Why leather was like Lego for shoemaker Pierre Corthay when he was growing up

Founder of Parisian shoemaker Maison Corthay talks about growing up in a family of actors and artists, his collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto and being swindled by subcontractors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2015, 9:00pm

Founder of Parisian shoemaker Maison Corthay talks about growing up in a family of actors and artists, his collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto and being swindled by subcontractors.

"I lived in a family full of actors and artists, which was probably a special and bizarre experience for a young boy. My parents were in the acting business, and their work meant that they were always on tour. My mother specialised in theatre and film, while my father focused more on the former.

I never thought about joining my parent's professional line of work because I found it to be an insecure path. I remember seeing both of them without work for two years. Besides, I didn't think I was strong enough for the profession, and I had already discovered leather quite early on - at nine years old.

Discovering leather was like a storm had entered my life. It was at my aunt's art and sculpture workshop that I discovered this material and started making small bracelets. To me it was like a Lego game that I couldn't live without. At 16, I joined Les Compagnons du Devoir to develop my leather skills.

Les Compagnons du Devoir is not a school - it's a way of life. You learn all the fundamental skills of your chosen discipline during the course of six or seven years, but there is no graduation or a certificate.

On top of that, you travel across France to work in different workshops and that's where you get your education. We are taught the importance of mobility and curiosity, as well as what it means to live courageously, generously and honestly. It is a close-knit community of about 100 people.

Learning to make shoes requires being skilled in four areas: wood carving, pattern work, stitching and rubber.

On top of these technical skills, there is also a human element. You need to build a relationship with customers. In some ways it is an art form to figure out what people want. This is what fascinates me most and shoes are my way of interacting with people that I would otherwise not have a chance to meet.

In 1985, when I was 23, I started working for Berluti. It was a very small family business at that time with just six people in the shop. Today there are 500 people, which is huge. The experience back then was fantastic because, as with any small shop, I was given incredible freedom to try many aspects of the business.

My experience working for that brand and also with John Lobb previously was critical to my career. I believe that I now take a middle path between these two companies. From John Lobb, I have developed a huge obsession with quality. From Berluti, I learned how to drive forward a creative and more eccentric design.

An opportunity came in 1990 to open my first shop at Place Vendome. I received a call from an old supplier who told me there was a shopkeeper who was selling his business. I negotiated with the man, and we eventually made a deal in one week.

The business needed a few years to really take off - when you are young and start your own business, you are not sure about your potential. That is why I kept the original name for one year before changing it.

One of the biggest boosts to my early career was an order for 150 shoes from the Sultan of Brunei. During my first meeting with him in London, I brought my entire shoe collection, which included about 20 models at that time. He ordered the entire collection in black and brown. Once this was done, he requested a few custom designs that I would sketch and later fax to him for his approval.

Another fantastic honour came in 2006 when I had collaborated with Japanese visionary designer Yohji Yamamoto. The idea for the collaboration was simple: each designer would only work on the product they are most qualified in. So the suits were made by an Italian guy in Napoli, the overcoat by Mackintosh, and the shoes by me. Although it was not a huge commercial success, the project was fantastic in terms of brand recognition.

Then in 2001, we decided to take Maison Corthay to the ready-to-wear market. We started by working with an Italian subcontractor for six months. But we discovered that our shoe patterns were being sold to our competitors.

We promptly cut ties with them and the year after decided to try manufacturing by ourselves. We opened our own factory and acquired a spacious workshop in the suburb of Paris. The move was a gamble because we were specialised in making shoes by hand, but not in using machines. Maison Corthay is found in 14 different cities. And it's a daily war to control quality.

We always want to be in the safest and most secure conditions for making shoes, and really dedicate a lot of time to our craft. We are in the nice spot in the world, as we consider it a privilege to have customers who appreciate what we make.

You cannot make or decide what is a bestseller. It is only time that will give you the answer. You can only be humble and work hard. This means making mistakes and learning every time you make one. This will help you to find the right road and, after a few years, you will make fewer and fewer mistakes.

My grandmother always said good shoes and good hats can go everywhere - even if you don't have such a good outfit. You can say the shoes are the signature of a silhouette, because it's at the bottom and really the foundation of any person."

As told to Daniel Kong