Exclusive: Inside the Studio That Makes All of Chanel’s Haute Couture Shoes

Not surprisingly, one of last month’s most-talked-about spring ’19 Haute Couture moments came when Chanel’s not-so-demure bride closed the Mediterranean-inspired show wearing silver appliqué mules with a matching cut-out one-piece.

The sparkling shoes — and all of the house’s couture footwear — are created by the Chanel-owned Massaro Paris bespoke atelier, which also produces the custom designs for the label’s Métiers d’Art collections.

Chanel Haute Couture spring '19.
Chanel Haute Couture spring ’19.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

FN got an exclusive look at Massaro to see the making of the gilded shoes and boots for the December Métiers d’Art show in New York.

During a tour of the atelier, managing director Jean-Etienne Prach explained that the studio generally receives drawings for the collection from Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld and the house’s shoe designer Laurence Dacade about a month in advance.

“The first thing we start doing when we receive a drawing is building the last and sculpting the shape for the heel,” he said. “Then we draw the shoes onto the last from which we deduct the pattern for the upper.”

The leather is soaked in water and wrapped around the last. Pieces are melded together to form the upper. The toe needs to be strongest, while the sides are more delicate — hence the need for different thicknesses of hide. For this reason, one artisan was thinning down pieces of leather with a scalpel against a thick piece of glass clasped to his chest. “You need big muscles for this job,” laughed Prach.

Another was busy cutting strips of leather for the straps of those gold sandals, “la sandal Egyptian,” as they were annotated on a sketch from HQ. The floor was strewn with strips of gold leather like foils exploded from a giant glitter bomb. They were meticulously lined with cotton to reinforce the leather.

Behind the scenes at Massaro.
Working on the Chanel Metiers d’Art 19 collection in the Massaro atelier, Paris.
CREDIT: Chanel

Once the soles have been hand-soldered into place, the final step is attaching the heels. Many of those adorning those showstopping gold boots came inlaid with semiprecious stones or enamel work featuring tiny blue scarab beetles bearing intertwined double Cs.

Since Massaro was founded in 1894, it has perfected the art of shoemaking. Massaro’s first location was on Rue de la Paix — a stone’s throw from Chanel’s Rue Cambon headquarters and the Ritz, where Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel once lived.

Massaro still receives clients in the Central Paris location, but the atelier itself moved some years ago to Aubervilliers, an industrial suburb to the north of Paris. The relationship with the house began in the mid 1950s. Prior to that, Massaro had been Coco Chanel’s personal bootmaker.

The designer began to work with Massaro in an official capacity because instead of using a buckle on a slingback, the producer used elasticized leather — unheard of in 1957. “She loved the incredibly modern idea of being able to easily remove [the shoes] and put them back on,” said Prach. “It made her want to work only with Massaro.”

Behind the scenes at Massaro.
Working on the Chanel Metiers d’Art 19 collection in the Massaro atelier, Paris.
CREDIT: Chanel

In addition to its work for Chanel and a handful of other undisclosed luxury brands, Massaro also caters to private clients. Each pair of bespoke-made shoes takes between 35 and 60 hours to complete. Prices start at 3,900 euros, or about $4,453, for women and 6,000 euros, or about $6,851, for men. (There’s currently a seven-month waiting list for a fitting.)

Once you become a client though, the custom wooden last, which is carved to the exact dimensions of the client’s foot, is retained. More than 5,000 lasts are housed in the atelier on a rolling storage system, just like manuscripts in the New York City Library. “If you’re a good customer you might have 10 lasts here,” said Prach, “or 15 if you’re an excellent customer.”

Massaro has partnered with a number of celebrity clients, including Lady Gaga. The atelier crafted an 8-inch platform for her. Keira Knightly, Princess Charlotte of Monaco and Pharrell Williams also own custom Massaro creations. There are also a number of lasts created for Lagerfeld, Chanel’s longtime director. “Mr. Lagerfeld only wears Massaro,” Prach said.

Like Lagerfeld, many of the workshop’s craftspeople have been on board for decades. The oldest employee is 62 and the youngest is a 17-year-old apprentice. The longest-serving staffer is semi-retired Manuel Barbosa, 74, who still returns to work for 12 weeks a year. Barbosa, who is responsible for shaping and stitching the leather upper around the last, began his career in Portugal when he was only 9.

Working on the Chanel Metiers d'Art 19 collection in the Massaro atelier, Paris.
Working on the Chanel Metiers d’Art 19 collection in the Massaro atelier, Paris.
CREDIT: Chanel

While long-standing traditions remain intact, evolution has also been important for Massaro. One of the most recent additions to the 16-strong team is David Monteiro, an apprentice who patterns and cuts the different shapes of leather used to make the upper. Massaro apprentices generally first hone their skills in small independent workshops, but Monteiro had a different background: He was previously and customizer of sneakers. He was hired, said Prach, “because of his raw talent and high level of precision.”

Looking ahead to 2020, most of Chanel’s speciality ateliers, including Massaro will move to a brand new out-of-town headquarters nearby Massaro’s current space.

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