Why It Takes Over 50 Hours To Make A Pair Of Berluti Shoes
At Berluti’s manufacture in Ferrara, Italy, we find out exactly how the luxury shoemaker creates its extraordinary footwear.
The sharp sting of shoe polish hits our noses as we step into the neat room.
Swisha-swisha-swish sounds underscore the hushed voices of staff engaged in muted conversations, and my eyes scan the room for the source of a determined faint buzzing in the far right corner.
It comes from the workstation of Elena Lodi, the prototype finishing manager of Manifattura Berluti in Ferrara, Bologna. As I go closer, I see her applying a tattoo design onto a piece of leather for a customer’s bespoke shoes.
Under her hawk-eyed gaze, some 16 craftsmen are fervently at work, carefully rubbing polish onto the precious leather skins of Berluti shoes with white cotton cloths. Lodi heads this department and is responsible for the patina, tattoo and special orders of customers from all over the world.
We first ventured into the quiet, airy and light-filled Berluti manufacture this morning, and this department is the last stop on our visit. If any tattoo design goes wrong or the wrong patina is applied to a bespoke pair of shoes, they are sent back to this department, where the work has to restart from scratch.
With such important responsibilities resting on their shoulders, it is not surprising that this team takes their work very seriously—but their dedication is no less fervent than that of the experts from other departments within the manufacture that we had the pleasure of visiting today.
So... What Exactly Are Lasts?
A pair of Berlutis can take over 50 hours to make, and it all starts here in the last department, where blocks of hornbeam wood are shaped into a mould of the customer’s foot. Detailed measurements have already been taken—not just toe-to-heel lengths, but also the circumference of the foot and arch, as well as thickness of toes.
After a rough model is hewn from the block, leaving a ribbed surface, it takes master craftsmen about six hours to do the final shaping of the last. As they sand the wood down into smooth shapes, the craftsmen seem to make light of their work. But Stefano Gavioli, who heads this division, reveals that it takes well-honed dexterity and skilful hand-eye coordination to achieve the curves of the last.
Measurements have to be checked carefully at the filing stage to ensure not too much is filed away, but in case they do, the craftsmen will apply a plaster paste to add the volume back. When finished, the last will be used as the final reference of a customer’s foot profile.
Interestingly, the wooden last is not the mould used to manufacture the shoe. Rather, a plastic last with a bendable spring at the arch, is cast from the wooden last and used throughout the rest of the production process, while the wooden last is safely stored away.
There are some fixed last shapes for Berluti’s iconic collections, such as the Alessandro, Gaspard and Andy. Templates of these designs have been made in the most common G and H foot shapes. With each bespoke pair comes variations of these lasts.
We walk further into the room and I remark at how quiet it is. Is everyone just nervous about our visit, or is this how they usually work? Paolo Dall’Aglio, development and industrialisation director of Manifattura Berluti, laughs. “It’s both! To be honest, we do not open our manufacture for outsiders at all, not even Berluti customers. So it is a very special treat for you to be able to see how our craftsmen work, and ask them questions. They don’t get visitors very often!”
"A pair of Berlutis can take over
50 hours to make, and it all starts here
in the last department."
Finding The Right Cut
We stop at the desk of a white-bearded gentleman who has been making templates for Berluti’s leather since 1975. His team of young apprentices follows the measurements of each last to make computer-aided design drawings, which are printed onto white vanguard sheet templates.
He then places these templates onto leather pieces, and hand-cuts the pieces for every single pair of shoes, much like a tailor would. He is unruffled by our clicking cameras and whispered questions, smiling as he deftly completes the cuts for a pair of shoes and holds them up for us to admire.
“This is the only department where some form of computer work is used in our shoemaking process,” explains Dall’Aglio. “This helps us achieve the best precision and also cope with the volume of orders we receive.”
The Secret Behind The Leathers
Next, we move downstairs to what I call the “inner chambers” of the Berluti manufacture: the leather store. Of all the components that make a pair of Berlutis, leather is perhaps the most important. Not only does it cover the largest surface area of the foot, it is also the canvas on which the renowned Berluti patina is applied and is largely responsible for the wearer’s comfort.
Inside this temperature-controlled room, aisles of floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with rolled-up skins of all colours, sizes and types. We meet Zied, who takes care of these precious skins. Over a large table, he throws open a sheet of Venezia skin—a raw leather patented for use by Berluti because it has the best quality for developing the brand’s renowned patina.
“We buy only the skins of medium-sized calves,” shares Dall’Aglio. “In fact, only the top 10 per cent of skins from the best suppliers can be used to make Berluti Venezia leathers.” Do you buy only skins from a specific breed of cows, I ask. “The skins are from suppliers of cows in Switzerland and Bologna,” Dall’Aglio replies and shrugs. “The skins market is dependent on the meat market. At this moment, the meat market is slightly down, perhaps because many people have become vegetarian, so our supplies are also limited.”
Zied brings out some templates of shoe leathers and places them on the skins. As the skins expert, he is in charge of supplying the right piece of leather for belts, bags, and shoe parts. “We can only cut four pairs of shoes from one medium calfskin,” he explains in French through a translator. Gesturing towards the neck part of the raw hide, he says: “We don’t use this part here because it has wrinkles.”
“We buy our crocodile skins
from a top-grade supplier
Next, he lays out a piece of white baby crocodile skin. “On this piece of leather, we can only cut two belts,” he says, placing the templates onto the skin. Mesmerised, we all nod in hypnotic agreement as I entertain a fleeting thought about the resulting price of this piece that will eventually hold up someone’s pants.
