Robert Clergerie Is Still the Toast of France

Next month, avant-garde retailer Opening Ceremony will unveil its newest collaboration: a collection of espadrilles created by veteran French shoemaker Robert Clergerie.

The designer is reinterpreting a style he first introduced in 1990 with materials such as polka-dot linen and watercolor-printed denim.

It’s just one example of how Clergerie, who launched his eponymous brand 29 years ago, has remained highly relevant in a fast-changing luxury footwear market.

“Designers have come and gone over the years, but he has staying power,” said Karen Daskas, co-owner of high-end boutique Tender in Birmingham, Mich. “He has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in fashion.”

From the early days of his career, Clergerie was a trendsetter with his chic, yet wearable styles. He was the first designer to make women’s shoes on a men’s last, and is perhaps best known for the collection of women’s lace-up oxfords he launched in 1981. And in 1992, he created an iconic raffia sandal, and two years later, launched a line of winter sandals (designed to be worn with big, thick socks) — something that was revolutionary at the time.

“If you review the shoes that have appeared over the years, [you see] they’re always clean, never over-decorated and they have a clear point-of-view,” said Eliot Pliner, Clergerie’s longtime U.S. president.

Clergerie’s love affair with footwear began during the early 1970s, when he worked as a manager and designer for the Charles Jourdan-owned brand and factory Xavier Danaud. They were formative years for the designer, and he credits the late French shoemaker Roland Jourdan with changing his life.

“I was at Jourdan for six years and I consider Roland the master,” said Clergerie, now in his mid-70s.

After honing his craft at Danaud, the designer struck out on his own in 1978 and purchased Joseph Fenestrier, a men’s shoe factory founded in Romans, France, in 1895. A few years later, the Robert Clergerie collection was born.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, Clergerie developed a strong following at top U.S. department stores and bowed his first stateside store in 1987, the same year he nabbed Footwear News’ Designer of the Year award. In 1992, he won FFANY’s Fashion Medal of Honor, the organization’s most-coveted award.

The business eventually attracted the attention of outside investors, and Clergerie sold a minority stake to investment fund SG European Equity Partners before deciding in 1999 to retire and sell his remaining stake in the business.

“I was gardening and sailing around the Mediterranean,” he recalled. “I used to have a sailboat — a Turkish gulet — which was very nice and very beautiful, but I sold it when I came back to work in the factory.”

Indeed, retirement wasn’t in the cards for Clergerie. In January 2005, he bought back a 90 percent stake in the company, which had stumbled under new ownership.

“I came back to save the employees from unemployment and keep the Clergerie name alive because the company was going into Chapter 11,” he said.

Five years later, Clergerie’s factory is the last remaining one in Romans, and the designer remains a staunch supporter of French-made shoes. 

“His name is linked with success … and [his passion] is reflected in his collection,” said Michelle Bonnet, secretary general of the French footwear federation. “He’s also created a school in his factory so he can transfer his knowledge and educate the next generation about shoemaking, which is important.”

Clergerie, who last year was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor, admitted that it’s harder today than it has ever been and he is sad that homegrown footwear talent has chosen to manufacture abroad.

He also lamented the dearth of true shoemakers in the industry today, noting that it has become dominated by ready-to-wear brands designed by people who don’t understand the footwear craft.

“This is very different to how it was in the past, and it hurts our business,” he said, singling out one exception: Karl Lagerfeld. “Karl worked with Jourdan. This guy is professional because he understands shoes.”

While the footwear business has undergone significant change, Clergerie remains a competitive player. He operates 23 namesake stores in Europe and North America, as well as a franchise location in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Today, wholesale accounts for 65 percent of the total business, and Clergerie is stocked at top U.S. department stores, including Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Nordstrom, as well as key independents such as Tender and Davids in Toronto.

“We’ve always admired Robert Clergerie’s talent, creativity and his unique contribution to the fashion footwear industry,” said Jack Minuk, GMM of shoes at Nordstrom. “Our customers appreciate the collection’s incredible quality and clean-lined silhouettes — perfect for making that statement.”

Neiman Marcus fashion director Ken Downing added, “[Our] customer … loves his design aesthetic and ability to create a shoe with timeless style and comfort.” 

While Clergerie has been enjoying a comeback of sorts since emerging from retirement, he is also focused on the brand’s next chapter.

While he has three children, none of them is a likely successor — although his son Xavier Clergerie has inherited his father’s interest in fashion and is making his mark as the GM of Paris trade shows Who’s Next and Premiere Classe.

“We talk a lot about shoes, but he has a very important business with the shows he is organizing,” the elder Clergerie said. 

To that end, the designer is looking outside his family for someone to fill his shoes. “I’m trying to find a solution with a professional who will be able to maintain the name,” he said, explaining the motivation behind his apprentice program.

All told, the designer said he is content to be back at the helm of his brand, and he’s finding time to relax, too.

“I have a big house with a big garden near Romans, where the factory is. So I work in my garden, ride my bicycle. I enjoy the simple life.”

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