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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 2)

The choice of skin for the shoe is also a commodious one and is what largely determines the price, which starts at $1,900 a pair for shoes made with hard-to-procure calfskins from Europe (cost will vary according to special detail). Alligator will start at $3,000. Moorefield also offers such exotic skins as stingray, African elephant, kangaroo and bison, as well as crocodile, although he counsels against the latter as alligator is more pliant. Shell cordovan from horses is another specialty, the demand for which is steadily rising because horses are so seldom bred as work animals.

Coloration is another wide choice spectrum, and the shop will match tints to other leather accessories, such as wallets and key fobs. Belts are made to match shoes and even pants. Moorefield chuckles that since a fashion for flat-front pants is now replacing pleated ones, several of his style-conscious clients will want to replace their belts in widths that are more suited to that style. "You've got to love these designers that give you a reason to sell more things," he says.

With the order made, the deposit for the work received and the last carved, the design of the shoe with all its details is drawn directly on the last and a paper pattern is created from that. The pattern is then used to cut the hide or skin into the pieces that will be used for the upper portion of the shoe. If there is to be ornamentation such as brogueing, it is punched into the leather at that time. The pieces of the upper are carefully attached in a process that can utilize a number of different stitch types and concentrations of stitches. The lining of the shoe (the shop uses primarily calfskin and occasionally kid leather) is made as one piece (so as not to irritate the foot) from the same pattern and sewn together with the upper.

Silverman points out that shoemaking requires different skill sets and seldom does one artisan excel in each, and so the pieces of the shoes are passed from one craftsman to the next as they progress.

In the basement workroom, Michael Martin is stretching a test upper around a last and tacking it with brads in a series of 120 pulls at a torque of about 150 pounds. This test upper will be used to do a fitting on the customer before the final upper replaces it. Moorefield says that the modern way to attach the upper to the last would be to cement the upper to the sole with a bed lasting machine. The disadvantage to the automated method is that it could never approximate the tight relationship between upper and last that the handwork method affords. The advantage of automation is that it takes about a minute to do what Martin will do in half a day.

The insole is attached to the last, the upper is pulled over the last and attached to the insole, and the nails that hold the upper on the last are removed. From there the welt (a thin piece of leather between the upper and sole) is sewn around the periphery through the upper and the insole. The sole is then attached to the welt and the heel constructed from layers of leather. Each shoemaker has his own mark, which he puts on the front edge of the heel with a strike to identify the shoe as his own.

The shoes are still not done as a process of rubbing and polishing creates the final finish. The customer then tries them on and any necessary adjustments are made. Silverman says that the shoes typically break in over a few days, but that can be best done by just sitting around the house in them. "The moisture of the feet just warms up the leather. It is like a new pair of gloves."

Given the level of service here, it is no surprise that many of the lasts that line the shelves in the workroom define the feet of celebrities and power brokers. Among them are Saudi princes, casino executive Steve Wynn, actor James Gandolfini, Venezuelan business mogul Gustavo Cisneros, William Salomon, formerly of Salomon Brothers, actress Phylicia Rashad, former Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Daft, singer Whitney Houston and Patti Scialfa, a guitarist and the wife of Bruce Springsteen. The late actress Katharine Hepburn was also a client.

But of all the notable customers, the one who is most often recognized when he visits is actor Stuart Damon, who played Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the daytime soap opera "General Hospital" for 30 years, according to Silverman. "When women see him, they act like he is the person he plays on TV. They'll ask him questions like: 'Is she really having Charlie's baby?' as though he's a real doctor."

But for all the star quality the shop enjoys, Moorefield is quick to add: "You don't have to be rich and famous to come here." Just appreciate good shoes.

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