Rose Repetto set up shop on rue de la Paix in postwar Paris, 1947. Here, in her modest atelier, she handcrafted ballet shoes for lithe dancers at the illustrious Palais Garnier opera house—no more than a hop, skip, and pirouette away. The sturdy stitch-and-return construction that she employed garnered a devoted clientele.
One day, a young ballerina came to Madame Repetto with a personal request. The 22-year-old blonde was about to make a movie and wished for ballet shoes in glamorous red. The young danseuse was none other than Brigitte Bardot; the film was And God Created Woman. And so goes the story on how the iconic ballerina flat was born. Its name, Cendrillon (Cinderella in English), added to the dainty shoe’s fairy-tale allure. Little did Bardot or Repetto know that this dance/fashion hybrid would transcend generations and eventually become the uniform shoe of the 21st-century Parisian.
In 1959, Paris’s go-to ballet shoemaker opened her first official boutique a few doors down from her workshop. International prima ballerinas and premiers danseurs (as well as their aspiring wannabes) flocked to her doorstep. During the seventies, another celebrity endorsement would shine a spotlight on the brand: Serge Gainsbourg became the brand’s unofficial ambassador after lacing up in Repetto’s Zizi jazz-style shoe and claiming he would never wear anything else thereafter.
Fast-forward a few decades: It is 1999, the eve of the millennium. Times had changed, styles had evolved, and the Repetto brand, buoyed only by its former glory, could barely keep its head above water. Madame Repetto had died in 1984. Her son, choreographer Roland Petit, had tried to manage the business, but with little success. One Parisian businessman recognized Repetto’s good bones. Armed with 18 years under his belt at shoe giant Reebok, Jean-Marc Gaucher took Repetto under his wing, determined to reverse its downward spiral.
From his elegant office in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, Gaucher recounts the three-step plan of his takeover agenda, the first being that Repetto is “going to be a global brand.” His idea was to reposition Repetto in Asia as high-end. The plan involved approaching Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake for a shoe collaboration. It was approved, and Issey Miyake by Repetto shoes were sold only in Issey Miyake stores. Eventually, a second similar collaboration came to fruition, this time with Yohji Yamamoto, and then a third with Comme des Garçons. And so, Repetto’s renaissance blossomed in the Land of the Rising Sun, far from her hexagonal homeland. It was a wise decision, as today there are 75 Repetto boutiques worldwide, 17 of which are in Japan.
Gaucher’s second goal: “We will produce exclusive products, the best in the dance industry.” To his credit, Repetto is one of the top brands in the world that creates made-to-measure shoes for dance. An achievement, yes, but Gaucher understood that in order to flourish, he had to branch out. Citing a statistic that says 60 per cent of the women’s shoe market is in high heels, Gaucher took his part of that pie five years ago when he added that style to his repertoire.
And, of course, the collabs continued: Karl Lagerfeld, Opening Ceremony, and more on the horizon. But for Gaucher, leaps such as these weren’t enough. “If all you do is make shoes for too long, it is hard to do other things afterward.” Leather goods soon appeared, followed by a prêt-à-porter collection, a fragrance last year, and most recently a line of ladies’ fashion sneakers.
Goal number three: “We will be a luxury brand.” This was—is, perhaps—the trickiest of the lot. The ballerina flat, Repetto’s number one seller, has become a symbol of good taste, up there with monogrammed luggage, quilted chain purses, and equestrian printed silk scarves.
Today’s figures show that only 20 per cent of Repetto’s sales are actual ballerina en pointe shoes. The remaining 80 per cent, however, touches ballet in some way. “We give the elegance of the dancer in all our products,” says Gaucher. To research his market for a new line of leather bags, Gaucher went on tour with a ballet troupe. “At the end of the day, they take a bus home and they’re exhausted, or they take a bus very early in the morning. I noticed that all the dancers had soft bags they could use to put under their heads and sleep. So I told myself, we have to make bags with a very soft leather and a very soft shape.”
The newly renovated flagship boutique on rue de la Paix features a mirrored wall with a barre, random tutus, and a handful of glittery chandeliers that ballet aficionado King Louis XIV would approve of. It’s no surprise to see both non-dancers and dancers from every corner of the world shopping here in absolute ballet glee. Repetto masterfully exercises the notion that while you may never pas de chat or plié in fifth with the ethereal grace of a ballerina, it’s still very possible—and fashionable—to walk a mile in her shoes.