Interview: Olga Berluti: Shoes with souls

Olga Berluti's exquisite bespoke shoes cost pounds 1,200 a pair. But then you are also buying moonshine, says E Jane Dickson. Photograph by Simon Norfolk

Olga Berluti has a passion for feet. Not a fetish, but a pure, clear-burning passion. As a child in Parma, she would troop to mass every morning with her schoolfriends, and while the other girls giggled and nudged through their devotions, Olga would kneel, rapt, before an ancient, battered crucifix.

"My nose was at the level of Christ's feet," she recalls. "And I adored these feet, these poor, destroyed feet. I so much wanted to care for them and comfort them. I said to myself, `When I am a woman, I shall bring relief to the feet of all men.'"

And so she did. Well, not all men, exactly. But certainly those men with pounds 1,500 to blow on a pair of bespoke mocassins will find relief for their aching wallets at Maison Berluti. The stars and statesmen of Europe have been buying Berluti since 1895, when Olga's grandfather established his business in Paris, and now Berluti has opened a branch in London. On a Tuesday afternoon on Conduit Street, the traffic of barging brokers and honking Sloanes is stopped by a pair of men's purple lace-ups in Berluti's window. Long-toed, high-topped, burnished to the shade of ripe figs, these are story-book shoes, shoes to go skipping to hell in.

Or maybe not. "Mauve," Olga reminds me, "is the colour of the death of Christ." And "This," she says, stroking a more subdued brogue as if it were a frightened bird, "is mauve-bourguignonne."

Olga Berluti is the oddest mixture of piety and practicality. Her loose linen work clothes (hand sewn from her grandmother's bedsheets) could be the habit of a novice or a surgeon's robes. "The English foot," she pronounces, "is an affirmative foot, impertinent even, but with a certain veiled fragility, a sense of derision, a hair-line fracture in its personality which I love." She talks, quite frankly, like a madwoman, but her hands and all her movements are strong and capable. Pattering about in her cotton plimsolls ("I need to feel, really feel, the earth beneath me"), she literally runs rings around her absurdly dignified sales staff.

"Me, I am a worker. I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 30 days amonth, with my heart, with my honest sweat. I do not create - never say I create - I fabricate. I make shoes for princes and popes with humility and love. I know nothing," she says, head flung back like a Resistance heroine, "nothing at all about business."

Fortunately, the nice men at the Louis Vuitton group, who bought out Maison Berluti in 1993, are more than happy to fumble in the greasy tills while Olga gets stuck in to the fabricating. Shoes hand-made to measure by Olga start at pounds 1,200, and ready-to-wear weigh in at a hefty pounds 300, but this is a small price to pay for shoes which, according to the lavishly produced brochure, are "dangerous like a dagger's blow", "impenetrable like a scar-covered African mask", best of all, "compliant and untiring like camels". Camels and daggers aside, they are extremely nice shoes. Alongside classic brogues and Oxfords, there are dandyish boots modelled on Edwardian skates, "seaside" shoes the colour of seaweed, and a new range of scarred and distressed "warrior shoes", inspired by "the everyday battles of contemporary life".

"Long ago," explains Olga, "men wore leather cuirasses for protection in war. Shoes are the vestigial expression of this warlike spirit, the last cuirasse the only protection left to man.

Certainly there is no shortage of clients looking for protection. By way of testimonial, the leather floor of the Conduit Street shop is decorated with the impressions of lasts made for an exclusive clientele including Gerard Depardieu, Andy Warhol and Robert de Niro - not, perhaps, the princes and popes of Olga's vision, but impressive none the less. One of the minor Kennedys had a holiday job chez Berluti, and the grandson of James Joyce is a favoured client. However, neither money nor status alone can buy you entree to the Berluti set: "All my friends are clients, and all my clients are friends. I could never make shoes for someone I didn't like. If I sense that they don't understand the shoes, if they say, `But I don't need shoes that will last 50 years', I will simply say, `Monsieur, I have nothing here to suit you.' It is my right and my duty to refuse such a person. Even if they offered to buy a hundred pairs. I work and work, but I have only so many shoes in me. And if someone buys a hundred pairs of shoes and leaves them in a cupboard, there will be one hundred fewer people who will walk the earth in my shoes. For me, the most important thing is the love that I give and that I receive."

