Berluti offers traditional quality with modern styling in full bespoke service
Label is amping up heritage style with technical innovations
French shoemaker Berluti turns 120 this year, and in its recent history has seen quite a transformation. The brand, which was founded by Italian Alessandro Berluti in Paris in 1895, was taken into the LVMH fold in 1993.
In 2011, CEO Antoine Arnault appointed Alessandro Sartori, another Italian, and one of menswear's brightest, most inventive designers, as artistic director. This heralded a new chapter for Berluti.
The resulting reinvention made Berluti one of the hottest names in men's fashion, and the only label to introduce full men's ready-to-wear and an entirely bespoke full men's wardrobe, right down to the shoes.
Sartori was in Hong Kong last month to host an intimate spring-summer 2015 trunk show for the well-heeled men of the city. He also introduced a limited line of Alessandro shoes, which are a new take on the brand's traditional lace-ups.
The deep, jewel-toned patinas that are a Berluti signature remain, as do the long, elegant lasts. But he has also modernised the shoe collection with luxury sneakers and boots.
"I'm fortunate to be in the best place I could be," the Biella-born designer says of this role, sitting on a dark leather couch in the Landmark Prince's store in Central, a beautifully curated space reeking of old world masculinity.
Sartori elaborates: "As a designer, to be able to give a sketch directly to the master shoemaker or master tailor, who then realises the product sample from the beginning to the end, is amazing," he says.
"It's different from a factory, where they take it somewhere else, so you don't know who will actually make what part or how many people are involved."
The brand made its name at the start of the 20th century with beautiful formal shoes for Parisian dandies; a century later, in 2012, it debuted its first collection of men's clothing at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts during men's fashion week in Paris. The results were an impressively full expression of the Berluti man - sophisticated, elegant, a little eccentric and full of character.
Sartori has been given a rich heritage to play with, as well as a pool of dedicated ateliers and workshops with a knowledge of craft and technical research.
A new workshop in Ferrara is opening this year: "It means we can get unique products made for us, and the workshops want to invest in research," Sartori says.
"The craft masters at Berluti know how to make the products from scratch to the very end. That's very satisfying and pleasurable, and it shows in the products."
Much of Berluti's charm relies on tradition, history and dedication to quality, but Sartori has introduced technical innovations, too. His clever, unique constructions turned heads in the menswear market.
The son of a dressmaker, with degrees in textile engineering and fashion, he was credited with building up Z Zegna, the younger, trendier line of the Ermenegildo Zegna group.
Sartori's approach is distinctive and refreshing: his flair for modern style is imbued with painstaking technical detail, and he is not afraid of novelty and playfulness.
The latest spring-summer 2015 collection is a case in point. It's inspired by "the art of origami" - so think thin, lightweight and soft garments - but the designs are able to keep a structured silhouette, with a natural shoulder and a generously cut leg.
"I was working on a new generation of leather, something very thin and very light. The idea is to have something sharp but soft. Normally when you have something soft, the shape is also soft, and when you have something sharp the fabric is thick and heavy," says Sartori.
The newly developed "glove touch" leather, the signature fabric of the season, has a remarkably light, paper-like appearance and feels like the softest, buttery nubuck or napa. A unique coating is painted on to maintain "rigidity" in what Sartori describes as "a completely new technique".
A jacket and coat have a slim line and a purity. "Instead of a classic construction with cutting and sewing, where you use lining and fold and stitch everything, we just fold and pleat and stick, like origami," he says.
These original constructions make for supple, fitted garments that are perfect for travelling, "super light, wrinkle-free and tailored to perfection", as he puts it. "We are even sanding down the edges and colouring them with a paintbrush," he adds, referring to the clean, crisp finishing.
Other new fabrics include paper-touch waxed linen and a silk trench treated with a ceramic glaze. This is very light, yet still waterproof, windproof and wrinkle-\free. "You can fold it, throw it into a bag and not worry," says Sartori.
This new generation of leathers is used for jackets, blousons and outerwear, as well as shoes and bags, such as the feather-light, hardwearing Origami bag.
There is this focus on comfort, no matter how formal the occasion. One key phrase to emerge from Sartori's clever evocation of Berluti's luxury leisurewear is "sportswear couture", sporty, leisure pieces with a couture construction.
Classic menswear territories are changing as the sophisticated, moneyed customer becomes a global being who is always travelling.
Along with a resurgence in classic men's tailoring and formal wear in both Italian and English traditions there is a focus on easy, comfortable stylish attire that stays on trend without drawing too much attention.
"The clients need to think about collecting pieces, rather than buying into trends and clothes that just last a season," says Sartori. "There is more of a focus on quality, comfort and exclusivity."
The Essentials line of classic indespensable pieces includes a polo shirt, five-pocket jeans, a field jacket and a three-piece suit. The Emblematics footwear line features must-have items such as loafers, lace-up court shoes, heavy-duty mountain boots and Derbys - all permanent models that won't disappear seasonally.
Some worried that Berluti would lose its name for independent, exclusive designs after it was taken over by one of the largest luxury groups in the world. But the owners have taken great pains (and invested a lot of money) to maintain Berluti's boutique feeling and craftsman-like tradition.
Offering an entire bespoke wardrobe is no simple task.
"We are building the whole style," says Sartori, "When we started, we wanted to offer a full bespoke wardrobe. The first idea we had with Antoine [Arnault] was not only to do shoes and suits, but also bespoke jeans, chinos and leather jackets.
"All the ready-to-wear is made in Italy, and all the bespoke shoes and clothes are made in Paris," he says.
To help with these highly personalised services, Berluti bought Arnys, a family-owned heritage tailor, which, itself, has a history of impeccable Left Bank menswear style dating back more than a century.
The family had wanted to sell and retire, but with an atelier of tailors in their employ, worried that Berluti only wanted to buy their historic name, Sartori says.
"We wanted the opposite - to keep the people, the expertise and the craft," he says. "I love the fact that human hands touch the product. There is years of know-how and it's transferred to the product by hand."
Although Sartori created a full Berluti ready-to-wear look from scratch, the brand's DNA and history has provided inspiration.
"When I arrived I wanted to do a specific and recognisable style. But the customer base, the elegance, the craft and style, and joyful, playful attitude were already there. I really just needed to build a silhouette," he says.
The men's silhouette is fitted but leisurely, and Sartori says he is dressing customers who are making statements.
"It doesn't matter where the customer is from, he just needs to be a character," he says.