the factory was 'like taking a time machine back to a place where there was no stress for modernity. It was amazing to see the craftsmanship and inner workings of the factory, and discovering the hidden secrets of shoemaking.'

If the name Robert Clergerie excites you more than that of Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin, chances are you won't have a pair of painful stilettos on your feet, and old plasters hanging off the back. Clergerie is a functionalist, an auteur for women who prefer walking, rather than posing, in beautiful shoes.

'The first Asian customer we had was Madame Joyce Ma in 1981,' Clergerie recalls. But the label is still not well established in Asia because Clergerie's style is more demure than that of his flashy contemporaries.

'A shoe has to be comfortable,' he insists. 'I like the touch of the leather, and the shoe is a sculpture. A dress without someone inside it has no meaning, but a shoe, even with no one wearing it, has a life because you are working on a sculpture in space.'

The award-winning Clergerie had initially wanted to design furniture, as he was fascinated with workable proportions and the precision of the eye. He wore many hats before donning that of a master shoemaker. By 2005, he had won the prestigious Fashion Footwear Association's 'Best Designer of the Year' award three times and been inducted into the Footwear News Hall of Fame in New York.

'The important part is the proportion of the shoe, the shape of the last, the shape of the heel, if it is well balanced with the front and the material - that is what I care about. For the design of the upper, the studio does it - but I like simple design.'

Graduating from university with a degree in business administration, Clergerie fought in the Algerian war and returned to France, in his own words, 'not well-balanced psychologically.' He began working in road construction.

'After some years I realised I was losing my life - and I replied to an ad for the [famous shoemaker Charles] Jourdan company' in 1970. Those years were clearly marvellous, and the late Roland Jourdan (Charles' son) is still revered by Clergerie as his master. Recalling when he started there, 'the maximum heel height in Jourdan shoe was only 55mm,' says Clergerie, pointing to an elegant old Hollywood photo. 'Voila, Audrey Hepburn in Jourdan!'

He is not impressed with the impractical, towering 13cm skyscrapers that have dominated fashion of late ('It's only for walking from the limousine to the restaurant. Some women like this but it is not our style'), nor does he hide his feelings about the new wave of ridiculous fashionista dressing - rampant attention-seekers who are cattle fodder for the fashion blogosphere: 'All those people at the entrance in fashion week, who can only live and express themselves through their dress, they are not the creatives. They have no personality except what they are wearing.'

The typical Clergerie woman is much more subtle and substantial: 'She is woman more remarkable by her education than by the amount of money that she makes,' he says.

In the 80s, Yves Saint Laurent and his women's tuxedo pieces inspired many and introduced a sexy and very powerful androgyny into the aesthetic mix. 'I liked this - and when I got my factory I began making men's shoe styles for women - I was in accordance with what they were waiting for, that was the start of the success.'

Clergerie's big risk in beginning the label so radically had worked, and 30 years down the road he is still taking risks, setting trends instead of following them. 'I was not sure I'd be right then - and I am never sure that I am right,' he adds.

Clergerie's two most popular styles - the men's oxford style and parallelogram heel - have spawned decades of copycat knock-offs from the runway to the high street. But after being in the business for more than 30 years, he is nonchalant. He'd rather be known and copied than unknown and never knocked off.

His popularity waned in the mid to late 90s, when the skinny stiletto ruled. Then, almost eight years ago, he sold his business and took to the seas in his boat. But within 21/2years, the company was back in Clergerie's hands.

'The people who took the company - they were going to Chapter 11,' he says incredulously. 'I like the factory and the workers so I bought the company back ... Now I don't know why I ever sold.'

Fashion is again embracing more diverse styles and functional shoes for women - and Clergerie chic has come back with a vengeance. His spring-summer 2011 collection takes inspiration from the 70s. Warm, natural tones on lambskin play well into the wooden chunky heels or well-balanced wedges. A masculine brogue is reinvented with soft buttery materials and earthy tones.

'We are not coming to fashion - fashion is coming to us,' he says.

His proudest moments in his career include being awarded by the American Fashion Footwear Association three times. 'I was proud,' Clergerie says, and looks towards the skyline again, before adding, 'but not too much'.