In an industry that thrives on re-invention, the allure of the Berluti leather loafer has been a constant for over 118 years. The cult of its shoe is second only to its roll call of legendary clients. In 1962, Karl Lagerfeld recommended it to a little-known artist named Andy Warhol. Today, Warhol’s bespoke order is the house’s signature style. Frank Sinatra, first taken to its Rue Marbeuf store by Dean Martin, developed a lifelong love for its sporty moccasins that outlived his four marriages.
Berluti’s most significant introduction to date, however, is one that happened 20 years ago between LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and his son, Antoine. The latter, who received his first pair on his 17th birthday from his father, was appointed CEO of the heritage house in 2011. Since then, he has taken the footwear icon to new heights, recasting it as a clothing and lifestyle label for the 21st century.
His co-pilot is Berluti’s new artistic director, Alessandro Sartori. The 47-year-old designer – previously known for his razor-sharp suits at Z Zegna – launched the label’s ready-to-wear line to critical acclaim in 2012. Today, he is installed in the house’s revamped Ngee Ann City store for an afternoon of interviews, impeccably turned out in a three-piece suit paired with sleek leather lace-ups.
Sartori may be the architect of the brand’s updated image, but he is also its quintessential customer and innately understands the needs and desires of the modern Berluti man. In today’s times, that means having the bespoke hand-painted shoes, as well as the eight-ply cashmere suit, custom-made Japanese denim jeans and leather-lined field jacket that go along with the footwear.
“Rather than changing our customer profile, we wanted to create another step to enlarge the brand,” he explains. “The man we have in mind has a full life, with so many more different moments, and we need to evolve with him. He is travelling but also going to serious board meetings. One moment, he needs to look chic and relaxed, the next, he is attending an opera.”
Ironically, even though Berluti is the new kid on the block in the world of luxury menswear, Sartori is convinced that no other label comes close in terms of expertise, quality and even style. “I could name five competitors, but each has a very specific look, point of view and customer,” he says.
“One is known for suits, another for ties and scarves. No one is using leather at our level of quality as the main material, right down to the techniques employed to work with it. For example, the leather parts for our jackets are made in the factory where we craft our small leather goods. Each is cut by hand and sandpapered down. The side seams of our blazers are covered in leather and we use the same stitching for our five-pocket jeans, as we do for our shoes. We’ve taken the beauty of one world, enlarged it and expanded it to ready-to-wear.”
In June 2012, Berluti added the final feather to its cap as a couturier, with the acquisition of Arnys – the only Parisian tailor with the skills and a legacy to rival Savile Row. The merger was both a business and creative coup. “I take my pret-a-porter design to the Arnys atelier, and it uses its savoir faire to make it,” explains Sartori.
The synergy of this collaboration is at the heart of its newly launched bespoke line. He draws a distinction between its pioneering bespoke collection and the made- to-measure services offered at other menswear houses. “A made-to-measure jacket takes about 15 to 16 hours to make, while a bespoke one takes 75. The pattern is made just for you, and a tailor crafts the jacket from beginning to end without any machine. We do bespoke in every product category.” Bringing bespoke beyond the suit to the complete men’s wardrobe – from sportswear to jeans – is what makes Berluti’s line particularly groundbreaking.
“I love the tension between the classic and the modern,” says Sartori. “Sometimes, two classic elements together are too boring and two modern elements together are too extreme. I love the thin line between the two.” This elegant eclecticism defines Berluti’s style, from its hand-painted shoes to handmade garments. It is unique in its ability to manipulate the patina of its leather. “The customer can come here, choose his shade and we can colour the leather so it’s the exact hue of his old shoe. The look is new but a little used.” The brand has managed to apply this signature technique to its clothes as well.
“I took a lot of information from tradition but I turned it into a new, sleeker silhouette. For the fabrics, there are a lot of little trade secrets that we use to treat and give them the finishing touches, so each garment looks crisp but a touch weathered.”
The blueprint for the brand is established but it still has big plans for the future, as it continues to expand on its own terms around the globe. “It was a long walk but the route is clear,” says Sartori. “We have 45 stores. We may grow to 60, but never 600.”
Berluti customers share a passion for offbeat classicism, fine quality products and a personal relationship with the brand. “Once you’re a Berluti client, whether you’re in Singapore, London, Paris or New York, you can walk into any store and you will find someone taking care of you: shining your shoe, refreshing the colour of your leather bag or even wallet. Even if you don’t need anything, you can just come in to read the paper or have a drink,” he says. It’s a worldwide boy’s club.