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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

(continued from page 1)

Then comes the choices of the shoes' style. A plain, cap-toe, town oxford, perhaps, or a wing tip with medallion toe? A russet suede slip-on, double-backed monk strap, or split-toe, Norwegian lace-up? Perhaps Uncle Harold had this wonderful pair of brogues that he bought in Paris in the '30s, which you've always admired. Why not have them copied? Or perhaps something truly unique like a formal Albert slipper in green suede with a toe monogrammed in gold thread?

Leather selection seems endless. Something in a sleekly burnished, antique calf? A sturdy Scotch-grain in a Cognac hue? Or would a tobacco-toned "writing" suede fit the bill? "We find suede is rather popular in the States at the moment," says George Glasgow of Cleverley, "and we generally have half a dozen shades in brown alone--from light buff to dark cocoa."

And if, let's say, brown calf is chosen, what sort of finish should it have? Dark walnut stain, antique chestnut patina, burnt pine polish? Good shoes are stained by hand, a process that can take a week in itself. "The finish is very important," notes Ercolino. "There are all sorts of stains, antiquing and polishing techniques. When you look at the shoe, it should draw you in. A dead-looking finish doesn't bode well." The lengths a custom shoemaker will go to regarding finishes are limitless. "We sun-bleach some of our shoes," says Hlustik. "It's a real job, because you've got to turn them every day, like fine wine, so the finish comes out evenly."

When style, leather, finish and detailing have all been settled on, the shoemaker can get down to the work of building your shoes. First he calls upon one of his own experts: the last maker. In a world of leather, the last maker works in wood. From the meticulous examination notes, diagrams and measurements, the last maker hand-carves a wooden sculpture--the "last"--of each foot from a solid block of birch or maple. The last maker is a true artist, and the models he makes of the customer's feet are intended to be exact to the tiniest fraction of an inch.

The shoes are built on these lasts. Depending on the firm, a "trial" pair of shoes will be made first for try-on purposes: a roughly stitched pair in negligible leather, used to make any corrections, which will be meticulously noted at the first fitting. "We chalk the inside of the trial shoes," says Hlustik, "to better see where it rubs on the foot." After any corrections have been noted, the shoes themselves are built. Progress is slow and deliberate; unlike suits and shirts that are more easily correctable, shoes are difficult to change once they are completed.

What actually goes into the building of a really good pair of shoes?

The finest shoes have the finest leathers everywhere: inside, outside and in between. The highest-quality English (sturdy), French (supple) and Italian (buttery, small-pored calfskin) is what we're talking about. "A good shoemaker," says Ercolino, "will pay as much attention to the inside of the shoe as the outside. Personally, I prefer a coordinated lining; I like a black shoe to have a dark lining, rather than the usual light-tan one. A dark lining gives the shoe an aesthetic wholeness somehow." An idiosyncrasy perhaps, but one you can easily indulge.

Even the soles and heels must be of the best leather. "Most ready-made shoes have chrome-tanned soles," explains Hlustik. "Cheaper split leather is soaked in a chrome solution, which initially gives it a sleek look, but isn't very porous and tends to readily crack. Good soles are tanned with oak bark for as much as a full year. It makes the leather strong and pliable." It's not difficult to know which shoe is chrome-tanned and which bark-tanned: the superior bark-tanned one smells something awful. The natural tannin is actually where that strong leather smell comes from.

Whether a half-sock or full-sock inner, the insoles must also be the finest, aged and molded to the bed of the shoe to be anatomically correct. Every component of the shoe must be of the best leather because these natural materials allow for the transfer of heat and moisture. As you wear the shoe, it will conform to your foot, creating the final step in the custom process.

When all the pieces of the shoe are cut (the man who does this is called a "clicker"), they are stitched around the last. This calls for hand-sewing, using waxed twine and a boar's bristle (regular steel needles make holes that are too large). The stitching alone takes several hours of intensive, precise work.

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