Killer flats: Brigitte Bardot's secret style weapon

Catwalk trends come and go. But one French company has earnt a place in fashion history by sticking to the classic slipper-like footwear beloved by ballerinas and Hollywood stars alike
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

high heels, in all their fierce, platform-soled glory, have towered over fashion for some time, demanding our attention like Helmut Newton glamazons. Last year, however, the flat shoe quietly staged a comeback and, this season, mid-height is back. In the meantime, some of us have quietly ignored the killer heel, smug in the knowledge that wearing shoes you can walk in will never completely go out of style. While more lavish praise tends to be heaped on heels, fans of flat shoes get just as excited about a delicate ballerina or a light-as-Astaire jazz shoe. And those in the know get very excited about Repetto. The French dance brand worn by everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Kate Moss has turned flats from the fall-back footwear option of the past decade into elegant shoes that are a pure pleasure to wear.

The secret of Repetto's light, flexible creations is the company's unique "stitch and return technique", a way of creating the shoes by stitching under the sole and then turning them inside out. This method is at the heart of their production, which takes place at the company's factory in Saint-Médard-d'Excideuil, an unspoilt rural area of the Dordogne famed for truffles and foie gras. The soft leather upper of the shoes is stretched over a last, then stitched to the thicker leather sole inside out, so that when the shoe is turned the right way, the left foot becomes the right and vice versa. The result is a near-invisible join between the sole and the upper.

The factory also makes professional dance shoes with pointes which are created by layering Hessian sheets covered in a plaster solution; once inside the pink satin slipper, the pointe has to be completely flat at the end so that the shoe will stand up by itself. After being cut, stitched and "cooked" to reshape the leather, the ballet flats and low heels (a few higher-heeled styles are made elsewhere in Europe) are checked for flaws by an exacting shoe "doctor". One of the highlights of the Saint-Médard-d'Excideuil shopping calendar is surely the Repetto sample sales where the company sells off seconds with the slightest of defects, and queues stretch round the side of the factory. Finally, the shoes are cleaned, polished and encased in pink tissue paper ready to be shipped.

A quieter room, away from the whirring of the main area of the factory, is where Repetto makes custom-fit ballet shoes for dancers; it is one of a handful of companies in the world to do so. "We supply them to over 150 professional dancers," explains my tour guide for the visit, Repetto's CEO Jean-Marc Gaucher, an enthusiastic Frenchman who was an athlete, then the CEO of Reebok France, before he bought a then-beleaguered Repetto in 1999. "We lose 20 euros on average for each pair of shoes," he says. "A professional dancer can use up to three pairs of shoes in an evening and the silk can just break." The Repetto Foundation also supplies shoes to dance schools around the world.

The company was established in 1947 by Rose Repetto, who created a dance shoe workshop on the advice of her son, the choreographer Roland Petit. Soon, performers such as Rudolph Nureyev and Eric Vu-An started coming to her workshop in Rue de la Paix, and

in 1956, Brigitte Bardot – who trained as a ballerina – asked Rose Repetto to make her a shoe that was as delicate and easy to wear as a dance slipper but suitable for everyday life. In And God Created Woman, Bardot teamed a pair of red Repetto ballet pumps with cropped trousers and a Breton top.

While Bardot brought the ballet shoe out of the practice studio and on to the street – so that it's now more often worn with skinny jeans and a boyfriend blazer than with a tutu – Repetto's CEO is keen to maintain the professional dance side of the brand. Gaucher says, "I wanted to be the most technical brand in the dance industry, I want dancers to think about Repetto as the top brand." After noticing the tapping sound that pointe shoes make as the dancer moves across the stage, and the pain they cause the wearer's feet, Gaucher decided that he wanted to make shoes, "with no pain and no noise". He says, "I have been collaborating with the research department of a university to make these shoes, and now we have reduced the noise by 61 per cent and professional dancers and dancers at the level just under that, tell us that they don't feel pain in these new shoes."

Gaucher's vision for Repetto could be described as a case study in modern brand development, combining the technical innovation and romance of a dance label with the cachet of more than 60 years of history and a roll call of famous fans. Last September, in a survey done by Condé Nast, Repetto was voted by 36 per cent of French women as their favourite luxury shoe brand, and Repetto now has three shops and 260 points of sale in France, and 800 points of sale in more than 60 countries worldwide. In the UK, Repetto is now available from Liberty, Poste Mistress and Asos, with a self-contained boutique opening in Selfridges this August. Our interest in heritage brands has never been higher, and like British labels Barbour or Church's, Repetto's appeal is that its products never make the wearer look as if they are trying too hard.

To keep the label fresh, Repetto has collaborated with Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Rodarte and Liberty. The shoes have been worn by male and female musicians, models and actors past and present, including Mick Jagger, Catherine Deneuve, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Jessica Parker and Scarlett Johansson. Eerily, Gaucher received an order for a batch of Repetto shoes for Michael Jackson on the day he died, and after the singer's death the label's "Jackson loafer" – inspired by him and worn by Kate Moss – sold out in their Paris store and the company had to start a waiting list and increase production. Perhaps Repetto's coolest exponent was the rakish French singer Serge Gainsbourg, who wore white Zizi lace-ups – "winter and summer," says Gaucher. "He was a free man and so were his shoes." Rose Repetto originally created this style for her daughter-in-law, Zizi Jeanmarie, and according to Repetto lore, in the 1970s Jane Birkin found the shoes selling in a discount rack and bought them for Gainsbourg. He took to wearing them constantly and – crucially – without socks. "He wanted shoes that felt like gloves, so I got him white Repetto ballet shoes," Birkin told Vanity Fair in 2007.

In fact, Repetto's designs don't just fit like a glove; their appeal is that they feel as if you aren't wearing any shoes at all.