Most of the men in Olga Berluti’s family—her grandfather, father, and uncles—were shoemakers, and though she grew up in Parma, Italy, surrounded by the tools of their trade, the notion that she one day would enter the profession never occurred to her relatives, or to Olga. Nevertheless, she did and today might be the only woman in the world making bespoke shoes.
“Shoemaking has always been a job for a man because it is very physical work,” says Berluti, who, over the past 40 years, has developed her own production techniques, adapting the more physical chores—carving the wooden lasts and sewing and finishing the leather by hand—to suit her petite frame. “A male shoemaker works seated, whereas I work in an upright position, which enables me to use all of my strength,” she explains.
In addition to breaking through the gender barrier, Berluti has pioneered techniques for finishing leathers. She was the first to apply dyes and chemical bleaches to naturally soft Venezia leather, enhancing the coloration of classic black and brown men’s footwear. She also created several new shapes, including her signature elongated loafers (first fashioned in 1962 for Andy Warhol) and Derby lace-ups with lacing down one side. Her unconventional finishing treatments endow her shoes with traits akin to scars, tattoos, and piercings. Berluti says her shoes reflect an individual character, just like the lines etched in a person’s face. “They have been through hell and high water and show off their wounds as triumphs, one and all,” she explains.
Although Berluti now is recognized as the woman behind the brand, the company owes its origins to her great uncle Alessandro Berluti, a bootmaker who immigrated from his native Urbino, Italy, to Paris in 1895. His son Torello, Olga’s uncle, established the first Berluti shop in Paris in 1950, and Torello’s son Talbinio expanded the business in 1959 to include ready-made footwear. But Olga, who moved to Paris that same year to apprentice with her cousin Talbinio, transformed Berluti from a single Parisian shoe shop into a multistore international brand.
In addition to overseeing the ready-made shoe collection, which is priced from $900, and the custom line, which starts at $4,300, Berluti recently introduced her first collection of leather bags. She also designed the 15 stores that the company operates in eight countries—including the brand’s first U.S. shop, which opened earlier this year on New York’s Madison Avenue.
Berluti plies her craft in solitude in an ornate atelier in the Marais district of Paris, several arrondissements away from Rue Marbeuf, where the 110-year-old family business has its flagship. When she moved her workshop from the store to this larger space five years ago, Berluti thought of it as a place of exile. Yet many of her best clients—including LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, who acquired the brand for the conglomerate in 1993 and has financed its expansion—visit regularly as members of the company’s exclusive Swann Club, named for the Proust hero who, Berluti says, “epitomized elegance and romanticism.” The club consists of Berluti’s 100 best customers, who gather to socialize and share their appreciation of fine footwear and other interests and learn a few tricks of the trade. Among Berluti’s lessons is how to bathe shoes in dry Champagne. It must be “on the rocks and vintage,” she insists, noting that the fizz removes wax and restores a shiny finish. “That’s a secret only a woman would know.”