Jean Michel Casalonga, Patrice Rock et Anthony Delos
As you probably already know if you’ve been reading PG for the past few years, we have an immense respect for young Master Bootmaker Anthony Delos.
In July of 2012, the news dropped like a bomb, sending a shockwave through the shoe lover’s community : Anthony Delos was to join Berluti’s workshop along with his small team. Up until then, Delos was installed in the quiet French Maine et Loire countryside.
It was a tough pill to swallow. Young Delos’ early creations impressed even the most discerning, and rightly so, as model after model of shoes and boots spoke to us with discretion and elegance with incredibly tasteful and balanced lasts.
We barely have heard from Anthony since then, and many, ourselves included, were wondering if the Delos style would survive Berluti’s giant bear hug.
So it is our great pleasure to share with you today in these columns the very best of a long and fascinating discussion we have had with Anthony about his new life at Berluti. In this interview, Anthony will revisit his training with his old masters, talk about his new life and responsibilities, and of course, share with us his passion for the exceedingly difficult and demanding craft that is boot making.
Talking boots and shoes with Mr. Delos is somehow like talking rugby with Jonny Wilkinson ; Anthony is discreet, humble, and, whatever the occasion, will always try to shift the spotlight away from him and onto his peers. It is impossible to discuss the subject with the man without also talking about his brotherhood of the Compagnons du Devoir, including those marked encounters that make themselves known during the apprenticeship of each tradesman that undergoes this ancient, noble, and difficult training pilgrimage.
Can you explain the reasoning behind your 2012 decision of joining the ranks of Berluti, while your own workshop was growing steadily and your bespoke shoes production was on the rise? I suppose that the economical aspect of the transaction was not the only factor that you took into consideration ?
Anthony Delos :
When Berluti asked me to join the company as the second in command at their bespoke workshop, we were indeed in a seemingly good position at my own workshop.
“Seemingly” is the key word here, because in reality the situation was much more complicated ; although we were receiving more and more orders from a lot of customers, the problem is that time is not compressible. Never mind the health of our workshop back then, it still took between 40 to 60 hours of handiwork per pair of shoes, and that’s without counting numerous measuring and fitting sessions plus all the unexpected problems that inevitably arise. This is part of the charm, but also part of the extreme difficulty of our craft.
So back in 2012, we were installed in the workshop close to my home in the French countryside, with my schedule getting harder to manage by the day. At this time, on weekdays I would be working in my countryside workshop with a small collaboration of four people (including two apprentices) while frequently running to Paris to meet clients, take measurements, and do fitting sessions. On the weekends, I found myself doing administrative work.
That was the situation when Berluti contacted me. And if I’m honest without fault, integrating with Berluti was a dream come true for me. I will always have gratitude for Antoine Arnault for this unique chance to extend my reach while doing the craft that I love.
So if I understand correctly, the bootmaker starts off on a chase to secure customers, then if he is good (and somehow lucky) the situation reverses and the customer chases after the bookmaker. But because the bootmaker only has two hands, obvious obstacles arise and the situation becomes a vicious circle. Is it still possible in 2014 to succeed under such conditions, whether working alone or with a small team ?
Anthony Delos :
It all depends on your objectives. I know a few countryside bootmakers who choose quality of life over expanding their business, accepting only a limited number of customers per year, and they are very happy with that choice. If that is your objective, then it is reachable. However, this example is a different way of life, and not the one I had in mind when I started out. I’m a few years down the line now however, and I can confidently say that I completely understand why someone would chose this less chaotic way of life.
However, starting your business with the ambition of courting the affections of elegant gentlemen is another story entirely. It’s a tough competition that can be won only with a strongly skilled workforce. In order to succeed, you have to be able to recruit and train young bootmakers. This is the key obstacle for so many small houses who simply can’t afford to recruit, and even if they could afford it, simply don’t have the time to help the new apprentice form a strong skill set.
When I joined Berluti, I had two first-year apprentices working with me, along with a young artisan just starting out, plus my fellow traveller from the Compagnons du Devoir, Laurent Maitre who still helms the countryside workshop. Each of them have been hired by Berluti. To this day I can happily say that I’ve played a part in training five young bootmakers, which is something very important to me and to the survival of our craft.
Being absorbed by Berluti has been a great chance for my team to expand, which allowed us to work in the best possible conditions in one of the biggest and most beautiful houses in the sector.
Do you still make shoes ?
Anthony Delos :
When I agreed to Berluti’s proposal, I had two conditions : first, I wanted to maintain my Rosiers sur Loire workshop along with my team (which they allowed), and secondly, I wanted to secure the possibility for me to continue making shoes. I simply can’t help it, it’s how I’m made : I can’t be far from my tools for more than a couple of weeks without feeling a form of withdrawal.
So to answer, yes, I’m still making shoes and boots. Even if, of course, my responsibilities as the deputy head of the workshop reach farther than that ; I’m also responsible for creating new lasts and shapes and have to organize the workload. To add to this, I manage the quality assurance process and mentor new bootmakers. But I also make it a personal rule for me to make at least one pair of shoes or boots each month. For instance, a customer asked me to remake the same Balmoral boots with which I won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best craftsman in France) contest a few years back. This boot is a highly technical piece of work, as it mixes three types of stitching; welted, Norwegian welted and Norvegian braided in order to underline the heel.
Let’s talk about your new life at Berluti . You have been used to being the head of your own workshop, so how have you adapted to working under someone else’s order ?
