On a grassy expanse in the centre of Louis Vuitton’s manufacture de souliers, an enormous sculpture in the shape of a high-heeled shoe shimmers in the sunlight. Priscilla, as this peep-toe pump is affectionately known, is a creation by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos and is made from hundreds of stainless steel pans. Standing 4.7 metres tall, it is a first sign that in this modern concrete structure where the French fashion house crafts its covetable footwear, shoes are more akin to art than accessories.
This message is reiterated in the facility’s dedicated gallery, a 260-square-metre space where historic footwear from India, China and Lapland sits across from artworks by Andy Warhol, Ralph Gibson, Yayoi Kusama and Richard Prince. And then again in the workshops across the way, where artisans use their hands (and skills passed on over generations) to meld leather into runway-worthy footwear.
We are on the banks of the Brenta river, 30 kilometres from Venice, in Fiesso d’Artico, where, since the 13th century, tanners and calegheri (cordwainers) have come to ply their trade. There are now more than a hundred shoemaking facilities in this tiny Italian town.
Louis Vuitton’s cutting-edge 14,000-square-metre facility was opened in 2009 and boasts geothermal temperature and air quality control, as well as the capacity to recycle rainwater – so that age-old techniques are carried out in the most modern of environments. The space is divided into dedicated sections: Speedy is the workshop for sneakers; Nomade is where driving shoes are created; Alma is the source of “elegant women’s shoes”; and Taiga is where formal footwear for men is made.
Traditional construction techniques that are regularly executed within these walls include the Goodyear welt, and the Blake and Norwegian hand-stitch. Moccasins are created entirely by hand, and the brand claims that it is possible to identify the “author” of a shoe by the way it has been stitched.
Another trademark of the Vuitton manufacture is the patina created on all leather designs. Armed simply with wax polish, water, a brush and fabric, experts work on each shoe for several hours. From an initial sketch to final completion, each pair of shoes goes through around 200 separate steps, whether it’s the application of a heel by hand, or a colour touch-up on the seam of a ballet slipper.
In one section of the manufacture, a craftsman shows us the initial sketch for Louis Vuitton’s now famous Archlight sneakers, which, with their technical fabrics, oversized rubber sole and prominent tongue, look like the hybrid of a vintage 1990s basketball shoe and something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie. At the other end of the scale are the Headline cross pumps, a key feature of the brand’s autumn/winter 2018-19 fashion show. Crafted from ostrich and calf leather, with a python trim, the style’s graphic lines are highlighted by the bold contrast of black and white, topped with chunky gold detailing. Here, we get a behind the scenes look at how these shoes are made.
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