Esquire Finds Out How A Venerable French Luxury Brand Creates Its Shoes

All in the heart of Italy’s most revered shoemaking region.

BY Ian Loh | Nov 30, 2017 | Shoes

Images by Malletier Stephane Muratet/Louis Vuitton

We arrive in Venice at dusk; the city looks as picturesque as a Monet painting. Ah, it’s love at first sight, even though you’re sinking. In fact, artist Lorenzo Quinn has created a sculpture of a giant pair of hands rising out of the Grand Canal to highlight the threat of climate change at the luxurious Ca’Sagredo Hotel, once a 15th-century palace, where we spend the night before heading to Fiesso d’Artico. 

Sitting on the banks of the Brenta, Fiesso d’Artico is an ancient heartland of manufacturing and art that has specialised in footwear since the 13th century. Today, there are approximately 200 shoe-manufacturing workshops in town—but one is unlike all others. 

When I think of a shoe manufactory, the image that comes to mind typically involves a grey-haired shoemaker with horn-rimmed glasses, huddled in a corner of a tiny room piled high with shoe lasts and leather bundles as the scent of tannin wafts through the air. 

That is not quite the sight that greets us when we pull up at Manufacture de Souliers Louis Vuitton. For starters, the building is ultra-modern. With its grey concrete walls and streamlined corridors, it could easily be mistaken for a laboratory or a movie set for the next JJ Abrams sci-fi blockbuster. 

Designed by architect Jean-Marc Sandrolini, the workshop (not factory, the brand insists) is shaped like a shoebox. It might seem a little cliché at first, but there’s some logic to it: the building is designed in such a way that its contents remain hidden from the outside world—much like its inspiration. It’s no-nonsense appearance aside, the structure is a blueprint of energy consumption and environmentalism in manufacturing. An open courtyard brings natural light into the four workshops, planning departments and QC areas. There are enough solar panels to heat 56 percent of the workshop’s hot water; a geothermal heat pump provides the rest. Rainwater is collected and recycled. 

At the centre of “the box” lies a giant 4.7m-long woman’s pump made of pots and pans called “Priscilla”. On the other end is a 2.7m-long sculpture by Nathalie Decoster dubbed “L’Objet du désir”. Both are testaments to Vuitton’s passion for art and modernism. 

Once inside, though, we soon find ourselves at the centre of the action. Shoes being designed, materials being tested for quality control—these are some of the rigours that a shoe has to undergo in order to be aligned with a maison like Louis Vuitton. We slip through the four workshops named after classic Vuitton materials and pieces like Alma, where women’s shoes are made; Nomade, where they make moccasins; Speedy, the workshop for sneakers; and Taiga, where the men’s shoes are fashioned. 

At every workshop we visit, the craftsmen are more than happy to stop and show us what they are doing, eager to impress with their workmanship, whether it is leather immaculately cut by hand; hammering minute holes onto exotic leather to make a pattern; hand-stitching and skiving soles; waxing and brushing the surface of the leather; or simply packing the shoes in boxes to make sure they are not damaged in transit. The level of expertise and meticulousness is simply astonishing. 

Of all the workshops, it is at Taiga where we come alive. At the men’s made-to-order section, we chance upon Roberto, a shoe craftsman of the highest order, hand-stitching a Norwegian welted sole. Watching him rapidly dart a needle into a cross-stitch that will create the most durable fastening known to the craft is simply a pleasure to behold. 

Vuitton’s handmade, made-to-order service allows customers to choose from over 3,000 possible design combinations. And Roberto is one of only two craftsmen who has acquired the skills to stitch these well-crafted soles. He is currently mentoring a protégé, Pierpaolo, as part of the apprenticeship scheme run here where experienced artisans can pass on their knowledge to the next generation. 

The City of Waters might be sinking, but the traditions of shoemaking and craftsmanship are definitely not dying. And this is perhaps the world’s most exclusive shrine to the craft.

This article first appeared in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, November 2017.