THE POPE’S SHOES
Olga Berluti: France’s first female bootmaker with a fetish for the Catholic.
As The Costume Institute's exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination gets underway, Jamie Huckbody is reminded of a conversation with Olga Berluti — sartorial foot fetishist and France’s first female bottier.
AMIDST the heavily embellished papal robes, the glittering tiara of Pope Pius IX (an amazing, egg-shaped hat banded with three diamond-encrusted coronets gifted to him by Queen Isabella II of Spain) and the 20th/21st century fashion that such religious dress-up has inspired, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exhibit: a pair of fuuugly red shoes made for Pope John Paul II. The slip-ons, made by an Italian cobbler called Loredano Apolloni, are just one example of the crimson footwear that popes traditionally wear; the potent connection between supreme pontiff (as Christ’s representative on earth), the colour red (symbolising the blood spilt by Christ and Catholic martyrs) and the naked foot they protect (vulnerable and rooted to earthly reality) is something that’s not lost on Olga Berluti.
“There is nothing more important than feet,” exclaimed the fourth-generation Berluti shoemaker (the family firm dates back to 1895) when we met for tea in London a few years ago. “I love holding men’s feet in my hands. They may be friendly, precious, shy, arrogant, but they are never ugly.”
Olga’s unique appreciation of the foot can be traced back to when she was just six years old and sent to a convent school. It was there that she became transfixed by the sight of Christ’s bleeding feet nailed to the crucifix that she walked past everyday. “I had to persuade my grandfather to take me out of the convent and to take me to Paris, where I was allowed to work as his junior,” said Olga, explaining that, as a woman, she was not allowed to officially be called a bottier on completion of her apprenticeship. (It took a César award, for her costume designs in Alain Sarde’s Harem, for the Berluti family to acknowledge Olga’s talents as their first female bootmaker.) “If you are a real shoemaker, you work towards a masterpiece. That’s why, in my line of work, you can’t be superficial. All your energy and concentration is in your hands, heart and the leather so you cannot be fickle. Also, because the feet are protected by just a few centimetres of leather, those few centimetres should be the best.”
When the time came for Olga to fuse her savoir faire with her Catholic upbringing she chose to create a collection of shoes inspired by the wooden last of a pair of red shoes made for Pope John Paul II; adding her signature sorcery that has made her infamous amongst cordonniers the world over. “Essential oils are massaged in for transparency. Sometimes I massage a shoe for as long as 40 hours,” said Olga, deadly serious. “I work the pigments to get the right colour then use Dom Perignon champagne after waxing to absorb excess grease and ensure that the leather is radiant. If that’s not enough, I expose them to the moonlight so that the skin, once it has been bleached by the moon, takes on a wonderful and strange reflection.”
TODAY, Olga still works at Berluti but the business is now part of the LVMH stable; rescued from financial ruin by Berluti customer and LVMH boss, Bernard Arnault. Was she worried about the takeover in 1993? “No. Not at all because I already knew what Monsieur Arnault’s foot was like. It had fascinated me from the start. It’s an artist’s foot. We were made to get on together.”
Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination runs until October 8, 2018.