It is said that the men who belong to Olga Berluti’s Swann Club polish their shoes with Venetian linen dipped in Dom Pérignon and expose them to the light of the full moon, but that is false. It is the quartermoon that is important, Berluti explains: “The moon gives transparency to leather. The sun burns; the moon burnishes.” More about the Swann Club (named for the protagonist of Proust’sRemembrance of Things Past) later. For now, know that Olga Berluti is the creative director of, and designs handmade, exorbitantly expensive men’s shoes for, the company that bears her family name.
Olga Berluti loves men’s feet—a passion, not a fetish, she says. The passion began with her convent schooling in Italy. A long corridor led to the chapel and a 14th-century statue of Christ. “I would approach the altar,” she remembers. “The nailed feet of Christ were exactly on the same level as my eyes. I stared and stared. I said to myself: When I am older, I will remove the nails. I will relieve the suffering of men’s feet.”
Berluti, small and slight with short black hair and eyes so dark they seem to be all pupil, does not seem tethered to the ground. She lives simply, does not eat meat and does not wear leather (“My life is flesh and blood already”). She wears only natural fibers—always white. On her feet: white cotton sneakers in summer, white wool shoes in winter. She is an ascetic in a universe of extravagance. “I sublimate myself. I suffer. I have spent my life at men’s feet,” says Olga, Our Lady of Shoes.
Olga Berluti, Our Lady of Shoes
She speaks in Celtic rune and Delphic pronouncement. “Man is a vagabond deluxe. We are moving through to the perfection of gesture,” she says. So what if the utterances make little sense. We are talking mystique and shoes with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio. We are talking shoes with the sleek, menacing profile of a mako shark, shoes decorated with piercings, tattoos, sometimes scars. They are shoes, she says, for the hidden warrior inside every man. Shoes, also, for the man with four to twelve thousand dollars to spend on a made-to-order dream.
Her atelier, in an 18th-century building in Paris’s Marais, is a stage set. A shoemaker’s bench with rows of apothecary bottles sits in the corner. Do the bottles contain essence of sorrow? Tincture of pain? No, merely fragrant oils and dyes. The lasts—she calls them ex-votos—of Berluti’s famous clientele rest on low tables. There are lasts that belonged to Pablo Picasso (“We made his sandals”); Jean Cocteau (“He liked to wear shoes without socks”); Andy Warhol (“He asked for his right loafer to be patched—and be very visible”).
Once a year Olga Berluti invites clients to the Swann Club soiree, a black-tie affair, with champagne, not just to drink, but to clean shoes. Their annual nighttime soiree begins with a great meal, some port and cigars, and then moves to what they all came for. After dinner, guests remove their shoes, take out their tins of wax polish, and clear the tables. With only stockings on their feet, they wrap fine Venetian linens around their fingers, dip them in Dom Perignon, and begin to shine their shoes. ”The alcohol makes them shine, but it must be chilled; it must be a very dry, a grand champagne.”
Berluti Swann Club dinner, of course its black tie
In Olga Berluti’s world, the relationship between man and shoe is complex. “Shoes adopt and tame you, and you adopt and tame them, like domesticating a wild animal,” she says. “You buy a pair of shoes you adore, but they are too edgy, too avant-garde. Perhaps your wife made you buy them. You put them away, and little by little this style, this color you’re not used to seeps in. You buy a jacket that goes with them, or a different color shirt. One day, you realize you have become the man your wife envisioned. The shoes revealed something new, something unexpected in you.”
But is not to take off one’s shoes to reveal something not so lovely, something, in fact, rather ugly—that is to say, one’s feet? The writer offers her own as an example.
Olga Berluti does not flinch. She reaches to cradle the feet. “No, no,” she says passionately. “There are no ugly feet. Feet are spiritual. They enable man to stand up. They free his hands. Now, he can look at the stars.”
If I were being cynical, I would say the Swann Club is just a clever marketing ploy. Perhaps doubly so since LVMH conveniently owns both Berluti and Dom Perignon. If I were not, I would say it’s an event put on for enthusiasts by a woman who shares their passion. The reality, I imagine, is that it’s probably something a bit of both. The Swann Club meets intermittently in Paris and occasionally in London or New York. Businessmen, artists, captains of industry, entrepreneurs, and a few certifiable lunatics are amongst its members. For what it’s worth, you don’t have to bring a pair of Berluti shoes to the event (or even own one), but you do have to have an obsession for well-made footwear.
The grandiosity of the whole thing might sound silly to outsiders, but as a men’s style and clothing enthusiast, I must say I’m attracted to the idea. It’s a bit over the top and romantic, but so what? Those are the things that make life feel a bit less dull.
I read on Ethan Desu’s blog once that he and a friend like to get together every once a while, have some tea, chat about life, and shine their shoes for a few hours. That scale of things is equally attractive to me, if not more so. Unfortunately, except for a couple of people I’ve met in my time as a menswear writer, I don’t know anyone who shares my interest in traditional men’s clothing. Certainly not enough to shine shoes for three or four hours. So, for now, I’ll continue to shine mine alone on weekends, while listening to Bill Evans and drinking a bit of whiskey. It’s not in Paris, and I use water, not champagne, but it’s relaxing and enjoyable nonetheless. Perhaps I’ll call mine the Ephrussi Club, named after Charles Ephrussi, the man who Swann was loosely modeled after.
THE (SHOE) RULES
I - Few things make a man feel more like a man then a shoeshine before 9:00 a.m.
II - Always buy your shoes after 2:00 p.m., when your feet have swollen to their maximum measurement.
III - Cheap shoes look best in black.