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Custom-Made Shoes

Custom-Made Shoes Pamper Your Feet in Style
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumbnails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace," Sherlock Holmes admonished Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic story, "Case of Identity." But then, he was speaking in a decidedly Victorian tone. In this day and age, of course, there don't seem to be many great issues hanging from the laces of all those hyperdesigned athletic shoes, apart from how quickly another million or so of them can be churned out. How we can all be individuals in an age of lockstep mass consumption is one of the more endearing illusions we live with.

In Doyle's day there were still thousands of bootmakers in London, hand-lasting commendable shoes for gentlemen. Cobblers would sit cross-legged on their benches and work by the light of a candle, with a bottle of water beside it acting as a lens to focus the light upon the work. Those days are longgone--as are most of the firms that gave the English shoe its legendary status. But a few firms have been able to carry on--for those who appreciate the luxury and comfort of fitted handmade shoes and can afford them--and keep the craftsmen in business.

Not all of the modern shoemakers are in England. Lobb is, of course, and Edward Green and Cleverly. Edward Green is about as English as shoemaking gets. The firm made the officers' boots worn in the trenches of France in the Great War and makes the thigh-high, shiny, black dress boots of the Household Cavalry (paid for by Queen Elizabeth). But their true metier is their superb hand-lasted, hand-sewn, welted gentleman's shoes.

"Prince Charles has at least 14 pair that I know of, because we sold them to him," says John Hlustik, Edward Green's managing director. "He's rather fond of what we call our house shoe--an unlined, lightweight slip-on--very comfortable for puttering 'round the royal estates, you see. The style was in fact commissioned by the prince's grandfather, George VI. They're quite popular."

And then of course there's Lobb, in London since 1866. The original St. James' Street shop was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War, after which Lobb moved up the stylish thoroughfare to No. 9. He has made shoes for everyone from Queen Victoria to Frank Sinatra. Caruso would regale the staff with arias as he waited for his shoes to be fitted. The infamous spy Guy Burgess defected to Russia without paying his bill. Such is the stuff of legend.

Perhaps the most renowned of London shoemakers was George Cleverley. He worked as a child selling bootlaces and shoe polish and apprenticed to the famous firm of Tuczek (now long gone) before starting out on his own in the 1950s. His signature design was an exceptionally graceful, chiseled toe (aficionados will tell you they can pick out a Cleverley toe at 30 paces), prized by the likes of Rudolph Valentino and Winston Churchill, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. He made beautiful shoes until 1993, the year he died at age 93. The wooden models he designed (on which custom shoes are built; called "lasts" in the trade) became the property of his two pupils, John Carnera and George Glasgow, who carry on his art and retain his name for the firm.

On this side of the Atlantic there are two makers of distinction whose skills compare to anything the English have to offer. In New York, the firm of Vincent & Edgar is under the leadership of Roman Vaingauz, a man with the soul of a poet and the skill of a surgeon. The other American shoemaker, Perry Ercolino, whose shop is just outside of Philadelphia, was born into the shoemaking craft. Ercolino studied design in Milan, but the classic English shoe has always been his interest.

Regardless of which of these fine shoemakers is given the nod, the initial outlay is considerable: prices are in the $1,200 to $2,400 range for traditional calfskin (double those prices for exotic skins). What do you get for the money?

For starters, you get a hand-cut, hand-stitched, totally hand-built pair of shoes, which are uniquely made with your feet in mind. "Actually, the profit on handmade shoes is considerably less than on mass-produced shoes," explains Vaingauz. "People don't realize that, even with better ready-made shoes, cheap leathers are used, and most interior parts of the shoes are simply cardboard stiffeners. From cutting to stitching to polishing it takes 40 hours or more to make a pair of custom shoes. The hand-carved last alone is a work of art, a sculpture."

To explain the devotion that accrues from wearing handmade shoes, let's start at the beginning. Once you've decided to make the investments in time (about three to six months in the making) and money, the initial visit to the shop is a unique experience. You'll be there about an hour, and your feet will be more carefully examined than by a podiatrist. Before you actually get to the point of discussing the kind of shoes you want, measurements must be taken. As you stand on a piece of white paper, each foot will be traced. Then you'll sit, and differences in the feet "at rest" will be noted. Each foot will be measured with the tape: complete length, breadth at ball and heel, height and position of arch, and a half dozen other exacting notions. Finally, the personal idiosyncrasies are studied. "What we look for here are the true individualities," says Ercolino. "Any bunions, calcifications, unusual toe joints, bone spurs, crooked toes, fleshiness. That sort of thing."

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