This network of small, dark rooms is an unlikely home for one of the most revered shoe ateliers in the world, and I nearly miss it as I frantically scoot across the Place Vendôme in Paris. It wouldn't do to be late for my coveted appointment at Maison Massaro, which despite its niche activities (hand-making shoes for Chanel's couture shows and for private customers) sees a constant stream of customers.
So it is with relief that I spot the tiny blue awnings on the first floor of a building in the rue de la Paix, just above the pricy fabric boutique Henri Maupiou. It's a glamorous location, but a modestly advertised presence in an area known for its wealth, and that is a dichotomy that characterises this venerable company. I climb the somewhat dusty stairs, and enter a tiny chamber in which Monsieur Philippe Atienza, the 48-year-old director of Massaro, is knelt, Prince Charming-style, over the foot of a male client whose tan, glossy black hair and exquisitely cut suit speak of huge wealth. (My escort hurries me through: the clients value the discretion of this company, and a VIP's shoe fitting is not for a journalist's eyes, it seems)
Later on, when I am granted a tour around the atelier, I see intricately carved heels and unspeakably expensive leathers laid out cheek by jowl with industrial sewing machines, hammers, nails and glues. But that's what couture is all about, after all: beneath the glossy, embroidered, beaded, flawlessly manipulated surfaces are unglamorous workshops peopled by craftsmen and women whose nimble fingers industriously stitch and tap and mould the pieces that will appear at Haute Couture fashion week in Paris next week. It is for the hours and hours of work by these valued "fournisseurs" that the pieces are so very handsomely priced.
Last year I visited Lesage, the embroidery atelier presided over by François Lesage where elf-like creatures spin fantastical webs of threads and beads into the stuff from which Chanel ball gowns are fashioned. It's extreme dress-making. But Maison Massaro, which is a fellow member of the Paraffection group of couture ateliers bought by Chanel since 2002, offers a rather more robust version: making a pair of light-as-air stilettos, with that graceful arch, the delicate-as-a-flower-stalk heel, the immaculate satin uppers and - most importantly - the comfortable, wearable fit, requires skill that is as muscular as artistic. Pulling leather over a wooden last and nailing it tight is hard physical work, and the men and women who graft away in the rabbit warren of workshops behind the main showroom, clad in aprons, have a far less romantic approach to their discipline than those of us who gasp and swoon over the results every season.
For one thing, as well as high quality men's and women's shoes, their business includes repairs, alterations and orthopaedic shoes. Mundane? Perhaps, but if you're a woman who has bought a pair of wildly expensive shoes from another luxury shoe store and can't walk in them, or would like an ankle strap added or the heel lengthened, then this is where you go. While I am in the workshop, pieces by several big-name designers are being dismantled and remade by the women's shoe expert Jacques Zakoyan. A toe being pushed out here, a millimetres-thick strap being reconstructed there: these are fiddly and expensive procedures but they are the bread and butter of Massaro, and a service designed for those who are used to perfection. Among the brown paper and card patterns, scraps of colourful leather and thread are testament to the variety of jobs seen here.
Across the room, the men's shoemaker Denis François is making a pair of extraordinary alligator boots. Of course, the quality is all in the details, he explains in French, handling the soft leather. You need two alligator skins for one pair of boots, because you can only use the middle, which is the good bit with the small pattern. And it's hard to match the skins, because each has a slightly different pattern. "It's very special," he says, shaking his head rather ruefully.
As we move on, we meet Tom Chardin, the chef d'atelier, who directs the work of the artisans here. He looks like he's barely out of his teens, but he has been working in shoes for 11 years, five of which have been at Massaro, where he started under Raymond Massaro, the now-retired shoe maestro that ran the company for so many years. "You have to start early in this job," he smiles, dashing any hopes I might have of retraining. "My family, everyone, works in this industry."
Chardin explains the intricacies of custom-making shoes. Each shoe Massaro makes for a customer will have a last (the foot-shaped carved wood mould over which the leather is stretched). If you have 10 pairs of shoes, you have 10 lasts. As for the heels, some are very simple, but others - and here he pulls out what appears to be the silver-painted carved foot of a rococo table - are a little more complex. This is the result of a design process in which Karl Lagerfeld sent over a piece of a chair with instructions that the heel of the shoe should be based on it. The piece was cast, with other bits of rococo carving attached, and is finally made in resin, with a metal interior for strength. When a customer later decided she would like the heel higher, the whole thing was redesigned with an extra piece of carving. Such are the demands that can be made by those buying couture accessories. Even without these extra details, a pair of shoes can take 60 hours from start to finish.
It is, then, with a certain reverence that I am introduced to M. Atienza, a neat, smiling man in a leather apron who presides over the activities at Massaro. He took over from Raymond Massaro four years ago, after working with him for a year, during which, says Atienza, he was inducted into the secrets of the workshop. Like Chardin, Atienza started early. "I started working on shoe production at 16, and when I finished my apprenticeship I joined John Lobb, in 1985, and stayed 21 years." By the time he left the shoemaker had become director of custom-made activities, making him an obvious choice for the heirless Massaro, an acquaintance of many years, to choose as a successor.
The move was not without its challenges, though: apart from the occasional pair of women's riding boots, Atienza had been making almost exclusively men's shoes at John Lobb. It's a problem he has overcome with the help of his customers and a detailed knowledge of the foot's anatomy. "The main difference for ladies' shoes is to have a good knowledge of the fitting," he says. "The arch of the foot is very important, the balance, the proportion, the heel. It's a lot in the eye: you have to see if it will fit or not. Our customers also help us, because the ladies have a very good eye, they know what they want and they give us some direction."
Foot pain is a perennial problem for women, of course, as we insist on wearing soaring heels while complaining about our bunions. That alone makes custom-made shoes appealing. "For ladies, the position of the foot is mainly on the joint area positioned with the arch of the instep, which is very pronounced, like ballerinas - a very high instep." And that shows no sign of changing, for in spite of the nascent revival of kitten heels, Atienza says that height remains the most popular request of his customers.
"I think all the ladies like to have a very high heeled shoe," he says. "Today with the platform it's a good compromise for the arch of the feet, so it helps the ladies to have a very high heel. If I take an example of this one" - he pics up a black satin shoe with something like a 10in heel and a one-inch platform - "We made these shoes with the platform here and another platform inside, so the look is like a higher heel."
This is a company that is all about finding a way of meeting its client's desires, however technical the solution, and that ability is put to the ultimate test every time Chanel has a couture or Metiers d'Art show and Karl Lagerfeld sends over his vision for the season. "He's very creative," explains Atienza, "And unfortunately we don't have the chance to say 'We are not going to be able to do it; it's not possible.' I have to forget this. We always have to find a solution. But sometimes if we find a solution and the result doesn't match with what he things, the style will not stay for the haute couture défilé (fashion show). Finally he will have another ideas, and if we succeed in matching very well with the drawing of Karl Lagerfeld, the shoes walk on the défilé."
The pressure of dealing with Paris's most demanding client must be great indeed, but in the meantime, the daily work of Massaro goes on. Atienza has just landed from a trip to Qatar where he was doing fittings at the palace. I've waited for him to finish with a series of clients, and within 10 minutes of us sitting down, another awaits him. Whatever the global fears for fashion and the perennial expense of couture, people will, it appears, always need a good pair of shoes.