Picture postcard moments like the ones below are harder and harder to come by. I hardly ever travel for pure funsies unless it's something blog or work-related and however far flung, there's never any time set aside for leisure-seeking. Therefore I have to thank Louis Vuitton for once again, taking myself and Steve on a Secret Places journey, one that includes those not-so-secret, yet still awe-inspiring places such as the view from the Ponte dell'Accademia, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. Back in January, we took out two days to go with Louis Vuitton to discover their shoe-making expertise at the Fiesso d'Artico, just outside of Venice. It was a redux back to a place, which I have personally have sketchy memories of (from a secondary school art trip), and so a refresh was much needed.
The first part of the trip was devoted to more of pure picture postcard haven, amplified by the cinematic fog, which settled over this city of islands. We took in the rich history (quite literally, rich – the tales told to us by our detailed walking tour guide revolved mainly around merchants, trading, buying and selling). We ducked and dived in and around the narrow alley ways and tiny bridges until the early evening, convinced that Venice is one of the few cities in the world, where getting lost is actually a good thing. We were made to look up and down at buildings, to note nuances of architecture styles, anecdotes of doomed doges and ruined merchants and the physical task of putting up with acqua alta. We gorged on lemon meringue pie at Harry's Bar (how DO they make their meringue so damn fluffy?) and sipped on oozing chocolatey coffee concoctions at Caff√® Florian, which are truly rooted establishments rather than tourist traps. It was a one-day jaunt which underlined how small and tied to tradition Venice is in so many respects, and how that influences the ways of working at Louis Vuitton's Fiesso d'Artico.
Towards the end of day one, we went to try on some shoes at Louis Vuitton's sole store in Venice – a compact yet comprehensive overview of the key styles in for S/S 13. It was a chance to learn about Louis Vuitton's less well-known part of their business. Whilst I never thought it would be an oversight, it still surprised me when a young sales assistant tells me why a men's shoe style is named after the Golden Gate Bridge, rattling off the materials it's made out of and why they were selected. There's a difference between being informed and then truly trying to imbue passion about the product in even the most nonplussed of people. We definitely were on the more enthusiastic end of the scale, hanging on their every advice on fit, sizing and styles. I was grappling between the 20-something year old me in a pair of "Flamingo" print platform sandals with Stephen Sprouse's leopard print peeking out and the 30-40-something year old me in a pair of delicate black slingback "Grace" heels in black silk, again with Sprouse's leopard subtly glinting at you. My pragmatic brain was telling me that I'd be wearing the black ones until my feet are all wrinkly and bunion-rideen. My bubble brain was yelling at me for even thinking of dipping into the cliches of "timelessness" and "classicism". Bubbly me won out. I had opted for the platform sandals in a perfect size 38.5. The name should have been the telling clue anyway. Am I a Flamingo or a Grace? Why, a pink-hued, simple-minded flamingo of course!
The pleasure ridden first day prepped us for the industry-led second day where we would get to see Fiesso d'Artico in action. Compared to the historic Asni√®res outside Paris, a one-time home of Monsieur Louis Vuitton, their Fiesso d'Artico workshop is a fairly new addition, built in its present state in September 2009. In fact, Louis Vuitton's shoe making business was only established in 1998, shortly before Marc Jacobs became the creative director. Louis Vuitton seek values of craftsmenship that are not dependent on their Made in France moniker, which is the case for their luggage and bags, but for their shoes, Fiesso d'Artico was the obvious place to be based. Since the 13th century, craftsmen from the Riviera del Brenta have been providing shoes for the Venetian aristocracy, earning its reputation as the "land of shoes". Most of the people who work for Louis Vuitton come from generations of shoe craftsmen. Walk into any local restaurant and you'll find every patron is likely to be in the shoe making game. Shoes are well and truly ingrained into this area but I suspect no factory has quite the architectural swagger that the Louis Vuitton facility does, where three years of research went in, just to find out what would make the optimum shoe production system. I have to emphasise a point here that ALL of Louis Vuitton's shoes are made here in Fiesso d'Artico, having read too many lazy "Bulls***, LV shoes are made in China!" comments on forums and on YouTube. It's evident that this Fiesso D'Artico facility blends the best of technology with the priceless know-how of this shoe town to produce what Louis Vuitton believes is the best footwear offering.
The first thing you're confronted with in the outdoor spaces are the large art installations, relating back to Yves Carcelle's (Chairman adn CEO of Louis Vuitton) love of contemporary art. I got to be lilliputian by standing next to a giant pump sculpture by Jacques Ory, painted with Boticelli's Venus inside as well as a saucepan shoe by Joana Vasconcelos.
Louis Vuitton may not have a very long history of making shoes but their heritage in travel is underlined even in Fiesso, with this early 20th century travel shoe case.
In the gallery area, historic shoe artefacts and artworks dedicated to shoes are gathered in an airy space, together with the finest examples of work, which this Fiesso workshop has produced. For women, the S/S 09 African-Jazz collection was the most intricate in terms of technical detailing and skin pairings, so these are proudly on display. I had almost forgotten how brilliantly that collection fused Parisian swingtime with pop Africana.
This is where it gets ultra secretive and you'll have to READ the lines and everything in between. Yes, reading. How NOVEL. Most of Fiesso D'Artico was off-limits to photography as new styles and prototypes were being produced at the time. This was sadly where all the most brilliant observations about Louis Vuitton's shoe know-how were made. Therefore, please say that you'll attempt to get through these pictureless paragraphs. I promise it's all sort of worth it, especially if you're a behind-the-scenes process geek. If you aren't, the picture chronology might seem a little patchy.
