In the remote French town of Beaupréau, the cutters, clickers, toe lasters and welt sewers of Maison Corthay work together to craft some of the world’s finest footwear – sculpting the supplest leathers into covetable shoes for the well-heeled man, using techniques passed down through the ages. But the material that they so lovingly mould hails from closer to home. For along with high-quality calf leather, suede, traditional Japanese denim and linen from northern France, Maison Corthay now incorporates camel leather, sourced straight from the UAE, into its designs.
This is perhaps unsurprising for a brand intent on melding traditional know-how with “creative, avant-garde design”. Pierre Corthay was first introduced to the art of shoemaking through Les Compagnons du Devoir, a French organisation of craftsmen and artisans that dates back to the Middle Ages. As part of their education, fledgling craftsmen (and, more recently, women) embark on the so-called Tour de France, where they carry out rigorous apprenticeships with masters in their chosen craft. Corthay excelled at the art of shoemaking and went on to become the only men’s shoemaker awarded with the title Maître d’Art, a distinction granted by the French ministry of culture to the country’s most skilled craftsmen.
He established Maison Corthay in 1990 at the age of 27 and was soon joined in the business by his younger brother, Christophe. Together, the duo began experimenting with increasingly “audacious shapes”, glazing them with subtle but unexpected patinas. The brand is now known for its fearless approach to colour, offering poetically named shades such as Lie de Vin, Vieux bois and Aubergine.
In 1991, the Arca was born – and has gone on to become the brand’s signature style. It’s a two-eyelet Derby, a style of men’s footwear that started its life as a sporting and hunting boot in the mid-19th century and by the 20th century had become the required footwear of every style-savvy man about town.
The Arca’s sleek lines and distinctive toe have made it a firm favourite with Maison Corthay customers around the world (which, incidentally, include such cool cats as Samuel L Jackson, Rafael Nadal, Matt Damon, Adrien Brody, Clive Owen and Kevin Spacey).
“The design of this two-eyelet Derby is quite emblematic, with its front inspired by a 1960s sports car or an eagle’s claw,” says Corthay. “The elegance is further enhanced by the inverted lacing, which is another special touch, and the Goodyear construction of the shoes ensures exceptional durability and complete water-resistance. The design, combined with the minimal use of assembly stitches, enables exceptional comfort for men. Also, the Arca comes in so many different colours and leathers that you can personalise, from the sole to the piping and laces.”
In 2013, when Maison Corthay decided to launch its first store in the Middle East in The Dubai Mall and began to acquaint itself with the region, it came across camel leather. On a constant quest for “lighter, softer, stronger” materials, the brand was intrigued by the idea of incorporating this relatively unknown and unused material into its product offering.
“Let’s get technical for a minute,” Corthay says. “Camel hide has about 10 times more fibres in its construction than bovine hide, making it appreciably stronger, despite it being very soft and supple. In the standard tearing test for respective leathers, cow hide ripped under a force of 240 Newtons, while a comparable sample of camel hide finally ripped under a force of 725 Newtons, making it three times as strong as cow leather.”
That’s not to say that camel is better than cow, Corthay is quick to add. Just different. “We are lucky enough to use extremely high-quality calf leather; we only select the top-of-the range skins that are proposed to us. Likewise, camel leather possesses some unique attributes that were of particular interest to us. Choosing one over the other would be pretty difficult, akin to choosing Lamborghini over Ferrari or Bentley over Rolls-Royce: each one has its own characteristics and fans.”
The brand now offers its famed Arca, as well as a line of smaller leather goods, in camel leather. “We are able to use this incredible skin while innovating, surprising our customers and paying tribute to the traditions of the Middle East. Camel skin is a great success in all our different markets,” says Xavier de Royère, chief executive of Maison Corthay.
With a starting price of Dh6,080, the camel-leather Arca is a shoe for the most discerning of gentlemen, but it is the very epitome of quality craftsmanship. It’s a highly complex, high-precision, labour-intensive business – with the construction of a single shoe consisting of about 180 steps.
The process starts with pattern cutting. Once the pattern has been prepared, it’s on to the construction of a wooden frame, around which the shoes will be crafted. Next, the camel leather, which has made its journey from a government-owned tannery in Abu Dhabi to the Loire Valley and undergone a special tanning process to make it even softer, must be cut, in a process known as clicking. Specialist clickers will examine the material for any defects before deciding which parts to use, with the finest-quality leather bends kept for the soles and heels of the shoe.
Once cut, the various sections are assembled – in a process that includes punching, gimping, side-stitching, hand-sewing and fitting eyelets for the laces – to create the upper, the parts of the shoe that cover the toes, the top and sides of the foot, and the back of the heel. The next stage involves the preparation of the rib, which is attached to the insole and onto which the welt, which runs along the perimeter of the shoe’s outsole, will eventually be stitched.
Next stop, the lasting department, where the Arca will finally begin to take its shape, before the addition of the shank and cork. Then the welting. Goodyear-welted construction is completed by attaching the soles and stitching through the welt. Named for Charles Goodyear Jr, who invented the machinery required for the process, Goodyear welting is a time-consuming process, but widely acknowledged as the leading method of shoe construction. It offers strength and durability, and allows for worn soles to be removed and replaced with new ones, without affecting the leather uppers.
The heels are attached in the finishing room. They are trimmed and scoured with several grades of emery paper to create the smoothest of finishes.
In the very final stages, the soles are edge-trimmed. The soles and heels are then stained and the edges coated with hot wax to seal the leather. After that, soles are stamped with the Corthay mark and in-socks are fitted. But before they are ready to leave the factory, they are hand-brushed and hand-polished by the patina artist.
It’s a lengthy process, undertaken by skilled artisans, for a brand intent on creating great shoes, which, says Corthay, offer “the perfect balance between quality, comfort, shape and style”.
For more information, visit www.corthay.com.
Look out for this and similar stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday March 3.