With fashion houses clamouring after the growing luxury menswear sector, LVMH is counting on Alessandro Sartori and a heritage shoemaker to grab a slice of the action.
Berluti has been around for 117 years, handcrafting shoes for a roll call of famous men and selling them for upwards of Euro1,500 (HK$15,625). Still, it remains relatively unknown outside the fashion industry. That could change as owner LVMH embarks on an ambitious plan to transform the shoe company into a luxury menswear brand.
At an opulent event at Paris men's fashion week, Berluti unveiled its first menswear collection in the label's history. The launch comes less than a month after LVMH rival PPR, which owns Gucci and Alexander McQueen, bought menswear brand Brioni.
According to a report by consultants Bain & Company published at the end of last year, the high-end menswear market is worth about Euro180 billion and is growing at nearly 14 per cent a year - nearly double the expansion of luxury womenswear. Asia, and in particular China, has led this growth.
Not surprisingly, the competition is heating up as the conglomerates queue up for the Asian consumer. Louis Vuitton is planning to take its made-to-order shoe service - already available at its Milan and Sydney boutiques - to Shanghai in June. Meanwhile, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, owned by PPR, are also currently testing men's only stores on the mainland.
But Berluti's CEO Antoine Arnault, 34, son of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and one of the luxury group's heirs apparent (along with sister Delphine, a Dior executive) is quietly adamant that his company's vision of luxury is superior to the rest.
'When we go to other competitors, we see incredible fabrics, sumptuous cashmeres; but the cuts are always very wide and lack a little bit of twist or style. When we go to designers, we find the cut and the fit, but then it's always bad quality or the materials are difficult, or you can't move around,' says Arnault.
This, he explains, is why he hired Alessandro Sartori who, he feels, shares his ideas about what the final Berluti product should look like. Until last year Sartori, 45, was creative director of the Z Zegna line.
The younger, more contemporary line of Italian suit maker Ermenegildo Zegna reported a 14 per cent climb in sales, taking the parent company's total revenue to US$1.3 billion last year, and Sartori's on-trend designs were largely credited with its success.
Of course, creating the look for a brand without a signature might have its own challenges but if there are any, Sartori fails to mention them. The Berluti man, he says, is modern and the brand will offer the best quality and modernity.
'It's perfect for the man that wants to be chic, fresh and who wants to have his own personality. It's the man that's classy, has character with a bit of impertinence - the good kind not the bad kind,' says Sartori.
'My vision and style are related to artful tailoring with great attention to details, innovation and fabrics.'
The first results of the debut impress. Silhouettes look fitted but allow movement - something Sartori says will be part of the new Berluti designs. One leather biker jacket, he says, took 20 hours of work and is hand-patinated. Jackets feature leather buttonholes and cashmere blazers have internal pockets. It's a riot of luxurious fabrics (including linings) framed in understated slim cuts and luxe detailing.
Sartori describes it as, 'Lightness, but with body'.
The shoemaker's move into menswear hasn't been without rumour - whispers of LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault's intentions to expand Berluti have been flying around for years.
'I'm feeling a big responsibility and it's been a while since the group has decided to push one of its smaller brands further. It hasn't been very difficult to convince him to do this,' says the younger Arnault of his father. 'Whenever we went abroad, we'd go to the Berluti stores - to feel the history and inhale the smell. It has something different - they don't sell you a product, they sell you a story.'
Founded in 1895, Berluti knows the appeal of heritage - having handmade shoes for the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert De Niro. In the 1970s, Olga Berluti, the eccentric fourth generation shoemaker who now presides over the Berluti Art line, invented the signature patina which is hand-polished and cherished by the firm's clients. The most loyal are admitted into the Swann Club, which brings together a group of Berluti patrons annually to engage in a ritual which sees them polish their shoes with Venetian linen dipped in Dom Perignon to improve the patina.
'There are few brands in the world that have this resonance. You have Hermes for saddles, for trunks it's Vuitton, then there is Berluti for shoes - any shoe lover will tell you Berluti is best. So we're working with this quality perception and making it brighter,' says Arnault.
Indeed, the LVMH marketing machine went into top gear at Berluti's press-presentation where models dressed in the autumn-winter 2012 collection engaged in a tableau which reconstructed the Swann Club rituals among other scenes of well-heeled domesticity. But it's not all gimmickry. All Berluti menswear is hand-crafted in small Italian workshops.
There are also plans to enter the made-to-measure business for every product category, with tailors in each Berluti store to create what Sartori calls a 'full couture wardrobe'. Little tricks in Berluti garments, Sartori, says will mean only Berluti tailors will be able to deal with adjustments. 'This design motif angled at 45 degrees in leather makes it impossible to make this length shorter,' Sartori says with a smile, pointing to a jacket sleeve.
Arnault admits China is key but denies betting on an aggressive strategy like other brands. 'China fits perfectly. We don't really think, 'The Chinese are spending more so we have to open this number of stores.' We see our customer as one and unique,' he says. 'We already know that the Berluti story and the history around this house are very appealing to the Chinese customer because we have six stores in mainland China. It's only natural that we're going to propose to our customers around the world - not just the Chinese - get dressed now, stop being naked.'
CEOs aren't known for romantic notions, but for the luxury market, brand value is rooted in consumer perception. Arnault believes Berluti has its own brand magic.
'Berluti has a reputation with incredible influencers. It has, as they say, a certain je ne sais quoi. There are some aspects of our brand that are made of defects. Berluti shoes have often been deliberately tattooed, scarred or pierced to create a modern feel. When you ask a songwriter how he writes a good song, he will say, usually the best melody comes from a tone out of place on the piano and that's what makes the song special.'
Berluti isn't the only accessory brand to have expanded into clothing lines. The following companies have also broken into new markets:
The Swiss shoe brand founded in the mid 19th-century may be famous for its footwear but recently the company has sprung back into action with ready-to-wear designers Graeme Fidler and Michael Herz. The British duo who previously revived British rainwear label Aquascutum were appointed chief designers in 2010. They have since been making in-roads with a high-profile autumn-winter 2012 ad campaign shot by Steven Meisel, featuring models Caroline Trentini and Karlie Kloss and styled by Edward Enninful. In January, the autumn-winter 2012 menswear collection in Milan featuring quilted shirting and tan leather overcoats was warmly received.
Founded in 1986, Hogan owned by Tod's Group, has tiptoed into clothing. Outerwear, best described as luxe-sportswear, often combines nylon with cotton or rubber with nappa leather. American designer Thakoon was once hired to design a collection. In 2010 Karl Lagerfeld created a popular capsule collection.
Back in 2006, Diego Della Valle, the owner of Tod's, known for elegant loafers for yacht-hopping, jet-set types, appointed Derek Lam as its first ever creative director. It also carries a capsule collection of classic but luxurious clothes for men and women.