In 2008, I watched a well-dressed man drinking coffee two tables from my own. He was wearing a blue blazer with horn buttons, stone-coloured pants that were tapered enough to be somewhat still trendy and, what originally caught my eye, a pair of cognac derby shoes. After I finished my coffee, I gathered my nerves to ask him about them. I walked by his table as I left and approached him with a quick “Excuse me?” He looked up suspiciously, ready to wave me away under the assumption that I was going to ask for money. His face relaxed when I asked about the maker of his shoes. “Ludwig Reiter,” he replied, noticeably proud. While I’d always been interested in footwear, my favourite makers were primarily English, with most of my summer driving shoes coming from Italy. This interaction piqued my interest in the Viennese company.
Today, I own boots, sneakers, espadrilles, and oxfords from Ludwig Reiter. Not limited to my side of the closet, my wife has flats and boots, with a purse or two for good measure. I’ve visited their spring and fall fairs and have done group tours of the factory. It’s no surprise that they were on the top of my list to interview.
Walking through the buildings at Ludwig Reiter, one would assume that they have always been there and nothing but shoes had ever been produced inside the white buildings. This, however, is not the case. Prior to Ludwig Reiter’s 2011 move to the Süßenbrunn Manor, production had taken place in Wiener Neudorf. Rather than luxury footwear, the site had been home at various times to counts, barons, Swedish soldiers, and Napoleon’s troops. Walking along the paths between buildings, it’s difficult to imagine that 30,000 pairs of shoes are produced here each year. In fact, it’s surprising that anything is produced here given the lack of noise one would expect from the laborious process.
Ludwig Reiter can trace its roots back to 1885 when Ludwig Reiter the First and his wife Anna opened their first workshop in Vienna. Appropriately enough, the two became a couple after Anna ordered a pair of shoes from him. Shortly thereafter, Ludwig and Anna were supplying the Court of Habsburgs (kaiserlich und königlich, K.&K.) with boots and shoes for the officers and security personnel.
Ludwig’s son, Ludwig II, learned the shoemaking trade under the eye of his father but later travelled throughout Germany and the US to further his training. It was in Boston that Ludwig II encountered the still-novel technique of Goodyear Welting which he subsequently brought back to Vienna.
Business continued to expand during and after World War I. In 1939, the Nazi party commandeered the facilities for civilian and military production. By the end of World War II, the factory had been emptied of all materials. In the rebuilding process post World War II, the Marshall Plan supplied Ludwig Reiter with machinery to expand production. Astonishingly, 70 years later and the machinery continues to be used on the main production floor.
Today, Till Reiter, grandson of founder Ludwig Reiter, heads the company but it remains a family affair. The 1990s marked several important acquisitions for Ludwig Reiter, namely Kitzmantel and F. Schulz, which aided Ludwig Reiter’s expansion into leathergoods, boots and sneakers.
My tour guide is Anna Reiter, great granddaughter of founders Ludwig I and Anna, and the head of marketing and PR for Ludwig Reiter. Born into the shoe industry, Ms. Reiter’s experience is not limited to the Viennese company. Having worked for Kiton and Louis Vuitton, she has ample experience in luxury retail and has seen firsthand how some of the finest garments in the world are produced. I should not be surprised, then, to find that Ludwig Reiter’s production operates with both organisation and attention to detail. As we pass each station, Ms. Reiter is greeted with a smile and her first name, something that stands out in a world where there are strict (and sometimes unwritten) rules about the use of first names and the informal “du.”
Situated in a long building that formerly housed livestock, Ludwig Reiter’s efficient layout allows the opportunity to see the production process in more or less chronological order. Neatly organised rooms at the front of the building house a variety of leathers. Rolls of thick Russian leather sit on a shelf, glazed in the lipids that rise to the surface. Brushing the hide reveals a deep burgundy color. These waterproof leathers will later become Husarenstiefel made famous on Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds. A stack of Horween shell cordovan sits nearby.
The leather is inspected and blemishes and scars are marked prior to being cut. Patterns are carefully laid to avoid the blemishes and the individual pieces for the upper are cut. The Russian leather, due to its thickness, must be hand cut. A small blade, sharpened after nearly every piece, traces the outline marked.
