Crafting Excellence

DEC 14, 2017

Paris-based bespoke shoemaker Pierre Corthay is living proof that when you do what you love, it is no longer considered work

Passion is no ordinary word but then Pierre Corthay is no ordinary shoemaker. “For me, leather is a lifelong obsession. Since the age of nine I have loved the smell, the lustre, the suppleness of it. I see leather as a painter sees his pigments, the choice of which guides his art,” says Corthay.

Which is why slipping into a pair of Corthay’s shoes is like slipping into a work of art. Take the Arca calf leather Derby shoe, which has become the brand’s quintessential product. The two-eyelet Derby, with its inverted lacing, is complex to construct and painstakingly detailed yet simple, sleek, and beautiful to the eye. What really sets it apart from its peers is that it is surprisingly versatile while remaining highly distinctive, whether you choose a model with red piping and laces or with blue patina.

“I was born in Montpelier in the south of France where light and colour have a strong influence on the culture. I was also surrounded by painting at the home of my grandparents where I spent a lot of time as my parents, both actors, were often travelling for their work. Colour is like music, its emotional, not intellectual, which is why I’ve incorporated colour into what is essentially a classic and conservative medium, shoes,” says Corthay.

One of the world’s most-acclaimed shoemakers, Corthay trained under Les Campagnons des Devoir, a French organization of craftsmen and artisans dating from the Middle Ages. He then honed his skills with two masters of the shoemaker’s art, John Lobb, where he learned technique, and Talbinio Berluti, where he absorbed one of the key lessons in the industry, that of client relations.

In 1990, Corthay left Berluti to open his own atelier, though it wouldn’t be until the mid-nineties that the stars aligned. First, an order of 150 pairs of shoes from the Sultan of Brunei kick-started the business. Next, the happy combination of a growth in global private wealth and a more informed consumer (thanks to the internet) gave rise to a renewed interest in bespoke craftsmanship, and a subsequent big boost in orders.

Today, Corthay’s clientele includes celebrities like tennis great Raphael Nadal, actors Clive Owen and Kate Blanchett, who favours bespoke unisex spins on the classic’s men’s Derby or brogue, and acclaimed French pastry chef Pierre Hermé.

However, Corthay does have more pedestrian clients, so to speak. A school bus driver in the French countryside orders a pair of shoes once a year. “He makes a huge sacrifice, saving from his meagre salary to spend one weekend in Paris, visiting museums, dining at a good restaurant and, of course, picking up a very expensive pair of shoes,” says Corthay, adding it almost brought tears to his eyes when the client told him, ‘the experience is like Christmas for me’.”

Clearly, there is no stereotypical Corthay client. “We have very wealthy clients, in finance or law, but also many artists, designers and chefs. I spend a minimum of one hour with a new client, observing everything from his height and weight, his stride, his temperament and even the shape of his face. The head and the feet are the body’s extremities, and they should be in harmony and in balance,” says Corthay.

What Corthay’s clients do have in common is an attraction to the high quality of the products and service. “Our approach is natural, not obsequious. We don't show customers marketing material when we meet and we don't only discuss shoes. It’s important that the experience embraces all aspects of what it means to live well and to appreciate the better things in life,” says Corthay.

“For me and for everyone, it is easy to make money if that is your only focus. But my mother taught me to always be yourself. So my products are an expression of myself, my love of leather, of craftsmanship and colour. I go to work because it is my pleasure, I love it and it is my passion. That is my definition of living well and of a long, rewarding life.”

If you’re inspired by Pierre Corthay’s passion for life, share your own ‘Words of Wisdom’ on living well here.