An Interview You Should All Read
My interview with Alexis Lafont, Owner & Founder of Caulaincourt was inspirational and educational.
In fact, you can apply much of his wisdom, experience and view about things in many aspects of your lives. But there is also a lot to take in when it comes to shoemaking.
So join me as we continue the quest to interview influential, passionate people in the shoe world and understand their vision, struggles and natural charisma.
Grab a blanket, a warm beverage and let me show the passion behind French Shoemaking.
The Brains & Soul Behind Caulaincourt
Before I get to the actual interview, I would like to give you a little backstory and behind the scenes leading to this.
In my quest to learn more about the different shoemaking schools it became clear that the French “School” of shoemaking was unique.
Caulaincourt (pronounced “Caulen-cour”) is also a rather new brand but brings fresh ideas to the table and incredible flexibility. They take pride in keeping a lot of the production in France and also develop their own identity in time and space. I first heard about them from the wonderful Hugo Jacomet.
What (pleasantly) surprised me the most with French Shoemaking was the dedication to quality over quantity with small workshops and a lot of thought behind the scenes. As a small business owner I know how hard it is to find time in a day outside of your business.
That made me feel extra grateful when Alexis – who as you will find out is involved in almost everything! – agreed to answer my many questions. This interview actually took much more time since he recorded his thoughts and answers instead of written replies.
That was very special to me because it was the first time I “connected” with someone I interviewed and could “feel” and hear his thoughts, emotions and ideas.
I tried my best to transcript everything as best as I could and I believe you will love what he has to say.
1. Monsieur Alexis, it is my pleasure to have you here. I want to thank you for taking the time to do this. I would like you to begin with a small presentation about yourself!
My name is Alexis Lafont, Owner and Founder of Caulaincourt.
I am 39 years old and passionate about many, many things. My passion revolves around the notion of beauty and all beautiful objects. When I say things, I mean everything that is good to look at, feel and experience the great things in life.
Of course I am also passionate about shoes which are the main piece of a man’s wardrobe alongside watches. However, a watch doesn’t “mean” (show) who you are.
On the flipside, it takes just a few seconds looking at the shoes a man is wearing to understand what kind of man you have in front of you.
2. Every story has a beginning. What were you doing before creating Caulaincourt?
Before creating Caulaincourt I did quite a few things. However I created the Brand in a pretty young age.
I guess I was around 27 years old so pretty young. At the time I worked in marketing and strategy but I also practiced sculpture, photography and design from a young age.
In fact, I even earned some extra money with these disciplines! In a way, creating my own shoe brand was a way of bringing together the two parts of my brain.
One part was about creativity and arts and the other making a company.
3. Blending passions and marinating them with one’s experiences always fascinated me. Just like the history behind each word and names. How did you choose the name “Caulaincourt” and what does it mean to you?
Indeed there is a real reason behind this and a substantial history.
This is because Caulaincourt in French is a rather famous name since he was a general of Napoleon. He is a big part of French History and actually my grand, grand, grandfather!
When I decided to create my own brand and make everything in France including the designing and producing, I wanted to use a French name which talked about our story, our history and the fact that we are a French shoe “Maison” (House).
4. Wow, a true descendant of Napoleon’s Generals! Onto a question I really like but is also very difficult. Why should a new customer choose your brand instead of others? What is Caulaincourt’s strength?
This is a really difficult question because of 2 things.
One reason is because I don’t like saying bad things about other brands even if I think some bad things!
And the second thing is that we really fight every day to be customer oriented. That means we always think about what can we do to improve our customer satisfaction in every aspect of our business.
So I will say that someone who is buying a shoe from Caulaincourt today is going to get some of the best quality, singularity, and price ratio. This is because if you look at the world market right now and if you know exactly what is inside of the shoes of different brands I can tell you that we have a really high quality/price ratio. I would also guess my design experience makes my shoes different than what you can find elsewhere and that is important.
When it comes to customer service we are trying like hell to make the best of it. We have amazing reviews and rates on Trustpilot and they are our best reward for the huge work we are achieving every day.
We really try to do everything possible to satisfy the customer. Sometimes of course we do have problems but we always try to find solutions. The customer is really the focus of our system.
Last but not least is our custom service. Of course we make handpainted patinas and in fact we were one of the first – apart from Berluti – to enter this way of working the leather.
You can choose any color you want but on top of this we are also one of the few shoe brands in the world right now that offers a MTO (Made To Order) service.
That means you can really create your very own shoe starting from our designs, lasts, welts and leathers.
5. You sound like someone with a very hands on approach. How much of an influence do you have in each collection? Are you the one that approves each model and design?
This is a much easier for me because the answer is very simple.
I am making every single design aspect of what we do including the website’s artistic direction, the interior design of the stores and of course the shoe design. That includes making lasts myself.
Therefore I can say that I pretty much do everything that has to do with design at Caulaincourt.
I would like to add that I try to make the best company I can and also include my staff.
The people who are working with me so I try very often to get them into the design process to give their ideas and contribute on the offer we are bringing on the market.
6. Caulaincourt is much more than just patinas. It has MTO and a variety of constructions. Can you tell us a little more about it?
This is a very important question for me and I really like it.
The way of consuming things in the world we live in now is all about being speedy and checking thousands of pics every day with your thumb.
In this world when everything is going so fast one of my fears is that people only think that we are worth something because we just make patinas.
But for me our patina work is only something we are very good at but it is only a service and a part of the Caulaincourt DNA. In my opinion the quality of every single detail, the way we work, our customer service and last-making is very specific.
Caulaincourt is all about the way we provide our MTO and patina is only a small part of it. I feel this is a very important message I have because we are working like hell to be very efficient in many ways and we are very passionate about shoes.
The variety of constructions is probably even more important for me.
Why? Because when I started Caulaincourt all the big shoe brands were fighting with each other about the construction.
For example Berluti and Aubercy were saying “We are making only blake because we think this is much better than everything else”. On the other side of the river you have like J.M. Weston and John Lobb who were saying “We are making only Goodyear Welt because outside of Goodyear Welt nothing is worth it”.
When I took my place in this market I wanted to bring something different and step out of this “religion war” about constructions. It was my bet was to explain to the customer that construction only has an interest if it’s matching the use you are going to have for the shoe.
What I mean is that if you take a summer loafer you want to bring in Italy why would you put a Norwegian welt in such a shoe. On the other side why would you put a Bolognese construction on winter hunting boots. It’s totally stupid.
I think we are the first brand to bring that vision about construction 12 years ago. We use the construction that we think is the best for the use you are going to have for the shoe.
Of course if you do not agree with us it’s no problem since you have the MTO service and can use it to make any construction you want. Most importantly I carefully choose the factories I work with based on the fact that they can make a huge variety of constructions.
7. Your last answer makes me see things from another perspective. However you must have some sort of favorite style of shoe and construction right?
I would say it’s impossible to choose really one favorite style and construction because of the answer I gave on the previous question.
However if really had to I would say I prefer boots because they are like sneakers. You can wear them in any situation and they are very comfortable. They just bring something special to your outfit which is great.
Regarding construction if I really had to choose one I think my favorite one would be the Bolognese stitch. But it really has to be well-done and there are very few (believe me) factories who are able nowadays to produce a good Bolognese construction.
But when done well I guess it’s my favorite. Once again it depends on where you live and how you dress.
8. In truth here is a bit of a stigma when it comes to blake/bologna shoes compared to Goodyear Welted. Making a winter boot with a bologna construction would be a mistake, however these types of constructions have their place in each man’s wardrobe. Do you agree?
I guess I answered this already but I would like to add something.
For me it is really ridiculous to think that a Goodyear Welt or Norwegian shoe is better than anything because of the use you are going to have with it.
But also, Goodyear Welt doesn’t really mean anything because it depends on who is making it. I think Aubercy’s Blake is much (much) better than another shoe brand’s Goodyear Welt in say the 200-250 euros range.
I know a lot of brands like this and I can tell you that their Goodyear Welt is not good.
In the end, it doesn’t mean anything and depends on what you are talking about and who is making the construction.
9. What about each individual shoe? Which is the most important element of a shoe for you?
I guess the answer is the last.
Why? Because the last is going to be 80% of the aesthetics of the shoe.
If you have a great shoe with a very “dirty” last then the shoe is not going to be nice. So this is really important for me and that’s why I work so hard on making our own lasts.
So yes, my answer is “definitely the last“.
10. I think I agree with you, a last will define the shape and looks of the shoe. How about the rest of the components? What constitutes a quality shoe?
I think that when we are talking about shoes, everything is important.
Not only the leather quality but also the way you cut the leather. For instance at Caulaincourt we never cut more than 4 pairs of shoes from one skin (calf).
This is very important for me as well but of course construction is equally important as well as all the details nobody is going to see.
That’s the way i think about shoemaking and I am like this in my life and generally speaking. I need to be able to sleep at night and to do so I have to get a really great product.
I am even including the way we are making the patinas. There are so many brands now making patinas with painting pencil (not sure how to say in English) but a 4 year old kid could make a patina this way and I hate this.
Why? Because you want to give the patina an aspect, like you can see the human hand making the patina and this is the opposite of my vision of what a patina should be. Patina is about reproducing the effect of the time going on an object (ageing).
