Why Does It Take More Than 50 Hours To Make A Pair Of Bespoke Corthay Shoes?

To Pierre Corthay, a pair of bespoke Corthay shoes, like most serendipitous relationships, starts with a meeting.

BY Janie Cai | Sep 20, 2016 | Shoes

Pierre Corthay

A pair of bespoke Corthay shoes, like most serendipitous relationships, starts with a meeting. It could be an informal meeting with the master shoemaker, in this case, Corthay himself, to glean a first impression of the customer’s personality and from there develop an inkling of what his client might so desire in a pair of shoes. Intuition is everything. There is no shortfall of talent or technique here, after all, you are looking at someone who trained under Les Campagnons du Devoir—an exacting and ancient French medieval guild with a heritage of producing the finest craftsmen. 

Corthay himself sports a serious mien when he is working, but now and then you’ll catch a mischievous glint in his eyes. In the studio-boutique, your eyes will rest upon exquisite examples of patina handiwork. You might even find yourself holding aloft the iconic Arca model - all the better to admire the sinuous curve of its elegant silhouette. You’ll marvel and realize that you are in the presence of a master—one who is both artist and sculptor, judging from the works on display. The French themselves must have recognized this early on as Corthay was presented with the exclusive Maitre d’Art in 2009, becoming the only men’s boot-maker to receive this distinction reserved for only the very best.

The beautiful amalgam of studio, workshop and boutique, nestled at 1 Rue Volney, is a haven amongst the bustle of central Paris and perfect for a meeting with a customer. After the initial appointment, all the necessary measurements are taken and with these numbers, the carving of the wooden last commence, which is in effect, the mold of the final shoes. Using the wooden lasts, Corthay first crafts a pair of shoes that is used for a trial fitting—this is to hone the last and ensure that both the fit and the style are perfect. At this step, the customer usually decides on the color and material of the final pair. Once both have been decided, the creation of the final pair can begin.

The whole process takes around 50 hours.

Why did you choose to create shoes?
When I visit my first workshop of shoemaker (I was 16 years old) I realised how complex and full of richness this work was, actually it's probably the mystery around this work which seduced me, as it's a work in which there are many facets requiring specialist skills. Carving the wood for the last for example, which can be likened to a sculpture, to designing on the cardboard for the model, as well as cutting the skin for the upper and working the cow leather for the soles and reinforcements.

What was the first pair of shoes that you ever made? And what happened to them?
My first pair of real shoes is the one I made for my first graduate at "Les Compagnons du Devoir" —the guild where I learnt my craft. I keep it at home.

The art of making bespoke shoes is both challenging and rewarding. What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced since you started? And the biggest rewards?
One of my biggest challenges, when I started, was to build this company from scratch!!!! One of my biggest rewards was the order from the Sultan of Brunei, which amounted to 140 pairs of shoes in total. Another proud moment was when Yohji Yamamoto himself choose Corthay to introduce one of our iconic models in his classic Y collection.

You've created some incredible works of art, not just footwear but 3D sculptures out of leather. How is leather as a natural material and what is your secret to taming it?
When you know how to make shoes it give you an extensive range of techniques and know-how for using leather in many different ways, you can mold it and transform it, in a lot of combinations, simply because from experience and from working with the leather for so long, you know exactly the end result of each process. Crafting these objet d’Arts is one way of keeps things fresh and it also encourages me to think "out of the box ".

There is a tension between growing a small, artisanal business or brand and retaining its core. How can Corthay remain Corthay, even as it grows internationally?
We maintain our standards and continue to do our work as we did before. There is no compromise on quality. It’s straightforward—if we can do 100 pairs of bespoke then we sell 100 pairs of bespoke.