In Defense Of Bespoke

Walking in to a shop that sells really beautiful things can be intimidating; twenty-something embodiments of luxury brands wearing angular glasses and fashionable facial hair step forward from unseen recesses to ask if they can help with something, less than subtle undertones of malice communicating the fact that they can see I’m a student and can’t afford a blazer from Alexander McQueen. Not even in the last week of the sales. Even Gieves & Hawkes, the bastion of masculine military bespoke, is coming under the direction of a flamboyant Boston native who wants to bring technology into No. 1 Savile Row as well as introducing a sportswear line. ‘Lifestyle brands’ seem to be taking over, consigning the charming air of dusty refinement characteristic of an traditional English taylor to the now automated and climate controlled dustbin of history.

The premises of John Lobb, bespoke shoemaker, was as far from the shimmering enticements of the international luxury conglomerates’ flagstores as a maker of bespoke anything could be. A cool, dusty room; not a single overly helpful sales narcissist anywhere in sight. I stood for a full fifteen seconds looking round the wood-and-leather clad interior and wondering if I had finally managed to travel backwards in time before a friendly face peered up from a workbench and inquired as to how I could be helped, in calm, understated manner. No bright lights and aggressive sales tactics here. Soon I was being shown round the shop, which is surely to shoemaking what Abbey Road is to music, or the Apple Store to capitalism. ‘Here, this is Frank Sinatra’s last’[1] said Elridge, a fitter and last maker who has worked at Lobb for fifteen years, ‘and these were Duke Ellington’s. You can hold them, but don’t take photos’. I agree, trying not to squeal slightly. I have Frank Sinatra’s feet in my hands. As he shows me around the cavernous workshop underneath the shop on St. James Street, he tells me about the process of making a bespoke shoe. Every customer who comes in has a pair of lasts made, leathers are compared and chosen, cut, sewn, shaped and perfected. Soles are added, stitched meticulously and completely by hand. Each shoe is unique, and takes months to complete – ten for the first pair and five after that. Is anyone ever unhappy with the result? No, I’m told. Sometimes people are surprised when the shoe is not exactly as they expected, but the fit is always perfect. That’s the point.

In a factory, it might take less than ten minutes for a Nike trainer to be assembled, but no shortcuts are taken in this mecca to footwear. As we push past craftsmen working on part completed boots and brogues, it is difficult to see their purposeful creation as anything other than art. The deeper into the bowels of the workshop I go, the more like walking back in time it feels. A sign reminding staff not to smoke feels very out of place, as if people might forget between those walls that outside the world has kept turning, and banned smoking in the workplace.

About halfway round, a genial gentleman stops us with a quizzical glance. Elridge explains that I am a student journalist and I am being given a tour of the workshop. This is greeted with bemused pleasure. If I am looking to extoll the virtues of bespoke shoes, the best way would be to wear a pair, I am told. I swallow a ‘would that I could’ and continue, unaware that I was just introduced to William Lobb, the great, great grandson of John Lobb himself. The fifth generation of the family still direct the business. I ask what happens to all the lasts that are made. Some sort of library? And with a knowing grin, I am led onward to a room not unlike the Bodleian with the lights out. Dimly lit shelves stretch up and outwards, containing neatly stacked paris of lasts from thousands of men and women. Presidents, royals, actors, actresses and artists all have their feet on shelves in the Library of Lasts.

But not just millionaires and international persons of note wear Lobb, a fact attested to by my even, unsurprised greeting despite my obvious youth. A good number of their customers are normal, if wealthy, people who simply want a very comfortable, elegant and well made shoe which will last, be repaired and tweaked and suit them perfectly. If I mention that I aspire to a pair myself in everyday conversation, I tend to be reminded that for the same price I could secure myself a small car. While this is true, I do not really want a small car; I live in a big city, and spend hours more each day walking than I would driving. There is something very grounding about walking through a city, and to do so in comfort is worth more to me than even a vintage Mini Cooper (though it’s close). Perhaps, next you find yourself dallying between Grenson brogues, Gucci loafers and a £25 pair of Oxfords from Zara, consider a more long term investment; something a little more personal – something truly bespoke.


[1] A last being the wooden model of a customer’s feet about which the shoes are crafted.