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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

(continued from page 1)

Moorefield's introduction to footwear came from pedorthics—the practice of making shoes for people with severe foot problems. After his junior year in college, he took a summer job at a shoe store in North Carolina that specialized in children's orthopedic footwear. He decided to stay on and learn the trade, in which he subsequently got a degree. "In 1975, there was a recession and you couldn't get a job and this little trade was there to get into." While therapeutic, the original footwear he dealt in—he now describes it as "one step up from space shoes"—was anything but fashionable. Nevertheless, he learned and that training has stayed with him. In his business today, he still handles a spectrum of problems from weight distribution to motion control to knee maladies. For people with particularly severe podiatric problems, he will make a cast of each foot in order to fashion a plaster last instead of a typical wooden one. In his basement workroom, he points out a shoe with the top panel missing from its front. It is specially built for a customer whose toes are so afflicted that they can't be crowded into a normal shoe.

As a young man, Moorefield also dabbled in the music business and was traveling to New York on such a regular basis that he felt a move there was in order "because my phone bill was bigger than my rent." In New York, he continued in the shoe business and also taught night courses in pedorthics. It was then that he met Silverman, who was a student and the wife of the owner of Tru-Form Shoes. Moorefield went to work for that chain in 1983.

A year later, the two took over J.S./Elias Handcrafted Shoes, a custom maker of accommodative shoes that offered a more sophisticated level of style. It was through working with Jacob Elias that Moorefield first wedded therapeutics with a fashionable look, which is the aspect that sets his and Silverman's business apart. "If you can bring it all together to the point where a customer has no reason to go anywhere else," says Moorefield, "then you have something."

By 1986, he had bought the renowned Oliver Moore custom shoe business. The firm, which started in New York in 1878, had moved its workshop to New Jersey, and Thomas Moore, the great-grandson of the founder, had recently died, leaving the business to his widow, Elizabeth, from whom it was purchased. A magazine article written shortly after Moore's death lauded the old-world techniques preserved there, but assumed that they would soon die out when the craftsmen retired. Instead the baton was passed and the craft has lived under the umbrella of Silverman and Moorefield's multiple-named business. The phenomenon is not unique. On London's Savile Row, several small custom specialists have been kept alive at shops that took in their business when the original proprietors passed on.

Another practice that the Manhattan shop borrows from the London custom trade is working on a piece basis instead of hiring craftsmen full-time. Because business is cyclical, it is far more efficient. "There is not a lot of fat in this fire," says Moorefield.

Where the shop diverges from the London model is in price (Moorefield's product is significantly cheaper) and in turnaround time. Some of the renowned shoemakers of St. James's offer their services in the United States, but it can take a year or more to get your shoes. Moorefield, whose service averages about eight weeks, says he is bemused that customers have the patience to wait longer. "It's like if your dinner guests come and you make them wait until 10 to eat, they will eat anything you give them. I don't have some claim to a royal warrant, so I need to make them faster."

The custom shoe process begins with the meticulous measuring of the foot. Outlines are made of the feet from sitting and standing positions, taking into account the weight that is placed on them. Width and thickness measures are taken, as are the instep and heel, and the distance between them. Those measurements are then used in the process of carving and chiseling the wooden lasts over a number of weeks into the desired shape.

Once the lasts are constructed they are kept on file and any number of pairs of shoes can be made from them. Subsequent orders can be made by phone or mail if desired. However, if the customer gains quite a bit of weight, the feet may spread and it is advisable to visit the store, where Moorefield will make adjustments to the lasts. Customers who wear slip-on shoes may want to have separate lasts made for them because of the tighter fit that type of shoe requires.

The customer chooses the style, material and color that the shoes will be made in. Another one of the joys of custom service is that the buyer, not the vicissitudes of fashion, dictates the look of the product. The store keeps samples and catalogs of bygone styles to choose from and the craftsmen will accommodate the whims of the customer. "We will sketch designs for those who want it, but with 2,000 patterns it's hard for customers to come up with anything unique," says Moorefield. "It's usually like, 'we've done that.'"

They also can re-create special details that are seldom seen in modern shoes, such as double soles and double welts that can be sewn either to hide or feature the stitches. Moorefield recalls one of his old-world shoemakers, an 85-year-old, visiting the nearby outlet of a chic shoemaker who was claiming to have newly invented such techniques. He returned in disgust, saying, "I was doing that back in Hungary when I was a boy."

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