Walking past row after row of lasts, shoes sit as cork mid-soles and wooden shanks are added. Wooden shanks, rather than steel, have been a staple of Ludwig Reiter shoes for years. Bright red split-toe Norwegers for Holland & Holland, for whom Ludwig Reiter makes shoes, adorn carts.
In the midst of hammering, sewing, and sanding, two men are in control of their own area. These men are recrafting and repairing well-worn shoes from clients. In one swift motion, the sole is removed from a pair of boots. Three feet away, another employee is finishing a recrafting service on a pair of suede Norwegers. Ms. Reiter advises me to watch as the shoes are suddenly set alight. Once the shoes are finished, it would be difficult to tell them from a brand new pair on the shelf. Clearly, my own shoe maintenance process is bush league compared to these artisans.
A final hallway leads from production to a tranquil space where the shoes are inspected yet again before being packed into one of the individual boxes that are neatly stacked. Two friendly women examine and then delicately pack each pair of Musikantenschuh while a rack of shell cordovan chukkas await their turn.
Ludwig Reiter’s range includes classic styles and lasts appropriate for the boardroom, but also riding boots and sneakers. Vienna’s ball season is one of the remaining refuges of classic white tie and affords ample opportunity to wear the patent leather Erzherzog Johann evening shoe. While elegant, this formal shoe does not offer the same interesting back story as some of the other shoes and boots.
While the German Army Trainer or GAT is well known on StyleForum, the Austrian Military Trainer is not nearly as widespread. This functional shoe is the basis for Ludwig Reiter’s Trainer. “Initially, these shoes were made from rather cheap leather,” Till Reiter explains, “so the durability of the leather was challenged from the tension you had by lacing it.” Mr. Reiter holds one of the Trainers and refers to the side of it as he speaks. “It was an army training shoe, so it had to fit everybody and was not made in a sophisticated way.”
As the soles of the shoes are cemented, the suede or leather must first be sanded, which made adding two tension-relieving strips impractical to production. As a result, a design was approved which featured a single wide strip for reinforcement with the centre removed to aid the natural movements of the foot, creating a U shape on the side of the shoe. Ludwig Reiter’s Trainer, unlike its military counterpart, is offered in different colors and materials each season.
Adding to the compelling military history, Helmut Lang also had a profound impact on the Trainer, as Anna Reiter explains: “He worked with us for 11 or 12 years and was from Vienna and needed someone to make shoes for his collections. So he made the sneaker cool again and helped us get the sneaker out there. He basically resurrected it for us.”
The year 1992 was important to Ludwig Reiter, as this is the year that they acquired Kitzmantel, an Austrian footwear company that specialised in practical and work-oriented footwear. Ludwig Reiter took one of Kitzmantel’s staple boots that had heavy soles for traction, steel toes, and a boiled wool shaft and created the luxurious Maronibrater. Maronibrater (-in), or chestnut roaster, is named after the men and women that appear in late September across Austria to set up their stands where they roast chestnuts. Standing out in the cold for hours at a time requires a boot that can stand up to the weather, and the Maronibrater’s lug sole, waterproof Russian leather and shearling lining goes above and beyond the requirements.
Featured in Inglorious Basterds, the Husarenstiefel is a labor intensive process. “It’s so complicated, you still need to cut it by hand,” explains Anna Reiter. “It’s made of Juchtenleder (English: Russian Leather), which is both thick and has a high fat content which makes it naturally waterproof.” Russian Leather, a material used in several different models of Ludwig Reiter boots, is not often seen outside of Central Europe. “What might scare some people off is the white shimmer that needs to be wiped off every time. That might be a reason why some producers shy away from it, but that’s what we’re all about. We’re about patina. It is leather, it’s never going to look the same, it will age and take on its own characteristics and features and that’s what’s beautiful about these shoes, that they have a life of their own.”
When given the opportunity to visit your favourite companies, there is a certain feeling of trepidation, a seeing-how-the-sausage-is-made fear of letdown. As I walk to my car, I feel fortunate to be able to maintain my admiration for a company whose products I buy for both their quality and aesthetics. Watching the care and attention that is given to the selection of materials and construction, it will be easy to continue adding Ludwig Reiter shoes to my collection.
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