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."
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.
Once the upper parts of the shoe are stitched together on the last, the sole is attached: the top and bottom of the shoe are sewn together (with 12 hand-stitches per inch) with an intermediary piece of leather called the "welt." Good shoes are always welt constructed, never glued together like many ready-made shoes.
In the end, after the initiation of measurements, the ceremony of selection and the ritual of fittings, you will have a pair of shoes made by an artist. The fit will be a poem, and your feet will somehow look smaller, more elegant. If you take care of the shoes, they can last a lifetime. Clean and polish them properly; always use shoe trees; give them a day's rest between each day or two of wearing. Every year or two, return them to the maker for rejuvenation; for a modest sum, they'll come back looking brand new. Anyone who's had a pair maintained in this fashion will tell you, the older the shoes become the better they look. Also, you can wear a pair for 50 years, then sell it for perhaps 20 times what you originally paid--not a bad investment.
"Just the other week," says Hlustik, "a gentleman came into the shop for some new shoes. He was wearing a pair made by Tuczek in the early 1940s. They were so marvelous, I asked him if he would sell them to me...offered him $3,500. He refused, and I can't say I blame him. After 50 years, they had an absolutely vintage classicism about them."
G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (1990), 206 pages, W. W. Norton, $19.95.
G.J. Cleverley & Co.
28 Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street, London W1X 3HB
Phone: (44) 71 493-0443
Prices range from $1,100 to $1,200, and shoes take two to four months to complete. Classic, calf town shoes in brown and black are the most popular. "We are not really a fashion house," sniffs George Glasgow. "We prefer to do the traditional things."
Vincent & Edgar
972 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York 10021
Phone: (212) 753-3461
Prices start at $1,200, and shoes take 12 weeks to complete. "I prefer the classics," says Roman Vaingauz. "We have a very good variety of leathers in which to do the traditional styles."
90 Jermyn Street, London SW1 Y6JD
Phone: (44) 71 930-7691
Calf town shoes start at $600 and take approximately three months to complete. "A well-antiqued, plain-toed chestnut-brown oxford is the usually ordered shoe from us," says John Hlustik. "We do a very elegant shoe. Neither heavy and clunky nor slick. I'd say it's an understated gentleman's shoe."
51 East Oakland Avenue, Doylestown, Pennsylvania 18901-4643
Phone: (215) 348-5885
Calf shoes from $1,250, with 10 to 12 weeks to make. "The cap-toed oxford, with or without a medallion, is a popular classic with us," says Ercolino. "But I also like many of the styles that harken back to the 1940s--like the two-toned spectators."
9 St. James's Street, London SW1 A1EF
Phone: (44) 71 930-3664
Prices start at $2,400 for basic shoes, which take four to six months to complete. Lobb, however, is happy to do calf and crocodile saddle shoes, brogues with elastic side panels or blue calf Norwegian slippers as well.