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Exclusive interview with Ludwig Reiter

Heritage shoemaker Ludwig Reiter is maintaining Viennese craft traditions while evolving to attract the next generation, says Josh Sims

Josh Sims

Feature

by Josh Sims

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Ludwig Reiter is the last bastion of a proud tradition of Viennese shoemaking – and all the more special for that. ‘We’re the only bench-made shoemakers left in Vienna,’ says Till Reiter, the fourth-generation head of the family company. ‘That’s sad, and it also makes business complicated. There used to be more suppliers, machine-makers, labour and know-how. It’s not easy to find people to do the complex hand-work involved in making our shoes.’

Indeed, as Reiter explains, back in his grandfather’s day –the 1920s and 30s – Vienna was a European fashion hub, backed by traditional craft skills. ‘It had real international influence in matters of style, and was a very multicultural place. Now Austria – like England and Italy – remains one of the few countries still active in bench-made shoe-making.’

A rich heritage
As the term bench-made suggests, Ludwig Reiter shoes are made, quite literally, at benches by craftspeople. The manufacture of each shoe requires at least 200 separate operations, including Goodyear welting, which stitches the upper to the sole using a leather band, forming a barrier impermeable to water, and also making the soles endlessly replaceable. The shoes have been made the same way since Ludwig Reiter I, a master shoemaker from Bohemia, founded the company 130 years ago.

Such manufacture tends to lend itself to classic style, which is why Ludwig Reiter shoes often make an appearance in period theatre and film productions, most recently 2014’s Houdini mini-series starring Adrien Brody. But classic, as Till Reiter notes, ‘isn’t something that stays static for eternity, but which evolves through use. People used to walk a lot more, so today shoes don’t have to be so sturdy. Or hard to break in – it can be difficult to explain to someone who only walks between their car and their desk that, once broken in, bench-made shoes are extremely comfortable.’

Standing out from the crowd
This is not to say that Ludwig Reiter shoes aren’t distinctive: Till Reiter distinguishes them as being typically narrower and more asymmetric than their English counterparts, and reflecting different traditions of patterns and detailing. The company’s most famous styles – particularly recognisable to Viennese connoisseurs – include the Budapester brogue, with its Derby-style lacing, and the practical Maronibrater boot with its traditional felt top, based on the winter boots that Alpine forest workers wore a century ago.

More unexpectedly – ‘appealing to the kind of person who really doesn’t want to break his shoes in,’ jokes Reiter – the company also makes old-school trainers, which have found a revived credibility thanks to a collaboration with Austrian fashion designer Helmut Lang. These were first designed in the 1970s as a PT shoe for the Austrian army, ‘although today they’re made to a higher standard and in much better leathers,’ Reiter notes. The strips on the side were once functional – providing support for the lacing and the right amount of structure for what was originally an unlined shoe. Those strips would become the stripes that are now a familiar aesthetic touch on many sports shoe designs.

The next generation
Reiter concedes that the number of people buying Goodyear-welted shoes for their construction benefits may be in decline, but the company is, conversely, selling more shoes to people who recognise that ‘good shoes are an important element of good dress.’ To this end Ludwig Reiter is this year launching a new line shoes with the same production standards but in more affordable materials. It is, Reiter says, a way of introducing Viennese shoes to a new generation.

And, perhaps one day, to a new generation of Reiters: a fifth generation is already working for the company. ‘I actually had ideas other than joining the family company,’ says Till Reiter. ‘I trained in economics and wanted to go into science, but I was the first of my brothers to finish his studies so my father picked me to take over. But I really enjoy it, especially because it’s a family business. Family businesses are good – they take a longer perspective. They keep staff on in difficult times because they know it will be hard to find their skills again later, especially in shoemaking. And they are not necessarily even that interested in maximising profit.’

Thankfully Ludwig Reiter does well on that score. It has 15 of its own stores in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain, as well as being widely stocked internationally, which has allowed it to survive where so many other Viennese shoemakers have not. The city’s reputation for style lives on.

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