My uncle’s shoes. I was around 10 years old and he had a nice pair of tan color derby with plain toe. I could not explain why but my eyes were very attracted by this pair. I had the feeling that it was a super nice pair of shoes and I have recently discovered that it was actually a pair of Corthay. This means that since very young I could recognize what was coming from good craftsmanship.
What brought you into the shoe industry? You have told me that you have worked for a few years in corporate finance and after that for Suit Suply and Loding. Building your own brand is a very difficult step nowardays…
The passion of handmade shoes brought me in this industry. Actually during my 3 years in corporate finance, I spent all my time reading blogs such as yours, drawing shoes on my notebook and making business plan to create my brand instead of working on my daily tasks. It was obvious that I was at the wrong place. But as you said it is not easy today to change from one field to another. So after these 3 years I resigned to be focus on my passion. I was in Shanghai at that time and noticed the huge gap in the Chinese market for quality leather shoes. I had contacted a French shoe brand to import their shoes into China but after few months of negotiation we could not get to a decent agreement. So I decided to create my own brand not to be dependent from one brand or another. Then it took me one year to find the shoemaker, to find the leather supply and design the first models.
Who was the first person that influenced you most in the shoe trade?
Business wise, I am a real self-made man. I did not have any mentors.
Creativity wise, of course I am influenced by the work of some amazing shoemakers. For instance Masaru Okuyama for the level of details, Bestetti for the crazy lasts he creates and many more.
As you are based in Hong Kong I presume most of your clients are Asias. Asians have a wider foot than Europeans How does your shoes fit?
Barre et Brunel Footwear is a brand that I made to fit the Asians. I make all the models in E width. D width is too narrow for Asians feet. The shoe brand I worked for before launching Barre et Brunel Footwear was based on D width. To fit Asians the clients we had to go for a half size or a size bigger. But this modified the whole proportion. The shoes were most of the time too long compared to the height of the client. And this effect is very ugly.
Where are your shoes made?
All Barre et Brunel shoes are made in Spain. I work with a factory which produce goodyear-welted shoes for more than 100 years.
I don t like to say that I have collection. Because having collection means having seasonal collection. Seasonal collection is for fashion brand. Barre et Brunel Footwear is not a fashion brand. I will not create seasonal collection, I try to create shoes that will be able to be worn by my sons and grandsons… That means I don’t do fashion. Actually I hate fashion! I strive to do classic shoes that will sustain with the time and generation.
The inspiration comes from the bespoke industry. I am amazed by what bespoke shoemakers can do with their hands. The perfect curves, the perfect last, the perfect design, the perfect proportion. People can think that the design of the Lica is very easy to do. In fact not at all. You have to combine all those elements to make it right and beautiful.
How would you describe the Barre et Brunel house style?
It is classic, comfortable and durable. I strive to achieve the perfection for the classic. The perfect curves, the perfect last, the perfect design, the perfect proportion…
Barre et Brunel shoes are all goodyear welted. I used mainly the French calf and British suede.
Actually I am very surprised that I sell as many classic shoes as patina shoes. I knew that Asians would love patina shoes but I did not expect that much.
The lazyman style is very popular in Asia. Since that in big Asian cities the apartments are very small people take off their shoes as soon as they are at home, the side gusset make it easier.
I will not offer patina on this model because I consider the side elastic as a formal pair of shoes. I will keep the classic colors, black, brown, burgundy. However, I will create new design for the lazyman, with a cap toe, maybe with fake laces.
What are the biggest challenges in today shoe trade from your point of view?
The production time. A fine pair of goodyear welted shoes takes time to be made. So we need to deal with very long production time. This impact very much the stock and the cash management.
The competition. Nowadays, the competition is not local anymore, it is worldwide. Today Asians can buy online from Europe without VAT. This is the main issue.
What about failures? From the initial targets that you had in mind when starting Barre et Brunel, what were those that remained still untouched?
Leather is one of the biggest issues that the shoemaking industry is faceing. How do make sure that the leathers quality standards are maintain by the factory?
Yes it is an issue but since I do only small quantity we can check each hide before making the shoes.
What leathers do you currently use? If you were to get to the next level, what would you choose?
I am currently using French box calf. I would like to try some exotic leather like alligator or suede alligator for my patina collection. I am not crazy about full alligator shoes but just as a detail it is very nice. On the strap of a loafer for instance.
If your business received a capital injection of 500.000 Euro, where would the money be heading?
€150.000 for stocks and new styles.
€25.000 to hire an assistant focus on sales logistic and patina while I spend more time on developing the business in Asia.
€25.000 for bigger showroom in Hong Kong.
€200.000 to open a shop in Asia. I know exactly where but it is still secret.
Who is your biggest competitor on the market?
In Asia, I have no competitor for this quality/price ratio.
How would you describe your own style?
Steve McQueen for casual (white T shirt and blue jeans)
Mr Classic (Jeremy Hackett) for formal (grey flannel, 3 pieces suit with black cap toe oxford with a little punched details (The Quen model of my collection)
I was very excited and in the same time I could not believe that I was creating my brand reflecting my style! And very anxious as well because I was not sure that all the styles will be appreciated.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Being independent and doing everything by myself. Working on his own is really not easy everyday but at the end it is very comfortable to do everything I want without asking anybody.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Taking risk. I hate taking risk but in the other hand without taking risk we don’t achieve anything.
Oxford cap toe in brown suede with smart round toe. Lica is my favorite model.
The key elements of a good men’s shoe would be…
Classic/timeless style, comfortable, durable, from quality material.
What are your favorite places to spend your evenings?
In summer time, having a late diner outdoor with friends in the French countryside.
In winter time, close to the fire place, enjoying a glass of Laphroag reading a book.
I love to work under pressure but only if the pressure is coming from myself.
What turns you off?
I am very affected by what is happening in France (terrorist attacks). It make me very sad and I don’t understand why people from different origin cannot live in piece together. Hong Kong is amazing for that because there are people coming from everywhere and live in peace altogether.
What is your favorite curse word?
“Putain”!!! (=”fuck”!!!). I think it is the same for every French people.
What sound or a noise do you love?
The sound of my car, MGB GT.
The sound of someone eating with the mouth open (which is not impolite here in China)
What profession would you not like to do?
Financial controller as before.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Congrat Etienne, you have lived your dream!