The first part was truly mind boggling. We were taken into a laboratory where a shoe technician or Signor Shoe Scientist as I dubbed him talked us through an extraordinary set of machnery that did a comprehensive set of tests – testing the strength of leather, whether it would colour or not, whether a heel would break or not, how much pressure a heel could take, how much walking a sole could withstand – these incredible pieces of technical kit inform Vuitton about what sort of leathers they would use and what heel shapes were suitable. They're tests done before prototyping and before production in addition to having fit models walk around in the shoes themselves. Some scientific facts to bend your brain. They use artificial sweat to test whether a leather colours. ARTIFICIAL SWEAT, for god's sake! They put a shoe inside a humidity chamber to test it in different climate situations (Louis Vuitton is afterall sold everywhere around the world). They ensure heels can withstand a 90kg pressure force, instead of the international standard of 50kg. Who knew there was even such a standard in the world? Basically that end-product logo-ed moccasin or pump, which seems completely inconspicuous in fact hides a ton of research and indepth product testing.
Then on to the crucial lasts, where Steve eye candies every bit of carved wood. Shoe lasts are to him, what errr… anything pink and glittery is to me. At Louis Vuitton, they are hand carved and moulded with paste until the perfect shape is achieved. Then they are cast in plastic for production. They generally don't re-use the same shoe last unless it's a classic style (the moccasin or the ballerina flat for instance), which is frighteningly exacting to me considering how many styles of shoes Vuitton produces each season. They minimise waste by melting down the plastic to reuse for future lasts.
Fiesso is split up into four sections. Alma – where they make elegant women's shoes. Nomade – where they make the rubber soled moccasins. Speedy – where trainers are made. Taiga – where the classic men's shoes are made. Again, the no-picture policy struck and I wasn't really allowed to photograph anything in Alma, Speedy or Taiga.
I've witnessed a few shoe factories now but I can safely say that the processes seen here blows anything I've seen before, out of the water. You'll have to just take my word for it. What struck me was how deftly Vuitton knew where to employ technology and where to use their expert craftsmen, who were all beadily intent on getting a perfect product. It isn't about using machines to increase productivity and take shortcuts in the production line but instead machines are used to genuinely improve the shoe and ensure that they meet all of those aforementioned exacting tests. In the Alma room, when cutting out leather pieces to construct the shoe, some are cut by metal cookie-cutter type shapes, some are cut by computer programming and some are cut by hand – for instance to ensure the LV monogram logo falls in the right places, hands needs to be employed. It's kind of awesome and scary to watch men keep four or five nails in their mouths whilst they're hammering them into the heels on to the soles. Every stage of shoe making which I've witnessed in other factories is multipled two or three fold at Louis Vuitton because there are extra quality checks, extra ways of securing heels on to soles, extra steps to ensure there are no wrinkles in the leather. These are of course all human-processes which in Vuitton's eyes can't be replicated by machine.
In the Speedy room, machinery read pro-programmed microchips, which tells it which style it is constructing. It's actually truly majestic to watch the shoe slowly going through this Fernand L√©ger-looking piece of kit and at the end, the bare bones of a uniform Louis Vuitton trainer are made. In the Nomade room, craftsmen expertly hand stitch the mocassin shoes. They could make the same product by machine but they choose not to in this instance because they feel it's what differentiates their mocassin from the countless brands that do this classic shoe. It take mega strength to stitch through leather by hand. It's weird to think that those pairs of car shoes, which are on the feet of so many businessmen (on their casual Friday uniforms) the world over, all came through bare-knuckled strength and skill at Fiesso.
In the Taiga room, where the made to order men's shoe service is based, we were allowed to snap away at Roberto, a shoe craftsman of the highest order, who was sitting down hand stitching a Good Year welted sole (they also offer the thin Blake, regular Blake and the Norwegian). Steve's account of the whole process is far more technical than anything I could proffer up. It's also specifically a men's product where hand-painted soles, calf leather finishes, croc and alligator skins, number of shoelace holes and shades of leather are all important details. Roberto is one of a kind at Louis Vuitton, training two other people to do what he does at the moment, which is a distant worry for the company. We spoke of the struggle to find the new genertaion of shoemaking in Fiesso d'Artico where there is a polytechnical college to encourage young people to take up the local signature craft. It's only vaguely worrisome for Louis Vuitton but as Roberto illustrates, without him, there can't ven be a made to order men's shoe service just because only he, can sew tight and even stitches on those well-crafted soles.
If Asnieres in France was where my knowledge of Louis Vuitton's roots and dedication to maintaining craftsmanship standards were consecrated, then Fiesso d'Artico is where I really witnessed this company's desire to bomgine forward-thinking with the upholding of traditions. It's not a simple reductive case of machine=bad and hand-made=good. Savoir faire or know-how at its best is when you strive for excellent standards, using whatever means are available to you. The prestige of Louis Vuitton products may have worn thin over its years of logo exposure but that now seems set to change, as they begin to shift their focus to communicating quality through more subtle designs. Demonstrating why a pair of "normal" looking shoes warrants a certain price point, by opening the doors of Fiesso d'Artico to people like myself is definitely one small step towards that end goal.
The twenty something me is perching quite happily on these platforms by the by…