Most shoes at at least originally emerged from function: think of English country walking shoes, whose brogue detailing facilitated water drainage while sloshing around pastures. Others are designed for fashion: give people the latest trend, however fleeting it may be. Corthay shoes—designed by Pierre Corthay, who started his own bespoke operation in 1990 after years of studying the craft at John Lobb and Berluti—seem born of art.

They inspire, and generate wonder. They’re extremely worth staring at for extended periods of time, and it’s doubtful that any two people can see in them the exact same thing. They’ve almost certainly been heisted, by a very dapper thief.Corthay Shoes at LeffotAnd yet, to call Corthay shoes works of art is so easy, and so obviously true, it almost feels like a cop-out, a surrender. The term just seems too blunt and limited to cover it. Would an artist describe their work simply as “art”? Possibly, if it were a painting of Art Garfunkel, entitled “Art.” But otherwise, probably not. But for now, it’s about the best I’ve got.

Because Instagram is not actually real life (I’m pretty sure…), I’d only had limited true exposure to Corthay—four or five models at the inimitable Leffot in Manhattan’s West Village. And yes, I was taken. But it’s tough to train your focus on any one thing for too long in a shop making as much beautiful shoe-noise as Leffot.

So instead of spending hours ruminating on, say, the Sade’s toebox shape, I locked onto the Leffot model’s python-skin saddle. Even Corthay’s signature shoe, the Arca, registered as an extremely nice single monk strap (just one of many Arca makeups), and I moved on as countless other shoes beckoned. I did spend some serious time with the grey suede Ike, but didn’t even truly pick up on its green piping until I was looking at my photos later that night (for an Instagram post, of course…).

So last week I went to the Corthay (pronounced: core-TAY) trunk show, back at Leffot, whose floor shop owner Steven Taffel had ringed with every other shoe he was selling to clear the table for the Corthay shoes—because this time, it was time to focus. And I’m very glad I focused.Corthay Shoes at LeffotFor me, there was a theme flowing through the dozens of Corthay masterworks, all collected from Paris, London, Tokyo, and elsewhere, and brought to the West Village by Corthay commercial director Randy Federgreen, who himself was casually drifting about in the least casual chukkas imaginable: blue crocodile.Corthay Blue Crocodile Chukka BootsThat theme: Corthay’s designs, from the last shapes right down to the laces, all seemed rooted in something familiar (as most shoes are). Despite that, everything about them was just so viscerally different from anything I’d ever seen—but not necessarily jarring.

Corthay sells what could be considered its core collection—which gets updated twice a year—at its brand shops in Paris, London, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as speciality shoe retailers like Leffot and high-end department stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks, and Bergdorf Goodman. While some signature models (like the black Arca with red piping) are available at many of those, each store—and often each location—works with Corthay to create special makeups just for them.

But the true way to indulge in Corthay shoes is to design your own, and layer your vision on top of Pierre’s. When building custom Corthays, you become the artist; the canvas and tools have been thoughtfully provided. Between models, leathers, linings, brogueing, stitching, soles, toes, hardware, laces, and piping (a la the wonderful Rascaille loafers below), there are over one million potential outcomes, an astonishing number that I’ll admit I didn’t personally do the math on.Corthay Shoes at LeffotEven the coloring in a shoe’s brogueing recesses can be customized, like the neon seen on the Vendome oxford below. Most shoes can also be built on the last that fits you best/or provides the shape you desire. Corthay Vendome Oxford in Black SuedeGood art is something worth paying for, and Corthays start at $1,695 and obviously go up from there. But between the flexibility provided by the customization options (and it seems like a mistake to not go that route), and the fact that the Parisian factory employs about 20 people to produce only about six to eight pairs per day, you can be reasonably certain that you will be the only person with your particular piece of foot-borne art in the world. 

And now, I’ll stop talking quite so much, so as best to not distract you from all these wonderful shoes:Corthay Shoes at LeffotFrom left to right: Twin double monk (“fraternal twins, not identical,” says Randy. “It took Pierre five years to design it.”), Montaigne with brogue detailing on the monk and elsewhere, Arca Buckle with medallion toe.Corthay Shoes at LeffotThree Gordon oxfords; I love how the eyelets splay out as they run from top to bottom.Corthay Shoes at LeffotPaco chukkas and Bella Chelseas.Corthay Shoes at LeffotBrighton and Dover tassel loafers—the Brighton features the leather tongue/pull tab on the heel. Corthay Shoes at LeffotThe Wilfred in calf and Japanese denim. “We will not do a whole denim shoe. We did that once. If you’re a nine and a half, I have a pair for you. The customer loves them but they’re too big on him. It took multiple pairs to make because of the stress on the fabric, pulling it, over and over, it puckered, and it was very difficult. We will not do a full fabric shoe again.”Corthay Shoes at LeffotBrighton loafer without the tassels. You can see the rear tongue flipped up on the left shoe.Corthay Shoes at LeffotTwin in crocodile. All Corthay exotics use center belly cuts to ensure there’s no seaming—in other words, to create two shoes, you need two skins.Corthay Shoes at LeffotGathering of the Arcas.Corthay OscarThe Oscar, or as Randy puts it, “the last shoe at the party.” This photo does it zero justice.

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