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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition