Meet the Man Who Supplied Lt. Aldo Raine's Boots

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The Husaren boot, a high-calf shoe, became popular during the Austro-Hungarian empire with the Imperial Army. Nearly 130 years later, Brad Pitt wore them in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," and introduced a new generation to the famous footwear. Jamie McGregor Smith/Ludwig Reiter

I rarely watch Quentin Tarantino movies, but I am inclined to give Inglourious Basterds a viewing. The film features the work of two talented Austrians: the always excellent actor Christoph Waltz, who plays a cunning and sadistic Nazi officer, and the shoemaker Ludwig Reiter, who supplied the boots worn by Brad Pitt's character, U.S. Army Lt. Aldo Raine.

The footwear in question is the Husaren, a high-calf boot with laces at the instep and a curious double strap that can be fastened with one hand. It is such a stylized and cinematic piece of kit that I thought it had been made especially for the film. I was delighted to learn otherwise: During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Imperial Army favored this boot (named after the Hungarian cavalry, known as husaren). The strap was added at the start of the 20th century, when winter sports became increasingly popular; this boot was used by skiers, and the double strap had been conceived to allow the wearer to adjust it one-handed for convenience.

Far from being a Hollywood anachronism dreamed up by an over-imaginative costume designer, this boot was already more than 50 years old at the time of World War II, the period in which the movie is set.

Till Reiter, whose great-grandfather Ludwig Reiter founded the company in Vienna, tells me more about the brand's history. (Till, now in his mid-50s, is the fourth generation of his family to run the eponymous shoemaker.) He explains how his great-grandfather came from Bohemia, a region now in the Czech Republic. "He learnt his craft from an Italian shoemaker in the [Czech] spa town of Carlsbad, and then he moved to Vienna, as many did at that time," he says. In 1885, Ludwig set up a workshop and found fame as a maker of dress boots for the Austrian army.

Ludwig's son, also named Ludwig, traveled in the early 1900s to Boston to work at the Regal Shoe Co. This is where he encountered the then cutting-edge Goodyear technology for welting shoes. Impressed, he returned to the Old World with one of these machines and, in the words of his great-grandson, "introduced what was at that time modern industrialization to Vienna."

That machine still exists at the Ludwig Reiter factory and typifies what is so wonderful about Ludwig Reiter: It cherishes its history rather than chasing after every latest trend. Indeed, a spell of working in the U.S. has even become something of a tradition: After graduating with a degree in economics, Till went to work at the E.T. Wright shoe factory in Massachusetts.

Pick up a pair of shoes or a bag at Ludwig Reiter, and it has a story. The Après-ski, for instance, is a zip-fronted, shearling-lined boot whose design has remained unchanged since the 1950s. The Maronibrater (chestnut roaster), a felt and leather boot with a sheepskin lining, is an adapted version of a working boot initially worn by foresters and subsequently favored by Vienna's wintertime street food vendors, who trudged through the snow of the Austrian winter peddling piping-hot snacks.

Even the training shoe is closely modeled on a shoe originally made for the Austrian army during the 1970s and issued to cadets at Austria's Theresian Military Academy, one of the oldest training schools for officers in the world. No aspect lacks a purpose: The leather strips on the sidewall running from the lacing to the sole might look attractive, but they also provide strength at a stress point—there are two thin strips rather than one broad one so the shoe can bend easily, allowing cadets to run more quickly around the assault course.

Over the past 131 years, Ludwig Reiter has acquired some smaller companies with a similar approach to their craft. In 2000, it took over Franz Schulz, a maker of bags and briefcases, whose signature product was a lid over briefcase, in which the lid and the base are one piece of leather that folds over itself like a clamshell. The model was introduced in the 1920s, and Reiter sees no reason to discontinue it or other Schulz products, like the briefcase with two hasps, one above the other, into which the lock can be slid. The briefcase was designed in the 1950s for use by Austrian officials who traveled by bicycle. By using the upper hasp, they could fasten the briefcase over their bicycle crossbar to transport it easily.

It is this spirit of elegant practicality that informs all that Ludwig Reiter does. Instead of goods designed with an eye on the latest trends and destined to fall from fashion, Reiter's range consists of hardy classics, suitable for both ruthless World War II assassins like Pitt's Raine and stylish Austrians enjoying some Alpine après-ski.

Meet the Man Who Supplied Lt. Aldo Raine's Boots | Culture