It is not something you see every day. At a table decorated with flowers and fruit in the Pompadour room at Le Meurice hotel in Paris, about 25 otherwise impeccably dressed high achievers stand in stocking soles holding rubber gloves, surrounded by wax and vintage cotton rags, waiting for a command from a diminutive French lady to start polishing their shoes.
No, it’s not the latest kinky francophile past-time, but rather the Berluti Swann Club, which reconvenes this Thursday in London at Spencer House. The scene described took place a year ago, when the bespoke shoemakers last staged the invitation-only event. Favoured patrons of the 112-year-old company were treated to dinner, and then, the chosen few were handpicked by Olga Berluti, creative director of the company and family matriarch, to polish their shoes the Berluti “Patina” way. Berluti oversaw the ritual from a box, descending from her elevated view only to circle the table and correct those failing to clean, wax, polish, and finally splash the leather with a few rejuvenating drops of Dom Perignon champagne.
The point: to ensure that the company’s shoes receive the necessary care and attention the craftsmanship behind them warrants. Put another way, the shoe owners have to learn to live up to their footwear. The polishing ritual is part of what Olga Berluti describes as the “mystique” of Berluti. “Buying a pair of Berluti shoes should mean more than merely being shod,” she says. “It is buying into a certain rarefied aesthetic, which encompasses great creativity above the beautiful materials and fine craftsmanship.” You bought them; now you’re responsible for them.
And Berluti is not the only luxury men’s wear company focus on formally conveying to customers the importance of care and maintenance. Holland and Holland, the countryside wear and sporting firearm specialists, for example, also has at least one of the company’s four senior craftsmen present on shooting parties for favoured clients, to advise on the care of Italian leather, and Scottish wool and tweed (as well, of course, as firearms). Meanwhile, bespoke shirt makers Hilditch and Key showcase the art of ironing at customer events. “We’re always being asked how to iron properly,” Michael Booth, chairman of Hilditch and Key, shrugs.
So, for the record, when it comes to shoes: First clean them – “like decorating, first you strip the walls”, says Berluti – using rough flannels dipped in beeswax. Then using a smoother cloth, like a handkerchief, apply polish. In both instances, the brushing movement is circular. Cleaning can take up to 15 minutes, polishing the same. Olga Berluti advises that shoes are cleaned together and any laces removed.
As for ironing: Cuffs and collars of shirts are best ironed with strokes from the outer extremes in to avoid cloth bunching round the trim, according to Michael Booth. Start at the points on the collar and the edges of the cuff then stroke towards the main body of the shirt.
And finally, caring for the suit: Booth concedes this is harder to convey than how to iron or polish shoes. On Savile Row, the importance of taking care of a bespoke garment is generally explained during the tailoring process, as the numerous fittings present an opportunity to impress on the clients what goes into making a suit, as well as the fact that in buying it, they are joining a select group who, before them, have taken due care of garments. For example, Norton & Sons boasts the names of Cary Grant and David Niven as previously committed customers. (They’re all in on it, incidentally: Berluti uses Andy Warhol and Frank Sinatra to shame contemporary customers into taking the same care with their wardrobe as the clothes horses who went before, while Hilditch & Key claim PG Wodehouse, Garbo and Dietrich).
“Norton’s aim is to enthuse clients to take care of what they are wearing,” says Patrick Grant, a director of the tailors, diplomatically. “We are about inspiring gentlemen. So we make reference to sportsmen, explorers, travellers and pioneers.”
Of course, for all this emphasis on the individual caring for their individually crafted goods, there is another message involved too. “There is a return to celebrating the artisan and craftsman,” maintains Susanne Tide-Frater, a brand consultant who was previously creative director at Harrods and head of fashion direction at Selfridges. “People want to be part of the circle.” To Tide-Frater, it is not so much a case of being invited to the Swann Club as being initiated. “There is a new conservatism which is not political but a reflection of desires today to belong and not feel isolated or outside,” she says. You polish, therefore you are one of us.
And that brings us back to the Swann Club in Paris. A guest drank some leftover champagne from a shoe after giving his pair a good polish. Which, depending on your perspective, may be taking obedience to the brand ethos a little too far.
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