The world of bespoke footwear
Most companies would not consider producing a single pair of shoes for a client, but that is normal business for a reasonably small number of shoemakers around the world.
Image © iStockphoto.com | photographer
For thousands of years before the age of large footwear factories with their mechanised processes, shoes were generally ‘bespoke’ – that is, specifically tailored to fit a particular customer’s feet, as well as his or her tastes or application. The very root of the word ‘bespoke’, which was a verb meaning ‘to speak for something’, indicates the close relationship between the craftsman (or craftswoman) and the client, on whose behalf the shoemaker is acting. Every made-to-measure shoe is completely unique, employing skills that have often not changed for centuries. Today, other than for medical reasons to accommodate an unusual foot shape, tailor-made shoes are normally viewed as a luxury purchase. Bespoke footwear, made to meet a person’s exact needs, has been called ‘an interpretation of the customer’s vision’. Many of the companies providing a made-to-order shoe service are based in England, Italy, France or Japan.
While some particularly versatile individuals make footwear from start to finish, a highly-skilled team of specialists will normally be employed by businesses producing specially-commissioned shoes. Each member plays a specific role – perfected by time and experience – within the overall manufacturing process, as will be briefly described later in this article.
Confusion over the term
According to Collins English Dictionary, the term ‘bespoke’ has until recently been reserved for British English, with ‘custom’ being favoured in American English. Nevertheless, ‘bespoke’ has been increasingly growing in usage among English-speaking Americans although, as one New York Times columnist lamented, the real meaning of ‘bespoke’ has become muddled in the eyes of the American consumer. For example, the invitation for a party hosted by a US music public relations company advertised that ‘bespoke cocktails’ would be served. However, rather than these drinks being genuinely tailored to the individual, guests were limited to simply choosing from several predetermined concoctions already in bottles at the bar which were then mixed together.
It is true that a made-to-measure shoe is still a collection of established components – the sole, upper, heel, linings, shank, and so on stitched and stuck together – but there is far more to working on commissioned footwear than simply putting together a set of already existing parts.
A fully personalised service
Who is involved in the production of bespoke shoes? Typically, a fitting expert will initially meet with the customer and listen carefully to his wants and needs. This member of staff will discuss how particular requirements can be met, examine the customer’s feet, and take meticulous notes on the precise measurements of each foot – such as the width, arch height, joint and the distance between the instep and heel, which in some instances are provided by three-dimensional laser scanning equipment. Such care taken at this stage allows for any ‘peculiarities’ found in the foot to be noted – for instance, a very high arch – in order to make the resulting shoes fit as perfectly as possible.
The next step is the creation of a unique last for each foot by the last maker. This fundamental requirement is produced not only to ensure a good fit for the shoes, but also to make the footwear appear as elegant as it can – even allowing for any unusual ‘lumps’ and ‘bumps’. Lasts are hand-carved, often from beechwood. This is an interpretation of the shape of the customer’s feet and the aesthetic result required.
In order to make sure that the final pair of shoes is acceptable to the customer, ‘prototype’ footwear is normally made from relatively inexpensive leather, and during a fitting session the team member checks to see if any amendments need to be made. If problems are identified at this stage, the lasts can be altered before the best leather is used. The final lasts are stored (usually with the customer’s name clearly written on the side) so that additional pairs can be made in the future without the need for additional measurements or fitting sessions.
The following stage sees the pattern cutter making paper patterns which represent the various parts of the shoe upper in their specific sizes and shapes in order to successfully produce the chosen design.
The next member of staff in the chain is the leather cutter, who selects the correct grades and flexibility of leather to suit the shoe and then – using the patterns to indicate the exact shapes needed – hand-cuts the pieces of leather that will form the shoe’s upper.
The closer (stitching operative) takes the cut parts of the upper and stitches together the various pieces – sometimes by hand – while adding any necessary reinforcement. He will ensure that the lining and final shaping fit well on the last. The thread used is often hand-twisted from eight to ten strands of flax or hemp, after which it is waxed.
The next craftsman in line – the shoemaker – stretches the uppers made by the closer over the last, adds the shank and temporarily fixes the soles and heels. At this point, an appointment is often made for a second fitting with the customer before the heels – often built from many layers of leather – and soles are finally fixed. This meeting allows the maker to carry out any necessary final adjustments before the shoes are completed.
The finisher then takes the shoes to clean and polish them with creams and waxes, after which they are bagged and/or boxed and ready for the customer to receive. The entire shoemaking process may take several months, with each member of the team checking with his colleagues to make sure that no mistakes are made.
It has been said that shoes can only be seen to fit properly when they have been worn for three months. If necessary, they can then be adjusted for comfort.
How strong is the market?
There are skilled makers of specially-made footwear of all kinds working today in various countries, which shows the continued popularity of this service for those who can afford it. Obviously, with the attention to personalised detail and the time it can take to create a single pair of shoes, the cost can reach several thousand GBP – out of reach to the vast majority of people. Nevertheless, there are many wealthy customers who value the opportunity to own and wear footwear that looks and feels just as they want – and are designed to last in some cases for three decades or longer. There are also other less wealthy people who save up their money to achieve the dream of owning such a pair of shoes.
While the audience for bespoke footwear has been noted as probably smaller than it was 30 or 40 years ago, the market for tailor-made shoes is said to be resurgent, with a wide range of styles now being made – even work boots.
What makes a good bespoke shoemaker?
An expanding number of young people around the world are reportedly learning how to produce made-to-order shoes. To be successful in their chosen vocation takes what has been described as ‘a level of perseverance, a certain personality, and a particular mind-set’, considering the many hours of work involved in making a single pair of commissioned shoes. One experienced maker of made-to-measure shoes suggests that at least five years of proficiency in this field are needed before the craftsman can sell his shoes at a price that warrants what must be charged.
It has been said that creating specially-made shoes involves life-long learning and ‘inherent humility’ – being able to face a client to apologise for any discomfort caused by the footwear and explain how the problem will be rectified.
While there is a finite number of upper styles available to the maker of bespoke footwear, customers often want their purchases to look unique in some way. This requires imagination on the part of the shoemaker to fulfil such a brief. Good communication and efficient interaction with the client are essential, as creation of the footwear is a joint project. Some customers have very strong views about what they want, which will require the shoemaker to exhibit a level of tact when a particular demand simply will not work. In contrast, other clients are willing to be led by the shoemaker’s opinions and ideas. Once a good working relationship has been forged, a customer often stays with one company for life – sometimes wanting a variety of shoe types made for different applications or to complement particular clothing. One client even wanted several of his favourite shoe style to be made – one pair for each of his homes around the world.
Interaction between the producers of tailor-made footwear has changed during recent years. In times past, these craftsmen jealously guarded their working practices. However, today they are much more inclined to share ideas and even collaborate on projects. As one creator of made-to-order shoes commented: “Social media reveals information about this kind of footwear, so why hide it?”
What is the pleasure of being a bespoke shoemaker? In addition to creating a work of art, this can be summed up by a craftsman, who said: “It’s the ability to solve problems.”
This article was originally published on page 40 of the October 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.