French Shoe Master Pierre Corthay on Why Chinese Billionaires Love Bespoke

With stores in Beijing, Wuhan, and Hong Kong, the young and quickly growing luxury shoe brand Maison Corthay has a significant focus on China and emerging markets for its French-made footwear. Overseen by master shoemaker Pierre Corthay, the bespoke and ready-to-wear creations retail starting at around US$1,000 a pair and go way up from there. Corthay is known not only for his expert craftsmanship, but also for his daring designs featuring classic styles with bright hues such as orange, purple, and blue. Now, the brand is expanding to incorporate casual styles as wealthy consumer demand evolves toward the “ath-leisure” lifestyle. We recently caught up with Corthay himself at his Beijing shop, when he was in town for the launch of a softer casual shoe model. Below, he shares his experiences selling to China’s ultra-rich shoe buyers and where he sees the market headed in the future.

You’ve been open for over a year now here in Beijing. What has surprised you about the China market?

My first surprise was they’re really daring with the color. The [global] men’s market moved within the last 10 years, of course—everybody noted this. Men are a bit more fashionable—little by little—but in China, the movement is very, very fast. In my collection, I’m very focused on the color and the detail of the piping. They really understand very quickly, and really they dare, which is not so obvious in France or other markets like the United States.

You also have two stores in Hong Kong. Have you noticed any differences in taste between the mainland and Hong Kong customers? 

Hong Kong is a bit different. It’s much more cosmopolitan than Beijing. In Hong Kong, you have some mainlanders who come, but you have all the nationalities.

Here, it’s really like a new market. The people are very open-minded, in fact. You feel that they are more open-minded than the others. It’s a funny thing but I think it’s really true.

Maison Corthay's Beijing boutique. (Courtesy Photo)

Maison Corthay’s Beijing boutique. (Courtesy Photo)

How important is personalized service in the China market compared to other markets? 

The same as everywhere. We make bespoke here, which is full bespoke—starting from scratch—and we have ready-to-wear, but in ready-to-wear, you have the possibility to make a very special thing called an “MTO” or “made-to-order”: you can change the color, you can change the finishing, the piping, the lining, the sole. Half of our business is done with the MTO in ready-to-wear, which is huge.

What kind of demand have you seen for bespoke products in general in China? 

In China’s market, I think the bespoke is a statement.

The first time I came to China seven years ago, I visited the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, and I realized the level of the craft they had for a very long time. Of course, they had a very big period—the Cultural Revolution, which was terrible for their culture and for a lot of people, but they have this [craftsmanship] in their DNA. They know the quality; they know the nice craft. It’s a very sophisticated culture. They understand the difference, and they really enjoy it.

You just introduced some soft shoes to the China market. Can you talk about how these compare to the other models?  

For 25 years I’ve made a kind of formal shoe—leather sole, good construction, classical but with a twist. But in a certain way, it’s not very open. I decided six months ago, especially for the China market (but not only the China market—Dubai and also the Hong Kong market—countries where it’s hot or wet) we definitely need this product—something easier to wear, softer—they can wear it barefoot. Just to open the field a little bit more for the customer. It’s a first step because we’re probably going to move next for fall/winter to the sneaker, and then next spring/summer we’re probably going to make another loafer like this one but lighter and softer. Shoes that you’d like to wear on the beach in St. Tropez or on your yacht.

Maison Corthay's Brighton shoe model. (Courtesy Photo)

Maison Corthay’s Brighton shoe model. (Courtesy Photo)

Have you noticed the rise of the ath-leisure trend in China?

I think it’s a general movement of moving into more casual and more relaxed.

Seven years ago, I was working with a hedge fund in China; I made five or six pairs for the founders. One time we were talking about the fashion of the men in China and the guy said to me, “Wow, you know, Pierre, if you see men in China with the suits, white shirt, and a tie, two options: bodyguard or driver. Look at us: we don’t wear a tie. We are relaxed in Prada and cool and colorful if we want. We don’t have a code.”

What about leisure lifestyle in China? Do you see more of your clients interested in this?

I think they are interested in everything. I think they are excessively curious. They really look at everything. They’re like children in a candy bar. It’s very cool to see them and have some fun.

The last time I came, we had a customer come in with eight of his friends after lunch. He came with them and offered a pair of bespoke shoes to every friend he had here. We took 10 orders. They were all here; some were sleeping here on the couch because they were a bit drunk, of course. Two of them were sleeping on the couch; I took the measurement while the guy was sleeping. It was so fun. They were so happy.

You never see this in France, ever. They are very happy to share with their friends and proud. In France, it’s the opposite; when you have a good address, you don’t want to give it.

Can you give an example of one of your most interesting customers in China?

There’s a very important man in China—he’s Chinese, but he places his order in France. He came in Paris. The first order he placed was 25 pairs directly. He chose a model that doesn’t exist, so we had to design 25 different models for him. That’s one of the most eccentric guys we’ve had.

Do most customers in China know exactly what they want or do they need more of a consultation?

They need advice sometimes. When we opened here, absolutely nobody knew the brand in China. It was very confidential and very niche. We saw how the people would shop very simply; they’d come through and say, “I like it, I buy it.” The brand matters here, but not for everybody. I think some people are able to just appreciate the product and the color. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s not like in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, or the Middle East.

What is the most important form of marketing to get the word out about the brand in China?  

The first is word of mouth. It of course takes time, but actually it’s the best thing. It really works.

Do you have any predictions for what kind of styles will be popular in China over the next five years?

Like everybody, we go to crossover style—something which is really between the classic and the sports and the casual. For work or life, people are more busy and need something very comfortable, but also classical and wearable with suits and formal wear. When you’re a designer and you want to create, it’s always much cooler if you can have freedom thinking out of the box like this.

In China, I think it’s really the new world. They travel, they live in air conditioning, go to malls—it’s totally crazy compared to the old Europe in a certain way.

Do your Chinese customers have a conception of French vs. Italian shoes? 

I don’t think so. I’m sure the Italians were the first in the market, like in Russia. I think the Chinese people are very quickly understanding and they are very eager to embrace novelties. They are much more sensitive to the fashion, but they like classical and quality things too. It’s a big mix of a lot of different ideas, attitudes, discoveries. That’s what gives this dynamism to the market, I think. And it’s so big, so many cities over 3 million people—it’s just crazy.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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