Comment: If I understand correctly, Alexis here means that using a brush to paint a patina is “easy”. He prefers patina artists using their hands to physically touch and be in tune with the shoe, the leather and the pigment.
11. We talked about the quality of the products and services. But I want to know your favorite part of the job. For example, is it the creativity or satisfaction of seeing someone wearing something that you made?
I would say I am lucky to have quite a few.
A very specific one is when you design something, make a sample and when you unbox the sample you can instantly know if the shoe is a killer or not.
When that happens is it’s a really, really great feeling. It’s a bit magical that something goes from an idea in your head to a reality. It’s great!
One other thing is when I spend sometime in the stores and people and customers are saying “Ok keep going guys because what you are doing is killing and I will never buy another shoe except Caulaincourt because I love them so much”.
Some are customers for years and have like 17-25+ pairs. Sometimes even just 2.
This is the best reward you can have for the huge amount of work and energy we are putting together as a team.
Also, a big joy to my work is when we achieve something and I share this with the team and can feel that the team is happy about what they do with me in this company.
12. Can you describe the process behind designing or bringing to life a new Caulaincourt shoe?
It’s actually a really simple concept.
First I gather a lot of information and inspiration material in my phone and my notebooks. When I feel that we need to produce new things (but only when I want to/have inspiration) I spend some time to dive into this material and I start designing a draft.
Then I let it “sleep” for 24-48 hours and then go back and re-draft it. Sometimes this helps me to improve the sketch.
When it’s ready I send the prototype to the factory to make this sample specifying the details like last, leather, welt, and finishing. Most of the time the first sample I make is a little bold regarding the materials and since it’s a prototype I try something a little crazier.
If the shoe is coming you have 3 options:
- Option 1 is the magic when you open it (I talked about it), it feels great and you define all the versions you are going to make with this shoe.
- Option 2 is that the shoe is not good and you can feel it instantly as well. It happens of course and you measure the distance you have from this sample to the final product and if that distance is too long then you just cut it and drop it.
- Option 3 is in between 1 and 2 and when you feel there is something but the way it’s done is not the good way. So we make another sample (and another). I think the longest sampling process I have done was 12 samples to reach the final product.
13. Origin and tradition seems to be also important for you. Why make shoes in France instead of outsourcing somewhere else like most do?
Well, it’s the mix of many reasons so I’ll try to talk about a few of them.
To start with, I’d like to say that we produce in different places. However when a factory makes a product it makes it whole from the beginning to the end.
This is very important because there are many companies that say “Made in France” but they only make like 20-30% of the process in France and the remaining 70-80% outside and the law is accepting this.
I am not playing with that because I think that is bullshit and when I say it’s made in France it means 100%. If it’s not we say “Made in UK” for example or Italy.
I think my job is to find the best hands to make the best products. As I explained before we make a lot of products which requires very specific skills and there’s no one factory who owns the whole knowledge to make every kind of shoe I want to make.
So for instance we make our sneakers in Italy. Why? Because the factory I found in Italy is the best I could ever find to make this level of quality sneakers. Because they have this culture of making beautiful things in the sneaker category.
We also make most of the boots are in the UK because they have a “boot culture” which is very important to me. Of course the big majority of our production is 100% Made in France because that big majority is dress shoes.
If we talk about the leathers a huge part of them also comes from France. These include crust leather, vegetable tanned, beautiful leathers from Tannerie Du Puy and D’Annonay. We buy the best leathers available in the market.
Regarding the Suede we buy some in Italy (Sciarada) for the summer suede and from the UK for the winter suede (Charles F. Stead). Give the right people the right work to do since nobody knows how to do everything perfectly.
We actually no only talking just about shoes because we also make belts and bags in France.
It’s very important to me to keep the know-how that we have in France and I want to fight to keep this. I won’t go into any details but the French have difficulties and the government isn’t really making anything to save this.
We have to take responsibility as a brand to keep some jobs, the beauty and the know-how in France because it’s important to us.
Another thing is that it’s very convenient for us to work with French ateliers because we can understand each other very quickly. In addition I’m someone who is very loyal in the business.
For instance I still work a lot with the factory I started with 12 years ago and I get a huge benefit doing business this way. After 10 years we know each other like if we were brothers. I guess we are much more efficient this way.
14. Twelve years is quite a long time. How do you keep yourself motivated and passionate after so many years?
The main reason is probably that I cannot sleep if my job is not perfectly done (laughs).
You can say it’s a kind joke but there’s reality to it. So that’s one answer but I have many more!
Another one would be to keep trying to be one of the best shoe brands because it keeps me running while also seeing the satisfaction of our customers and their fidelity.
