Fashion

Go Behind the Scenes of Louis Vuitton's Sneaker Craft

In the heart of Italy's Venteo, the dedicated team of artisan shoemakers is envisioning a future of customized sneakers—part of the house's "Now Yours" line—for one-of-a-kind kicks that are heaven-sent.
Reading time 9 minutes

Photographs by Leonardo Scotti 

Words by Thomas Freeman
 

“We manufacture nothing beyond these walls,” a representative for Louis Vuitton adamantly tells me. I am touring the workshop in Fiesso d’Artico, where 250 artisans craft all Louis Vuitton shoes, mostly by hand. Rather than in France, the workshop is located in Italy, an hour’s drive from Venice, in the Veneto countryside, where some of the world’s finest leather shoes have been produced since the 13th century. Sneakers are a growing part of the repertoire.

The Fiesso d’Artico site, built in 2009 by architect Jean-Marc Sandrolini, is an imposing presence in the quaint suburbs of the Riviera del Brenta. The 14,000-square-meter structure stands like a fort, with concrete walls covered by a stainless steel mesh curtain. The austere design is meant to evoke a shoebox, which accounts for the scarcity of windows facing the outside and the expansive courtyard at the center. It is a monolith in a mostly flat and featureless landscape. Feeling a world away from the canals and Rococo palaces of Venice, a surprise greets me at the door: a statue of a giant white heel. Painted inside, I find a recreation of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

I am here for an exclusive look at the renowned Parisian brand’s latest innovation: a personalization program called “Now Yours.” It allows shoppers to customize the leather Run Away sneaker, created in 2014. As Nike did when it introduced its pioneering NIKEiD platform to the mass market in 1999, the world’s most valuable luxury brand aims to revolutionize high-end sneakers and cement its competitive edge. It is arguably the most exciting development in the Louis Vuitton men’s division since the appointment of Virgil Abloh, the founder of the streetwear label Off-White, as artistic director in 2018. It is also the reason I, along with a phalanx of eager menswear journalists, am pestering the artisans with photos and prying eyes.

Already available at 10 select stores, the “Now Yours” program offers nearly endless combinations. Customers can select either full calf leather, full alligator, or a mix of the two. In all, “Now Yours” offers nine colors and four canvas options. Additional features include initialization, on either the heel or the side of the sneaker, and personalization of Louis Vuitton’s iconic stripes, in two colors of one’s choice. The customization service is intuitive, allowing shoppers to select zones digitally in any order. The customer is the designer.

“Building sneakers presents unique challenges,” a lastmaker named Gigi tells me. Sneakers have different materials, usually several at once, and their constructions must permit movement. Gigi and his team shave hornbeam wood, mostly by hand, to create lasts, which are scanned to produce prototypes. “The work of a lastmaker is to translate the ideas of a designer into solid work,” he explains. His craft is immensely technical, even more so for sneakers than formal shoes. “This is not the easiest job because everyone has a different foot,” he says. “I have to find the correct balance in measurement to keep a good shape and a good style.” His words efface any suspicion I have that Louis Vuitton does not give its sneakers equal care. But they didn’t fully prepare me for the caliber of craftsmanship I would continue to observe.

In the wing designated for sneakers, named “Speedy,” artisans study the dimensions of lasts to assemble uppers. They work in a bright and airy space, the result of natural light provided by the courtyard. For the Run Away model, artisans cut small pieces from slabs of leather and stitch them together by hand. I watch in astonishment as a petite woman in a yellow apron hammers shoelace holes into an upper she has just finished. The “Now Yours” program requires an additional step: a machine that looks like an oversize printer hot-stamps initials and stripes onto leather swatches. In another room, artisans gently glue completed uppers, insoles, and soles together before machines seal the final products. Their work is exacting and precise. The average shoe made here requires 200 separate operations.

Time-honored craftsmanship is only one key to Louis Vuitton’s shoemaking prowess. Since Marc Jacobs reinvented the luxury leather purveyor into a modern fashion brand in 1997, its platforms, boots, and loafers have rivaled those of Gucci, Berluti, and more in quality. Louis Vuitton has more recently stood apart with its unmistakable sneakers. As a new generation expresses itself through branded streetwear, a leather sneaker bearing the iconic Monogram has become the ultimate foot flex. The women’s Archlight model is a favorite of Bella Hadid and Jaden Smith. The Run Away sneaker, with its technical lining and sportier sensibility, portends a new era in the brand’s evolution.

