Since its founding in 1895, Parisian shoemaker Berluti has been known for balancing classical craftsmanship with an irreverent streak. Alessandro Berluti, the brand’s founder, made his name with a sleekly sculpted whole-cut oxford featuring minimal stitching—a strikingly modern design for the late 19th century. Almost 100 years later, his descendants bucked tradition by developing a leather-dyeing method that yields vibrant colors and painterly patinas, creating shoes that stand out in a sea of sober browns and blacks.
Now the brand has channeled that rebellious spirit into a design that defies cordwaining convention: a sneaker that employs all the technical know-how used for its dress shoes. Dubbed the Play-Off, the high-top takes its cues from kicks built for the basketball court, and while this isn’t Berluti’s first sneaker, it is the brand’s sportiest yet. Even with its decidedly casual look, the Play-Off retains a streamlined elegance that old Alessandro would no doubt recognize.
The shoes are crafted by hand in the same Italian workshop responsible for all the house’s leather goods, from bespoke boot commissions to briefcases. Old-school and high-tech meet at the facility outside Venice, where craftspeople specialize in techniques from both ends of the spectrum. All of them play a part in getting the Play-Off game ready.
1. But First, Lasts
As with any fine dress shoe, construction begins with the last, a hand-carved wooden form upon which the design will be built. Alessandro Berluti originally trained as a cabinet maker, rendering him particularly adept with wood—a skill that the brand still prides itself on today.
2. Getting in Shape
Berluti’s Paris-based design team creates an initial sketch, which the Italian workshop is tasked with translating into a three-dimensional pattern, accounting for every technical detail and structural concern. While CAD technology helps in this process, ultimately it comes down to the pattern-cutter’s eye.
3. Seek ’n’ Hides
The strikingly vivid colors that are Berluti’s signature require exceptional leather: a full-grain calfskin that is individually tanned by hand rather than en masse in barrels, which makes the hides tougher and less receptive to dyes.
4. Going to Pieces
Each hide is analyzed for any potential blemishes, and the pattern is strategically cut to minimize wasting any of the precious material. One pair of sneakers requires 80 individual pieces of leather, which are all cut from the same hide to avoid any discrepancies between the left and right shoes.
5. The Skinny
To maintain the design’s sleek lines, the edges where two pieces of leather meet must be extremely thin or the seams would be noticeably bulkier. To achieve this effect, each of the upper’s 80 pieces is processed through a skiving machine, which flattens the leather to be paper-thin but still remarkably durable.
6. Sew Chic
Because the seams are as much a design feature as they are an architectural requirement, great care is taken in assembling the sneaker’s upper. Certain elements are sewn from the inside out, hiding the stitching, while others are meticulously sewn as decorative flourishes.
7. True to Form
The upper and its lining are heated to become even more supple before being stretched over the last. The insole is laid across the last’s bottom, and the upper is affixed with glue before the whole thing is hammered by hand to conform to the last’s shape.
8. Bottoms Up
The only element that Berluti outsources is the sneaker’s rubber-composite outsole, which is produced in Italy’s Marche region by an athletic-sole specialist. It’s adhered to the insole and then stitched around the shoe’s perimeter for even greater strength and polish.
9. In Living Color
Every shade in Berluti’s palette is custom-blended from numerous pigments, and each fully assembled shoe is hand-painted with several different dyes to achieve the rich highs and lows that distinguish the brand’s patina. Once the over 180-minute-long painting process is complete, the leather is waxed to a glossy (and water-resistant) shine.