Michel Perry, 59, is a celebrated French shoe designer, the owner of an eponymous brand and the creative director of English label JM Weston. Weston has 40 stores around the world and Perry himself has a recently renovated flagship in Paris. His shoes are favoured by everyone from Sharon Stone and Cameron Diaz to the French electro-punkers Pravda.
Where do you live?
I have an apartment in Paris that is quite small. I did have a big house in Deauville but I sold it in 2001 to buy an 18th century château in Burgundy which is even bigger: about 1,000 sq metres. I was driving down to Beaune to see my parents, who had retired in the area, and I saw it on the horizon: it looked like a medieval castle that had been pillaged and abandoned. It was like a coup de foudre: I fell in love.
Growing up in northern France, I always dreamed of a castle; it seemed to symbolise a time that was very libertine and aristocratic. Light is also very important to me and the light in that part of France is extraordinary. Still, I reacted to the château emotionally and thought later. People laughed at me because it was falling down but this is my way. If a painting stops me and it’s in my means I’ll buy it. Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into.
What other places have you fallen in love with?
Growing up, I loved going to old, decadent cities and staying in their hotels. La Mamounia hotel in Marrakesh, where I went when I was very young, and the Gritti Palace in Venice, where I started going when I was 17 or 18, made a big impression on me. I still go to Venice around every fortnight, often related to my work. I thought these places were a perfect backdrop for contemporary art. Contemporary art in a contemporary setting leaves me cold.
Are your homes in Paris and Burgundy similar or different?
Paris is more like a refuge, full of intimate spaces and objects; Burgundy is a place to express myself and experiment. In Paris I go out more to eat; in Burgundy, people come to us. I have three children, aged 25, 14, and seven and they can really be free in the country. I have a vegetable garden and there is a park with lots of trees. We want to put on events like concerts and shows. What is the same in both places are my workrooms: I need to be surrounded by clutter and to have all my notebooks and inspirations nearby.
What did your wife think when you told her you wanted to buy the château?
She understood; she is my partner in crime. But everyone else said I was crazy. I realised its potential, though, and needed another challenge besides shoes. I didn’t want to redo it piece by piece or create a museum. I wanted to go back and forth between the 18th and 21st centuries, to show you could live a contemporary life in an old château.
Did you have to rebuild the house?
In the 1970s the owner had decided to abandon the château and live in the outbuildings. Then he started to take the château apart: he sold a beautiful 18th century staircase and some fireplaces – he even sawed up the wooden beams from the living room roof. The main hall was devastated. We redid the centre part of the house in a very open plan way, and often with local craftsmen, but left the two small wings as a series of little rooms. I designed a new iron staircase, which was cut with lasers and, because of the play of the light, gives the impression you are swimming.
Did you use a decorator?
I always think it’s a mistake to work with an interior decorator. You think you’re being understood but then it turns out you aren’t at all. You can only really create with friends. That’s what makes a good team.
What is your decorating philosophy?
I like to mix precious objects with things that have been found: the special with the everyday. It’s the same with clothes. What is individual is to wear, say, beautiful shoes with jeans and a T-shirt. It’s a way of living.
What was the most difficult part of the château project?
Many decisions were on a big scale, which made them very complicated. We had to replace 70 windows, for example, and decide if we wanted double glazing to convey the 21st century or to use lots of traditional small panes. The walls, because they were so old, were incredibly thick. The hardest piece of furniture to find was the giant white leather sofa in the living room, which seats 12.
What is your favourite room?
There’s a small sitting room in one wing that is full of memories: there are oriental carpets that have been in my family, my paintings on the walls, a mosaic table from the 1950s I found in an American flea market, and a big Marie Antoinette-style mirror framed in gold cardboard that was made by a friend who does theatrical decor. Small spaces are good for conversation.
Do you feel your castle is finished?
It’s a laboratory of expression. I hope it will never be finished.