While storied, Louis Vuitton has always been at the forefront. In 1858, its eponymous founder revolutionized travel by introducing his famous slat trunk, made in lightweight gray canvas. Its primary innovation was a flat lid, which allowed porters to stack one atop the other. Vuitton’s invention coincided with the rapid construction of railroad lines across Europe, which afforded many a newfound freedom to explore. “The scheduled itineraries of transatlantic or transpacific steamers stimulated a desire to travel and even inspired emigrants, enabling them to discover a new world or invent a new life,” Paul-Gerard Pasols writes in Louis Vuitton: The Birth of Modern Luxury. “The new ways of moving about opened up the world like a large fan.” Soon, this thoroughly modern piece of luggage would embody the cosmopolitanism of the 19th century.

In 1896, Louis Vuitton’s son Georges introduced the legendary Monogram, a recurring sequence of floral motifs and the stylized initials of his father: LV. Georges’s son Gaston-Louis Vuitton later diversified the brand—notably with multipurpose luggage—and set off a bona fide revolution in 1959. Advances in technology enabled him to print the Monogram on pliable leather, no longer exclusively on hard-sided trunks. Soft-sided bags like the Monogram Keepall became the world’s most coveted travel items. “The supple canvas, in harmony with the more casual times, adapted well to the new ways of going out and traveling. Rather than undertaking long excursions, people began enjoying short weekend trips,” Pasols writes. “There was no need to be burdened with a heavy trunk; a simple bag was enough.”

The Monogram is now ubiquitous, although its significance has evolved. In 1997, Louis Vuitton appointed Marc Jacobs, an American with a penchant for iconoclasm, as its artistic director. In 1998, Jacobs launched the women’s ready-to-wear collection, birthing a dynamic fashion brand that would embrace and shape pop culture. In 2003, he and Japanese artist Takashi Murakami introduced a new Monogram canvas in 33 colors, instead of the traditional brown and gold. The Louis Vuitton of Marc Jacobs placed equal value on pedigree and provocation. His brand was less about going places and more about distinguishing oneself through whimsical style. “I like people who have a sense of individuality,” Jacobs famously said. “I love expression and anything awkward and imperfect because that’s natural and that’s real.”

Jacobs’ words are manifested in the “Now Yours” orders being assembled in Fiesso d’Artico. Inside Speedy, I observe a bespectacled woman stitching the classic brown-and-gold Monogram with bright orange leather. She answers not to an office in Paris but rather to the partialities of the customers. There is a deliberate sense of awkwardness to many of the orders: One color is overpowering or two patterns clash. Rather than sneering, I grin with delight. I recall a quote that Virgil Abloh gave The New York Times following his appointment: “The first thing I am going to do is define new codes,” he said. “My muse has always been what people actually wear, and I am really excited to make a luxury version of that.”

 

What men actually wear, more than oxfords and penny loafers, is increasingly sneakers. There is no need for a wooden formal shoe; a simple sneaker is enough. A staple of both streetwear and hip-hop culture, there have been countless variations, each capturing something unique about its time and wearer. If there were ever a shoe to epitomize the self-promoting individualism of the digital age, a customized Run Away sneaker would be a top contender. Still, the significance of the “Now Yours” program does not end with distinctive designs. With fidelity to time-honored craftsmanship, Louis Vuitton invites customers to see themselves reflected in the world’s finest materials, delivering an unparalleled sense of self-expression.

The artisans of Fiesso d’Artico work in a deliberate, self-effacing silence. It is easy to forget they have developed many of the most exciting sneaker drops of the past decade. Though artisans quietly toil away in a concrete shoebox, hidden from the public eye, the pride they take in their work is unmistakable, at least on their feet. Beneath monochromatic uniforms, which are white, brown, and pale yellow depending on seniority, there are bright flashes of red, green, and purple. The artisans don their own $1000 creations, many prominently featuring the Monogram. These are rare displays of panache in a tightly controlled workplace. One man catches me admiring his kicks; he does not seem to mind. His pride is warranted. Although Louis Vuitton is a newcomer to Veneto, it is already a regional innovator. Here, artisans painstakingly cut, stitch, and assemble the future of luxury footwear.

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