x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Shoemaker Pierre Corthay due to open Dubai outlet

Cobbler? At these prices, Pierre Corthay is a bottier, and he's due to open an outlet in Dubai soon.

The French bespoke shoemaker Pierre Corthay at the Andrew Martin store in Dubai International Financial Centre, with a selection of his creations.
The French bespoke shoemaker Pierre Corthay at the Andrew Martin store in Dubai International Financial Centre, with a selection of his creations.

The sharply dressed gentleman sitting on the floor is tracing around my right foot on to a page in a notebook. Don't be alarmed. I'm not involved in some bizarre playgroup for bored businessmen. I am, instead, being measured for a pair of bespoke shoes and the man in question - now brandishing a tape measure - is Pierre Corthay, founder and creative director of the Paris-based Corthay shoe company and shoemaker (or bottier) extraordinaire.

As someone who has only ever known the ready-to-wear section and, to be honest, the trainer department, this is a rather odd experience for me. The people I usually have fitting me for shoes (if that ever happens) aren't sporting blue suits, patent leather brogues and vibrant green socks. And they're rarely holders of France's esteemed Maître d'Art, which recognises the most exceptional (and French) craftsmen.

Having taken a total of five measurements, Corthay begins a process in which his 36 years in the business shine through: giving my foot a good feel. This, as you might imagine, is an even stranger experience than the last. But in bespoke shoemaking it's a vital element of the process, as millimetres alone don't provide a perfect blueprint of each foot.

"It's important to feel how your feet are constructed, the amount of flesh between the bones," says Corthay, squeezing my heel. "A foot is soft. The coefficient of compression is different between two people, so I have to feel how it's going to fit you, like a tailor." But with shoes, which Corthay says we spend 70 per cent of our lives wearing, there's extra care to be taken. "If a jacket isn't exactly well cut, it won't hurt you. Shoes could be torture."

This, however, didn't stop some enterprising shoemaker building a machine with sensors to take the measurements, thus cutting out the expensive and time-consuming human interaction in bespoke manufacturing. "But it didn't work; it only took the surface measurement," says Corthay. "And it's this that saves my profession. A machine could never replace a person in this job; it's not able to feel. You need hands."

Having established that my feet are disappointingly "regular" and, at just over UK size 7.5, somewhat small for a man, the next stage would be for Corthay to use his measurements and mental calculations to make the wooden "last", something he describes as "the hard disk of the shoe". And from this, he would construct the trial model, still using leather but with a cork sole, for me to try.

Usually, the time period from measurements to the first fitting is around 2 months and five months for the finished product, so to save time (and The National's expense account) I'm given a ready-prepared one to sample, one of the few he has in my rather "compact" size. Using this, Corthay can see how the foot fits within the shoe, which areas need tightening or loosening. For the perfect analysis, he has to see inside, so he takes a blade to the leather - often to the customer's horror - to create small viewing windows.

At this stage in the proceedings, the client also has to choose the style he's looking for, and Corthay's store has myriad options available to use as starting points, along with thick books of different materials and colours. But he also feels that it's his role to help by second-guessing what kind of shoe customers might desire before they've even had a chance to look. "I try to feel what they want inside of them."

Corthay describes the time a well-known flamboyant figure from the French fashion scene came in for a fitting. Having done his research into the character, Corthay had prepared for him a "cartoonlike" trial shoe. "He had a normal foot, maybe a 43, but these were around a 54, it was nuts," he recalls.

However, the man was so delighted with these outlandish and oversized creations, that he ordered 15 pairs in a variety of materials, including crocodile skin and patent leather. "He now only wears these," Corthay says.

Naturally, there's a flashy price-tag to accompany such items. "It's obscene," admits Corthay frankly, adding that his bespoke shoes start at €4,000 (Dh20,000) and can head towards €9,000 with the rare materials. But the benefits, he says, are unbelievable. "Imagine if you walk in the wet sand. The profile of your foot isn't flat, it's all completely different. And that's what we try to reproduce. When you put your foot in a bespoke shoe it's like someone holding it in their hand."

Pierre Corthay plans to open a store in Dubai soon. If you want to see his collection or order a pair now, visit www.corthay.fr