Fashion's Cinderella? The humble ballet shoe


The Repetto shoe factory in Saint-Medard-D'Excideuil, southwestern France
Photo : Derrick Ceyrac/AFP
PARIS, Oct 31, 2007 (AFP) - As couture czars throw agressively high almost fetishistic models onto catwalks, a once humble ballet slipper with no heel let alone spikes is striding into fashion glory.

Take "Desperate Housewife" Eva Longoria, or Sofia Coppola or Kate Moss. Like Madonna, Lindsay Lohan and Sarah Jessica Parker, all lust after latest must-have foot accessory, the Repetto ballet flat that turns 60 this month after a rags-to-riches story.

"It feels like a slipper, it's just like wearing a glove," says company chief Jean-Marc Gaucher.

After turning the decrepit debt-riddled family firm into one of fashion's hottest items in just a few years, Gaucher as could be expected too sports Repetto's -- the lace-up version comfortable without socks adopted in the 1970s by late French star Serge Gainsbourg, and then by Mick Jagger.

Gainsbourg went through 30 pairs of the thin-soled fast-wearing shoes a year despite the expense -- a standard pair is between 100 and 150 euros (150 to 200 US dollars).

Located a stone's throw from Paris' Garnier Opera house, Repetto's dance and shoe boutique nowadays is crammed with tourists checking out the latest design, while girls in bare legs try out ballet pointes for professionals, and mothers check out tutus.

"Our identity is dance," says Gaucher, who before taking over the ailing firm in 1999 headed Reebok France. "It was my firm intention to keep it that way when I took over."

Like Cinderella's slipper, Repetto's history is a fairy-tale come true.

When Gaucher bought in, Repetto was producing 100 pairs of shoes a day. Today the firm makes 2,000 daily, 600,000 a year, with some 200 new models -- all variations on the ballet flat -- on the shelves each month.

The first ballet slipper dates back to 1947, when Rose Repetto crafted a pair of ballet pointes for her son, Roland Petit, the French ballet star and choreographer who later married equally celebrated dancer Zizi Jeanmaire.

Legend has it that "Mama" Repetto created the special inside-out stitch technique vaunted by the firm as giving the unique slipper-soft touch, but some say Roland Petit, desperately seeking a perfect dance shoe, in fact asked US engineers to develop the machinery needed to produce the fabled item.

Whatever the truth, less than a decade after "Mama" made the first model the ballet slipper danced off stage to its film debut on none other than Brigitte Bardot's feet.

She was 22 at the time, about to star in Roger Vadim's "And God Created Woman", and asked Rose Repetto to craft a pair of ballet slippers with a heel. Bardot's red shoes were an immediate hit -- and the ballet slipper hit the street.

For three decades it was all uphill for the shoe, but when Rose Repetto died in the late 80s, Roland Petit sold the company off and it subsequently barely kept its head out of water.

Sitting in his office above the shop, Gaucher whisks out a crumpled Repetto flyer from the 90s featuring dowdy flats in tawdry colours that might make it to a retirement home for the over-80s.

"This was what they were making at the time," he says. "They had a well-known brand as a dance shoe and yet they were making shoes for old ladies."

To refurbish the company's image, Gaucher signed partnerships with up-market designers Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons.

"We were very small so the solution was to work with big names," he said. "And I believed the way to turn our image around in France was to show we were fashionable in Japan and the US."

The idea worked. In 2005 Repetto celebrated the making of its millionth pair, Gaucher began producing high-end limited editions for fashionista stores, and in 2006 the firm finally broke even.

Today Repetto employs 160 people, including 110 at its old production site in the village of Saint-Medard-d'Excideuil in the southern Dordogne region, and sells in 37 countries.

To mark its 60th anniversary, the firm has asked 60 celebs -- including Bardot, Helmut Lang, Carolyn Carlson, Maurice Bejart -- to each customise a pair of flats.

In a handwritten note to Gaucher in nicely rounded childlike letters and a penned flower, Bardot says: "Thank you Repetto for making us look like dancers."

The signed shoes next year travel to New York, London, Milan, Sydney, Hong Kong and Tokyo, then will be auctioned off with the proceeds handed to UNESCO as part of a programme supporting development through dance.

In coordination with UNESCO, Repetto also is providing dance clothes and shoes to dance schools in emerging nations -- this year to South Africa's Dance for All, Cuba's Vocational Workshops for Art, and the EDISCA School of Dance and Social Integration in Brazil.

by Claire Rosemberg

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