When I visited shoemaker Philippe Atienza (above) in his new Parisian atelier, back in March, his furniture had just arrived. Some nice chairs, rugs, tables, and a lot of old machinery.
He’d been in the space for three weeks, but it was finally starting to come together and feel like his.
Like the other arches in Viaduc des Arts (where umbrella maker Michel Heurtault is also located) there is a large, open-plan area on the ground floor, a basement and a slightly smaller first floor, under the curve of the arch.
In many ways this is ideal for an artisan like Philippe. The ground floor can show off all his current models, plus some aspects of the work. The heavy machine-driven stuff can be kept to the basement. And upstairs becomes a private space for client consultations.
Philippe has only been on his own since 2015. But he is an old hand in the industry.
He began working aged 16, and joined Les Compagnons du Devoir – the trade association under which French craftsmen do their own ‘Tour de France’, learning different crafts all around the country.
Philippe was an apprentice for two years, then taught for several more, before working for John Lobb Paris in his final year.
(The bespoke arm of the shoemaker owned by Hermes, which also makes ready-to-wear shoes in Northampton. Not connected to John Lobb Ltd – bespoke on St James’s Street.)
After he left, he joined John Lobb full time as a maker (lasting the shoes and stitching the welt and sole) – alongside a pattern-maker, closer and finisher. “It was a very high level, and frankly at that time I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “But I worked hard and improved every day.”
After a year, he wanted to do something different. Lobb were about to stop making boots and Norwegian shoes, so he threw himself into that, learning the specific skills and reinvigorating it. He ran that department, and seven years later, took over running the whole workshop.
“It’s strange looking back to think how fast things moved for me,” says Philippe. “But I always wanted to learn and worked closely with the more experienced craftsmen to get my skills up to scratch.”
During this time he was also awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France – one of the most prestigious awards a craftsman can receive, as it is given by other craftsmen and is across all crafts, so is more commonly given to chefs or patissiers.
The tan monk strap pictured above was one of three pieces he made for the prize. (I will do a separate piece on the various French prizes – they have much more integrity than the various royal warrants in the UK, but can be hard to distinguish from each other.)
He then moved to Massaro, the French maker best known for haute couture women’s shoes (and owned by Chanel). Philippe had always made women’s shoes – his training included making proper ladies bespoke, with solid-leather high heels and innovative patterns.
But at Massaro, his main job was to lift up the quality of the men’s side, which had never been developed as much as the women’s.
“All the shoes there were very light, very ephemeral,” he says. “We had to give some proper structure to the men’s production – take them away from cementing, for example.”
Interestingly, the experience of haute couture has made him very open to trying any new design and idea today. “The designers never liked it if you didn’t want to try to make a design,” he says. “You could try and fail, but not trying wasn’t acceptable.”
This experimental nature comes across particularly strongly in his women’s shoes, which include huge, curled soles, precious stones and glorious feather designs.
The men’s shoes are a little more down to earth, but still have a wildness running through them. When we meet he is wearing black derbies with zips around the apron and welt (above). And his current favourite material is hippo.
There are several more classic models sitting around the workshop – and more coming as the workshop develops (the official opening is later this month). The place is also worth a visit purely for Philippe’s collection of vintage shoemaking machinery.
But still, you rather feel that this is a shoemaker you come to when you’d like something a little different.
Men’s starts at 4500 euros and women’s 3000 euros (including VAT, only bespoke).