Bespoke shoemakers benefit from trend for truly exclusive products
\Bespoke shoemakers are benefiting from a trend towards truly exclusive products for those who can afford to foot the bill, writes Abid Rahman
Men looking for luxury goods that are truly exclusive and personalised, and out of reach of most customers, are increasingly turning to bespoke services.
Benefiting most from this shift are tailoring and suiting, with Savile Row enjoying greater prominence than ever, and Italian tailors from Milan to Naples becoming the first choice of discerning buyers.
Shoemakers are also pushing their bespoke services and one of the leaders is French brand Berluti. While its ready-to-wear shoes are among the most expensive and exclusive handmade men's shoes available, its bespoke service is for the elite only.
Berluti is not willing to divulge its prices. As with any bespoke product, this depends greatly on materials and design. However, prices are much higher than the HK$10,000 or more that Berluti charges for its ready-to-wear shoes.
These customers want something different and, most importantly, want some input into how the shoes are made, says Berluti master shoemaker Jean-Michel Casalonga. "I can't tell you exactly how many customers we have, or how many shoes we make, but it's not more than a couple of hundred," says Casalonga.
"The process takes six months from first meeting to final delivery, but we are thinking of increasing this, because demand has increased."
Berluti's bespoke business has grown steadily despite strong competition from English and Italian shoemakers, which traditionally are more popular with clients outside of Europe.
English custom shoemakers such as Church's, Edward Green and G.J. Cleverley appeal to men who prefer traditional styles and rigid construction, whereas Italian shoemakers attract those seeking more modern, looser-styled shoes.
"Berluti is in the middle. We are a little crazy like the Italians, and we have the tradition like the English, so maybe we give customers a bit of everything," says Casalonga.
Thirty-six-year-old Casalonga has made shoes for Berluti for 12 years, after eschewing a career in science. "There is no diploma for this job; you can only learn through experience. You only become a 'master' once your master says you are ready," he says.
Casalonga represents a new breed of shoemaker who is able to marry traditional shoemaking techniques with the fashion whims of modern men, particularly those who want to leave their personal stamp on things that they own.
"We are very open to ideas. We like to say that we work with four hands: the hands of the shoemaker and the hands of the customer. We create things with them, but they still have the Berluti style," says Casalonga, before explaining the most popular types of customisations.
"Of course, you can choose the leather and the style, but you can also have your initials stitched into the leather or nailed into the sole," he says as he runs through recent sketches and designs for customers, stopping at one in particular.
"This guy wanted 'Gazza' on the bottom of his shoe," Casalonga pauses for a moment before adding, "He was English, I guess it is his nickname. It's funny," he says.
Casalonga thinks bespoke shoes symbolise a return to familiarity, to really knowing your shoemaker. As retail becomes increasingly impersonal, particularly with the internet, some men are willing to pay a premium to have a personal relationship with their tailor and, now, their shoemaker.
Casalonga says Berluti's three master shoemakers, out of 14 shoemakers in all, serve their entire customer base, and do so for as long as the shoemaker remains with the company.
"It's always the same guy, so the guy who creates the first shoe is also the guy who repairs it. And of course, he is the guy who does the second shoe," says Casalonga.
The relationship can last decades, and in some cases transcends generations; Casalonga recounts a story of a man bringing his grandfather's shoes to be repaired and fitted for himself, 40 years after they were last worn.
"If you look after the shoes properly, then there is no reason why they won't last a long time. and, of course, we will repair them for free," he says.
Casalonga has seen the global business grow quickly in recent years, and he is racking up air miles as he covers markets in Asia. He says the Japanese have taken to this service faster, and more readily, than others in the region, and they are the most willing to test the skills of Berluti's shoemakers.
"The Japanese are creative, and they ask for beautiful patterns on the leather, and detailing and stitching. They know a lot about the process.
"American customers are more conservative. We do a lot of black leather shoes; perhaps they want them for the office. We've just started in Singapore and they seem to have a lot of knowledge," he adds.
So where do Hong Kong customers rank? "Hong Kong customers are great, but there are a lot of customers here who have travelled from other places," says Casalonga, before saying clients in the city are a little more reserved than Japanese customers.