Olga can go on in this vein for hours, to the extent that you find yourself wondering if you should fake a fit, just to bring things to a halt, but there is no doubting her sincerity or her talent. Her handiwork is exquisite - a display case shows embroidered shoes and hand-tooled slippers that might have been made by elves - and her eye is unerring. She has only to look at a foot to judge the size, and grateful clients claim she can spot an incipient heart-attack by the colour of your toes.

"When I was young, I had friends who were medical students, and I'd beg them to take me to the morgue so I could study the anatomy of the foot. Normally, I faint at the sight of blood, but I was enchanted by the engineering marvel of these dead feet. Is it not magnificent that the whole weight of our body can be supported by these structures? Man is the only animal who can raise himself up and walk with his head in the stars, and it's all down to feet."

"La grande passion du pied" was inherited from Olga's uncle and grandfather. As a child, she would sit in their workshop, itching to make her first shoes, but relegated instead to polishing small pieces of leather for hours. Over the years, she developed her own patination techniques, which remain a closely guarded secret, but involve exposing the shoes to moonlight. Surely, you demur, this is a mere lyrical flourish?

"Pas du tout! First, you wash the shoes. Then you must expose them to the rising moon, in the first quarter of the lunar cycle. The moonlight penetrates to the heart of the leather, et voila!"

Somehow, it's the bit about the lunar cycle, the unnecessary, unimaginable detail, that convinces you that Olga Berluti is, in fact, bonkers, but the charm of this fearless espousal of nonsense is such that you don't care. You want it to be true. It is easy to see how an international cult has grown around her.

Every year, around 30 Berluti devotees, styling themselves "The International Swann Club" in homage to Proust's peevish dandy, meet for an evening of unbridled shoe-appreciation. The aesthetics of shoes are discussed - and you'll like this bit - "from a standpoint of pure reason". And, in the club's most famous ritual, they all polish their shoes with Dom Perignon before they go home."The alcohol makes them shine more," insists Olga, clapping her hands like a little girl. "And, en plus, it's an elegant gesture Last year, we went to Venice, and there they were, all these grand aristocrats, washing their shoes in champagne and floating about in gondolas, waggling their toes at the moon."

Her favourite clients, however, are not necessarily the pampered galants of The Swann Club. "Three weeks ago, I was working in the shop in the rue Marbeuf when a young man came in and asked to try on some shoes. He didn't look like our usual customer, he looked like a tramp. But there was something in his [allure] that I liked, and I insisted on serving him myself. I knelt down and took off his shoes, and as soon as I saw his feet - which were clean - I knew I had been right to trust my instincts. He had the most spiritual feet I have ever seen. No fat, no puffiness, nothing but skin, bone and muscle, the feet of a prince of the Renaissance. I would have given him the shoes for nothing, but he had the money ready - 15,000 francs in 100-franc notes, which he counted with great ceremony into my hand. Late that night, when I was going home on the metro, I heard the most wonderful music, and when I turned around it was him, my beautiful tramp, playing the violin in rags and his Berluti shoes, while passers-by tossed coppers into his cap. I was so moved to think of him saving up those tiny coins to buy the shoes of his dreams."

Rich or poor, Olga's gentlemen will find her strict. She insists that they polish their shoes personally and with the right attitude. "It's a little like yoga. You must lean forward so all your energy is projected on to the task in hand. And please use Venetian linen to apply the polish. It is only with Venetian linen that absolute purity of the cloth can be guaranteed."

Purity is Olga's watchwork. She has never married, lives alone, in an apartment in the Marais district, and follows a quasi-monastic regime. "I am a very simple woman. My needs are few. If I go out, I walk or take the metro. I eat small meals from pure white porcelain which I wash by hand. I sleep in linen sheets which I iron myself. My only indulgence is perfection."

Her story translates poorly to the page, but the longer you spend in her company, the more convinced you are that Olga is the genuine, if eccentric, article. However, one final test, the touchstone of her integrity, remains. I request her professional diagnosis of my feet.

Reader, she does not blench. Kneeling like a Magdalen, she cradles my horny foot like a lover. Embarrassed by the "uncherished" state of it, I witter instead about my grandfather, a famously fastidious man, who soaked his feet for an hour every night and always polished the soles of his shoes to go to work in the shipyard. "He was a great and noble soul. I would have shod such a man," she says, before telling me I have a slight deformity of the right leg and should keep my feet out of the water when bathing.

The image of my grandpa prancing into Harland & Wolff in a pair of purple pope's shoes keeps me smiling as I drag my deformity home. Olga Berluti, with her horror of marketing, is very good at image. And sometimes image is enough

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