Zied gestures to his staff and we hear a flurry of activity behind us. We turn with a collective gasp—on the floor, a 3m white crocodile skin has been laid out. Even to our untrained eyes, its grain and unmarked quality are evident. “We buy our crocodile skins from a top-grade supplier in Singapore,” Dall’Aglio shares with a wink. “I personally visit the supplier twice a year to inspect and buy them.”
Other exotic skins that Berluti uses, as we discover later in Paris at its rue Marbeuf bespoke manufacture, include anything from ostrich leg to bullfrog and even sharkskin. These rare skins are used more as decorative elements than for the entire shoe, and each part is treated and dyed by Berluti in-house.
Getting Down To The Soles
Reluctantly leaving the visual spectacles of the leather store, we move into the soles department. This is the only department where they require burly muscular men to work at whirring machines, stitching the soles of the shoes.
We observe how the thick layers of welt and the sole are guided by the craftsmen’s hands through the stitching machine. Even the soles of Berluti’s shoes are not bought from suppliers—they are made in-house right here, and screed in a machine.
“Eighty per cent of our body weight is on the heel, so we put a lot of emphasis on the comfort of the sole. In some Berluti models, we put in a cambrion piece made of iron, which provides what will be felt as a spring in the step. But that is also what triggers the alarm when you walk through the scanning machines at the airport,” explains Dall’Aglio. “Hence, we can also make softer options with no iron pieces in the heel, upon the customer’s request.”
“Eighty per cent of our body weight
is on the heel, so we put a lot of emphasis on
the comfort of the sole."
The Finishing Touch
When the shoes have found their soles, they are left to “rest” for four to five days with the plastic lasts in them, so they can “stabilise”. Thereafter, they arrive at Lodi’s department to achieve Berluti’s renowned finishing. Here, special orders, such as the Berluti Scritto or tattooed images, are created and finished, as are the standard off-the-shelf shoes that customers can obtain from Berluti stores around the world.
An entire wall here is shelved with labelled glass bottles containing the different dyes and polishes. This is where Lodi happily works at creating special colours, such as a highlighter-yellow shade that a customer requested for his croc-skin wallet.
She lifts a white cloth to carefully show us the glowing finished product. “It took us some time to mix, create and test the correct dye to achieve this special colour, and ensure it would retain its luminous shade,” she shares proudly. It’s evident that she welcomes such challenges from customers.
Opening a thick file, Lodi brings us through the special-order images that she has tattooed onto Berluti shoes—these include eagles, flowers, even poems. “An image of the Great Wall of China will take about four months to create,” she says with a smile.
Later, we try our hand at polishing our own Berluti name-card holder. I quickly discovered the limits of my artistic ability—it took me some time to work away an unfortunate glob of polish to achieve a passable gradient. Perhaps I’ll improve if I get more practice, but it is a job for the patient.
Like all other luxury products that take time and effort to produce, a pair of Berlutis ranks up there in quality and timeless style. As we left the manufacture, we couldn’t help but wonder: when will Berluti make shoes for women?
Digital Exclusive: The Parisian House of Berluti
As part of our Berluti induction, we spent a few hours at 26 Rue Marbeuf, the original workshop where Torello Berluti, son of founder Alessandro, established the first maison-style store for his customers in the early 1940s. This space has since been transformed into the bespoke workshop for the house, where some 20 staff work at delivering only bespoke shoes. Its spokesperson, Julien Fouache, takes us through the cosy, single-storey workshop.
"Russian customers like their shoes
to be tight, while Chinese clients
prefer looser shoes."
Customers usually visit this workshop three to four times during the making of their shoes, and for a first-time customer, it can take up to nine months to create their bespoke pair. “Once you make bespoke shoes, you will realise that all your life, you have been wearing someone else’s shoes,” says Julien. Interestingly, he reveals that a “very very small percentage” of their customers are women, but they are not the core customers as women’s shoes are a whole different universe altogether and “Berluti doesn’t make heels”.
The lasts room is where detailed measurements of the customer’s foot are taken and the wooden lasts are carved. A consultation here can take between 1.5 to two hours, and is the most important step of the bespoke process.
“The last is not meant to shape the customer’s foot. Its job is to fill the inside volume of the shoe,” reveals Julien. “During the consultation, we try to find out about our customers’ lifestyles—their fears, passion, why they want the bespoke shoes.”
There are also cultural differences they have come to understand. For instance, Russian customers like their shoes to be tight, while Chinese clients prefer looser shoes.
The skins department here is a scaled-down version of the workshop in Ferrara, Bologna. Here, they work on more exotic designs – we observe a staff carefully stitching mink onto the inner lining of a bespoke pair.
The finishing department is where the Berluti patina is achieved. Here is also where the craftsmen repair Berluti shoes that have been sent in for servicing – for instance, changing the soles or re-polishing the shoes with a different patina or colour.
When finished, every pair of bespoke Berlutis is cased in a special leather box – and even this is polished by a dedicated staff member from the workshop. Julien shares: “The boxes are magnetic so you can stack them securely atop each other. Also, we include a picture of your shoes on the front of the box so you can identify them easily.”
Atelier Special: Slip behind the scenes with us as we take you into the wonderful—and often private—world of ateliers. In Part One of a series of four, we take you to Berluti’s manufacture in Ferrara, Italy.
(Related: Berluti - From Fathers To Sons)