To call Berluti a fashion house would be a stretch, but that’s what LVMH is attempting to eke out of this luxury heritage boot-maker brand. You could chalk it down to a younger strategy, put in place by Chief Executive Antoine Arnault (yes, from within the family) when he was appointed to the brand in 2010. When it debuted ready to wear in 2012, you knew that it was part of the wider conglomerate’s strategy of imbuing its leather goods brands with fashion and style credentials. Cut through the brief tenures of Alessandro Sartori and Haider Ackermann, and we arrive at the current Creative Director: Kris Van Assche.
The Belgian designer, formerly of Dior Homme, was not an unexpected hire for the brand. In fact, the series of quick changes the LVMH stable of menswear designers saw Van Assche move from Dior to Berluti, Kim Jones from Louis Vuitton to Dior, and the introduction of Virgil Abloh to the vacant spot at Louis Vuitton. So it’s a repositioning of talent, in a sense, though the scales of the businesses vary. While Dior and Vuitton are luxury behemoths, Berluti is a comparably modest business with a very focused clientele of ultra-rich men. Its fame is founded on its shoes, and today the house boasts the Alessandro (crafted from a single piece of leather) and the Andy (as in, Warhol – designed in collaboration with Olga Berluti for the artist) shoes as parts of its legacy.
Now that all that is out of the way, we have to ask where do the clothes fit in? For Berluti, which still makes its profits primarily off shoes, fashion is an ironic category that quite literally steals the show. A runway presentation, after all, makes short work of footwear exposure. Van Assche’s approach, evidenced in the Fall 2019 show – his first runway outing for the brand, is to skew young and to connect the house’s artistry and history with a modern customer. That includes the rebrand and new logo by M/M Paris – a clear go at a contemporaneous effect.
Van Assche is a very talented designer, no doubt, and his experience at Dior has left him with an understanding of his clientele. It helps that Dior Homme occupied a position that appealed to an older cabal of clients as well as a younger set who view the brand name as well as its vintage pieces (most notably denim) as aspirational street cred. Which makes him an interesting fit for Berluti because that bridge is particularly stark with this house, and linking these two ends of the demographic is the challenge he will have to face.
It makes sense then, for a bottier, to start from the ground up. A new shoe style was introduced – riffing off the house classics, of course. The Alessandro and Andy shapes were affixed to thick soles, their toe boxes cut so they were angular and irregular, and most times affixed with metal plates that had the effect of steel toe boots. Already, these are new additions to the house’s most cherished lexicon and they are convincing. Combined with the rich and colourful patinas – not to mention the suppleness and shine of the leathers – those shoes had a real old world meets new appeal to them.
Go up a little further, and you’ll see that Van Assche is introducing younger, sportier elements. In small measure, of course, because to rob this brand of its ingrained hauteur (shoes regularly cost between SGD3,000 to SGD4,000) would be unthinkable. That came through as biker trousers, oversized ribbed knits, and a fascinating marble print – all worn comfortably aside or with tailoring. Those marble prints, in particular, were inspired from the countertops on which the brand’s artisans painstakingly apply by hand dye and polish to attain the famed patina. The result is an organic and splotchy mess – beautiful, and thankfully un-retouched when superimposed onto garments and bags. It was the necessary breath of air that gave the collection a touch of tie loosened and sleeves rolled up.
Everywhere else, though, you found the weighty legacy of luxury. Not to say that it wasn’t sublimely executed: the opening hand-cut leather suit in patinated leather, for one, was an object of beauty. It made a strong opening statement, Van Assche quite literally saying that he is confidently fashioning Berluti’s clothed identity. And then there was the astrakhan coat, the fur-lined alligator bomber jacket, patinated leather and shearling jacket. You get the idea. It might be skewing young, but make no mistake: Berluti is looking for the moneyed young.
The real strength of this collection that was not fully explored, however, was colour. The looks Van Assche sent out came in a powerful palette: pink, mustard, cobalt, forest green. Not forgetting the sheer tonal variety the patina offers. There is a whole world of shade and hue for Van Assche to explore, which may well be a way into a more artistic and less artisanal outlook worth considering. But that’s for next time – this first show in the meantime, was a sure-footed outing.