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.
| By Jack Bettridge | From 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."

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."

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.