After 12 years I guess also sharing knowledge with the people I hire and teaching them how to think about the business. Or how to make a customer happy, to be very, very demanding about the product and the work generally.
I get a lot of energy from my staff.
15. It’s commendable that you include your staff in many of your answers. Personally, I am going to learn shoemaking in 2022! Do you have any advice for me or aspiring shoemakers?
Great! Good for you as this is great news!
But also good luck! Because it’s a very, very demanding artisanal savoir faire know-how and business in many ways.
Therefore be aware that it’s very difficult and I guess much more difficult than a lot of other businesses but also that’s what keeps you going.
This is the first answer and here’s the advice on where to study:
I would say travel a lot and try to feel, react and build and experience from many different visions because no one has the perfect answer or the perfect solution.
What’s important in shoe learning is to learn from many different people, visions, know-hows and cultures.
16. What about your vision? Where do you see Caulaincourt in 5-10 years?
This is going to be a surprise!
But I could not stop making great products because I don’t know how to do otherwise!
If needed to compromise or downsize the quality I would simply stop.
17. Looking back, is there something you would do differently while building Caulaincourt?
Opening a store in New York would be great and something that’s really missing because when we were about to do it we had a lot of problems in France in many ways.
Now worldwide with Covid as well so everything is shaking up. If we listen to our brain we have to develop first the website because this is getting huge and it’s probably the future. Simultaneously we really think that maintaining the physical experience is very important.
At least when we talk about real brands making real products.
Also I think I should have talked more about the quality and everything we are doing. I was a little bit thinking that the people will notice what we are doing and see all the details and the amount of quality work.
But I think it was a mistake because many people don’t have the education to understand why it costs so much money. Or why my product is really great and it’s normal they don’t know about this.
This was my mistake because I am personally not an expert in all subjects of life so someone that buys shoes doesn’t have to be an expert.
I would certainly communicate more the efforts we are making to create the best shoe possible. Help people understand why our product is really great.
18. Thank you Alexis I learned a lot today! One last question before you go! Do you have any advice for our readers?
It would be try to read inside the marketing power. Try to understand who is being honest and who is giving you a real product.
I think this is the best advice and I know it’s very difficult to achieve for a customer. There are so many brands and people talking about shoes. It becomes a mess to understand anything if this is not your work.
So I would say, keep trying to understand the product you are buying.
A second answer would be “don’t think too much”. Instead “feel” the shoe, the aesthetics and buy something you really want to wear. Something you are in love with.
Be careful about the price of the shoes. Buying a quality shoe is much smarter than buying a bad quality shoe even on the financial aspect. For a little more money the shoe is going to be so much better.
I am not talking just about Caulaincourt but about all the beautiful brands who are making beautiful products on the market right now.
We have to explain why this shoe costs X money and why is it much better than something really bad. Or using people who do not have the skills and everything. Your shoes will last much longer and you will love them on the way, not only ” I like I buy”.
Try to focus on the people who are behind the product and try to understand this system. Buying a real shoe is much better than buying a marketing shoe. In the end it’s going to be a much better value for you as a customer.
Reflections & Thoughts About Caulaincourt
As I mentioned in the intro this was a very influential and important interview for me.
This was the first time I spoke with someone so heavily involved in many aspects of a shoe business. But most importantly someone with an artistic background and the worries and nuances that come with it.
It made me think about my rather one-dimensional thinking process when it comes to shoe constructions. There is a definite stigma and prejudice towards anything other than Goodyear Welt.
Looking back, when I started my shoe journey and I began absorbing the knowledge (or writing my own) I snubbed Blake like it was the devil. Alexis here makes two very good points.
Each construction has its use, functionality and purpose. But also the craftsmanship and details behind it vary a lot. Reading an older piece by Justin Fitzpatrick about Aubercy it made me realize how true that can be. Arguably however the main way to make these shoes is the same for the mainstream brands. I suppose that just as Alexis says there’s so much you will not notice “under the skin”.
This year, I will open my mind more and apply the knowledge by acquiring a Blake shoe from Caulaincourt. And after I learn shoemaking, I will visit workshops all over the world in pursuit of perfection and refinement.
Alexis told me: “I can tell you your questions are good because it’s hard for me to simplify my answers!“. It made me smile and I felt I am maturing more and more in this business.
I really hope you enjoy these types of articles and interview material. There are more on the way for sure!
What I want is to hear your opinions and thoughts especially if you own Caulaincourt shoes. Make sure to check out their website and their phenomenal Patina work on Instagram.
In the meantime, please consider sharing this interview and Subscribing to our Mail List! Take care!
Thank you for reading,