Cinderella is the proof that a pair of shoes can change your life.
The text below is the excerpt of the book The Art of the Shoe, written by Marie-Josèphe Bossan, published by Parkstone International.
The veil of mystery around Pierre Yantorny, who called himself the “most expensive shoemaker in the world,” has finally lifted, thanks to the release of his personal journal, photographs, papers, and shoes left to the International Shoe Museum, Romans, by the artist’s nephew. These records will allow us to revise his biography and to dispel the myths about his Indonesian origins and his role as Conservator at the Cluny Museum in Paris.
Pierre Yantorny was an Italian, born on May 28, 1874, in Marasso Marchesato, Calabria. He only attended school from age eight to eight and a half, at which time he began his working life in a macaroni factory where he earned twenty cents a day, working from six in the morning until six in the evening. He subsequently went to work for an individual as the caretaker and exerciser of a horse. When his father settled in Chicago, the twelve-year-old went to Naples and apprenticed with another apprentice shoemaker; his only payment consisted of the knowledge he acquired.
Six months later, hired by a real boss, he was able to save some money, enabling him to set off for Genoa. After a short stay, he went to Nice where he perfected his craft, but already he was dreaming of Paris. To finance his trip and save forty-two francs to pay for a train ticket, another shoemaker suggested that Yantorny applied to the Marseille slaughterhouse to work with sheep.
As Yantorny writes in his journal:
“And so I arrived in Paris on June 13, 1891, after travelling three days, because it was not a fast train; at four in the morning I made my triumphant entry into the French capital. I had been given the address of a shoemaker’s workshop on the rue Saint-Honoré where I might be able to find tradesmen who could help me get work. But damn! The workshop had disappeared five years ago.”
Thanks to the kindness of an Italian restaurant owner on the rue Traversière, Yantorny found a tradesman who worked for the major Paris houses and who agreed to take him on. The workday began at four in the morning and lasted until ten in the evening. Hard work and talent quickly led to his wielding the knife and the awl like a pro. But, alas, his benefactor disappeared without leaving an address.
Yantorny took a job washing dishes in a restaurant for three months so he could afford to buy his own tools. However, unable to find work, he returned first to Genoa and then to Nice on January 17, 1892, with twenty cents in his pocket. He spent the winter there further perfecting his craft then returned to Paris where he stayed until 1898, presenting himself as a tradesman worthy of the top firms – a designation that pops up constantly in his journal.
Two years in London would introduce him to a new aspect of shoemaking, for it was there he learned the art of making shoe trees, which he deemed an indispensable complement to that of shoemaking and form making. This experience moreover presented an opportunity for Yantorny to learn English, a considerable asset in terms of his future American clientele.
Upon returning to Paris for the World Fair, he temporarily abandoned his shoemaker’s craft in order to learn form making. His small room on the rue Saint- Dominique became the scene of his personal investigations. As he notes in his journal:
“This is where I began my study of form making, all by myself; I worked long hours, going days without eating; experience itself feed me because I saw that I was making progress in what I was trying to do.”
Four years later, he rented an old bakery at 109 faubourg Saint-Honoré, and established himself as a maker of forms for shoemakers. The perfecting of four different models with, in his own words, “all the necessary lines to charm the eye” brought him a tremendous amount of work. But he continued to entertain the idea of acquiring a wealthy clientele:
“I wanted to make shoes for people who wore shoes to coordinate their outfits and naturally many more sacrifices had to be made to acquire this clientele…”
A few years later, he set up shop above 26 place Vendôme, where the jeweller Boucheron is currently located. When he failed to receive orders and fell under criticism from the shoemakers’ corporation, he said: “actions speak louder than words and time will be the judge of the rest.”
To attract customers, Yantorny placed a sign in his window that read, “the most expensive shoes in the world.” The expression served as a trade name. A master of his craft, he sought the wealthiest of clients who had the taste, the time, and above all the means to put down a deposit of three thousand francs and submit to the six to eight fittings required to produce the perfect shoe.
In his journal, Yantorny stresses the art of fitting a pair of ankle boots: the process had to result in a perfect correspondence between form, foot, and shoe. According to Yantorny, negligence on the part of the shoemaker could lead to ingrown toenails, calluses, corns, and even enlarged toes, which leads him to conclude:
“If the client purchases from the shoemaker all these ailments, he will have them for the rest of his life and no doctor or surgeon on Earth will be able to heal him. This is why individuals who care about their health and well-being must take care and not entrust their feet to the first shoemaker that comes along.”
Yantorny goes on to humorously survey the effects of wearing ill-fitting shoes in various circumstances:
“If you have poorly made shoes and they get wet, you’ll catch a cold and other illness” (which is confirmed by Pasteur);
“If you are in business negotiations and your feet hurt because of your shoes, you’ll be in a bad mood and you’ll be unable to rise to the occasion of properly conducting your business”;
“If you go to the theatre to see a production you like and you wear shoes that hurt your feet, you won’t have any fun”; and finally,
“If you go out to dinner, no matter how fine the food and no matter how pleasant the company, if your feet hurt you won’t enjoy yourself at all.”
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