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The (Almost) Lost Art of Custom-Made Shoes

Bespoke shoemaking survives in New York City and remains the classic way to treat your feet to luxury and comfort.
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

It is an anomaly that Paul Moorefield and Joan Silverman's business—custom-made shoes, handcrafted the old-fashioned way—survives at all in America. That it thrives on Lexington Avenue between 64th and 65th streets in New York City is a borderline miracle. It's been more than a century since most footwear was custom-made, and even the factory-made shoe business in this country has been reduced to almost nil. When it comes to the consummate luxury of a shoe made just for you, you think St. James's in London, not midtown New York. And yet this little business that bears three names (The Original Oliver Moore Bootmakers, J.S./Elias Handcrafted Shoes and Tru-Form Shoes) persists in a shop at the heart of some of Manhattan's most expensive retail real estate.

The initial impression of the shop is a shoe store completely in step with the neighborhood's tony character: clean and elegant, Oriental carpets on the floor, and period cabinets displaying its wares, which include such brand names as Alden and Allen-Edmonds, as well as its custom models. The first indication that you are entering an anachronism is the workbench in the rear where Moorefield, an apron covering his wiry physique, toils at making arch supports and carving wooden lasts, which are the unique foot-shaped forms from which every pair of custom shoes starts.

"The last is the key to fit," says partner Silverman. "You have to create something that is aesthetically pleasing, but also fits the foot." Buy a pair of ready-to-wear shoes, no matter how elegant, and they are made from lasts designed to fit standard foot shapes in different sizes. Buy custom shoes, and a personalized form is created from a set of seven measurements (on each foot) that are then fine-tuned to get an exact fit for the intended wearer.

The revelation that something truly unusual is going on here is in a place that few customers see: the store's basement, where a thousand sets of lasts line the walls and skilled shoemakers construct the final product from the templates that Moorefield has created.

Ask why this tiny shoe factory persists and the wherefores have more to do with passion and coincidence than with a reasoned marketing plan. Moorefield insists that making shoes this way is a calling—and no way to get rich. "The work is daunting and I'm pretty sure you wouldn't work this hard if your life depended on it. You don't get a check every week, you grind it out day after day," he says. "It's a fun business, but you have to keep young people out of this."

Bespoke shoemaking, like most custom garment industries, has suffered as much from the dwindling number of craftsmen skilled and caring enough to learn the trade—it takes six to eight years to become a competent shoemaker—as the lack of customers who appreciate the nuances of their product.

The latter effect is a consequence of a general breakdown in elegance of dress in this age of casual wear, according to Moorefield: "There used to be an entire cadre of gentlemen who dressed to a style that is seldom seen anymore. They considered what shoe details went with what clothes. If they wore a derby, they matched it with a jaunty pair of bluchers."

Still, enough demand exists that the shop creates hundreds of pairs of shoes a year for customers who are willing to pay a premium for the service. Of course, that may have as much to do with the comfort that these shoes afford as any style consideration.

John Kidd, who settled on Oliver Moore shoes after trying a number of custom shoemakers around the world, downplays the cost consideration of these shoes that start at around $1,500, not including the one-time fee of $1,000 to have a last made: "You can't afford not to. The money you save in chiropractors and in time out of work more than makes up for the price. These shoes are like wearing slippers."

Kidd has stopped by to pick up a large suitcase full of Moorefield-made shoes that were being reconditioned. He points out that the combination of old-world craftsmanship and the knowledge of foot mechanics makes them wear better and hence they are more economical simply because they last longer (as much as two decades). "Paul will take the time to keep tweaking until your feet are singing the praises of your shoes to the sky. You'll pay any price for that."

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