Anthony Delos :
The world of bespoke bootmakers is a very small and special one. Most all of us know and respect each other.
When I arrived at Berluti in 2012 to work as a deputy next to workshop leader Patrice Rock, it was like I fell back in time. I had already worked with Patrice twice, once in 1999 and once in 2001 as a last maker. Both times were at John Lobb. In fact, Patrice was the one to have me make my very first lasts after my “Tour de France” was over.
So for me, working at Berluti along with Patrice Rock and Jean-Michel Casalonga (yet another highly talented bootmaker) was not a revolution, but rather an evolution. While this may sound like a spectacular development, it was a really natural alliance all the same—not unlike coming back home…
In fact, as early as 1993, I was hired by Hervé Brunelle, then equestrian bootmaker in Saumur (where the French National Equestrian School is located ). That same year, I was being trained by Christian Dumoulin, one of my masters, who was then working for … Berluti.
So as you see, between Berluti and me, there was already a long story that started well before 2012.
Who are the people who have left the biggest impression on you throughout the years ?
Anthony Delos :
There are many. That’s the spirit of the Compagnons du Devoir du Tour de France apprenticeship journey : you meet many masters and learn from them, carve your own path in the craft, and then transmit what you’ve learned from these masters when the time comes to pass the torch of knowledge to the next generation, which is more of a responsibility than a job.
I met many well-known and respected people like Christian Dumoulin (Berluti) or Phillipe Atienza (Lobb and Massaro). I also learned a lot from Michel Boudoux, now 85, and Master Bootmaker for women at avenue Montaigne in Paris, or Stéphane Jimenez, accomplished cordwainer in Bordeaux. During my Tour de France I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about orthopedics, which is something I feel is so important for a bootmaker. The great René Gervais taught me the nuances of crafting orthopedic shoes. At the time, he was already one of the few remaining orthopedic bootmakers still crafting shoes.
Finally, I also had the great luck to learn from the gifted Peter Brummer, a fantastic German shoemaker that specializes in crafting shoes for the diabetic foot. Some diabetic people have no sense of touch in their feet–so they cannot even know if a shoe fits them properly or not. This is a dangerous dilemma, since a diabetic obviously can become injured very easily, hence the importance of making shoes with a precise and comfortable fit.
I’ve learned critically important components of fit from each of these respected craftsmen.
You finished your Compagnon du Devoir apprenticeship in 1999. What happened next ?
Anthony Delos :
In 1999, I worked at John Lobb Paris for one year, before taking on the responsibility to prepare apprentices and aspiring-apprentices from 2000-2001 for their own Tour de France.
From late 2001 to 2004, I worked at Lobb once again as a last maker, with Patrice Rock under the supervision Philippe Atienza. For four years, I perfected with them my last-making technique before sailing off on my own in late 2004, because I wanted to make shoes instead of strictly shoe lasts.
At this point, I decided to buy a small cobbler shop on rue Constance at Montmartre in Paris (which will become the namesake to the Constance model, one of Delos’ most iconic creations). My early years were modest, since I did mostly a cobbler’s work, and only made four bespoke models in 2004. In 2005, I made fifteen pairs. It was at that time that I decided to create a website to make my work known. In the following years, my production increased in a very stable fashion and eventually reached forty pairs of shoes in 2007.
It was then that I decided to create my own workshop in my native region of Saumur, so to have a workplace worthy of the name to help me keep credibility in the face of the ever increasing demand from my client base. A little known fact is that my workshop is designed in a U-shape, which is a configuration that I conceived for the sake of efficiency and I eventually built this workshop with the kind help of my father.
In 2009, during the global financial crisis, I decided to open a small show-room in Paris (Rue Volta) in order to welcome my clients in a way that they could appreciate. My life at this point became ruled by a frantic travel schedule between Les Rosiers Sur Loire and Paris…and the chaos continued, until Berluti extended an offer for me to work with them.
What are your responsibilities at Berluti’s bespoke workshop ?
Anthony Delos :
As second in command under Patrice Rock, with specific tasks thrown on top, like QA for the two workshops (at les Rosiers and Paris). I’m also responsible for taking measurements for clients in Russia, the Middle-East, and Japan which requires traveling a lot to handle not only measurements but also fittings, and deliveries…not to mention my responsibilities to clients in France, Italy and the UK.
A busy life !
Berluti has a strong universe whose crafted products infer a certain aesthetic that is easily recognizable. How did you adapt to it ? Does this type of aesthetic limit your creativity ?
Anthony Delos :
Berluti is a very respected name in our craft, because it has a very singular vision of what men’s shoes should be. Everything from the lasts, the designs, the leathers (the Venezia leather in particular!). Everything is distinctive. It’s one of the first houses, if not the first, that gave men permission to dream about shoes.
For a bootmaker like me, it means having access to incredible tools and fantastic talents and handiwork, all in a grounded aesthetic-centered universe that breeds pure inspiration–which is very far from limiting in my opinion. I consider myself lucky to have been given the chance to apply my know-how and to be at the service of this iconic house of which the bespoke shoe industry is indeed indebted to, in terms of breaking the paradigm that told us that all shoes should essentially look the same. With the limits of this paradigm broken, many possibilities opened across the industry for creative minds to apply to the art of shoemaking.
Yet still, I have so much to learn …
Interview by Parisian Gentleman, 10th of June 2014
Photos © Andy Julia for PG and © Berluti. All rights reserved.
Berluti recently released a series of mini-videos that show the different steps to creating a bespoke shoe here.