Bespeaking a pair of shoes has tended to be a fairly personal business between craftsman and wearer, or at least that has been my experience. A shoemaker, like a tailor or a shirtmaker, needs to know the wearer – his likes, his dislikes – because he is fitting the mind of the customer as well as the body. It is a relationship built up over years. The majority of my shoes are by Eric Cook who has been making footwear for me for almost 25 years. Cook is an artist rather than a brand and his customers have tended to be a discriminating bunch introduced by word of mouth. Bespoke shoes – made using a handcrafted wooden last that is unique to the wearer – can take up to five months to create for the first pair (less for subsequent pairs) and cost from about £1,100. But top-class makers are now responding to the growing appetite for customisation with made-to-order footwear that’s a few steps closer to bespoke, thanks to ever-more exigent and innovative services that offer an increasing range of personalisation options.
At Berluti, creative director Alessandro Sartori has created a new collection of shoes celebrating the brand’s 120th anniversary, which allow clients to adapt eight styles to taste. Berluti’s roots are as a bespoke house and this new collection is a way of moving customers who buy its ready-to-wear in that direction. The shoes (from £5,000, with the second pair from £4,100) are classics, such as the double monk, the Derby, the wingtip, the ankle boot (from £5,650): subtly streamlined and pared down to their elegant essentials. The samples – one set of eight for each of the seven stores, out of 46 worldwide that feature bespoke rooms – have been made in Berluti’s bespoke workshops on the Rue Marbeuf and coloured and patinated in another atelier around the corner. Seeing the craftsmen in the centre of Paris is like seeing the tailors at work on Savile Row – a reassuring reaffirmation of a centuries-old craft tradition.
The idea of such a collection is expressive of change in the way that men approach their shoes, in that it offers a starting point for the customer who might be somewhat daunted when faced with the abstract notion of commissioning bespoke footwear on the basis of a conversation and an outline of the feet traced onto paper. Presenting models from which to choose provides a sense of direction and an idea of the finished product.
A similar approach to made-to-order has become an increasingly important part of the business of traditional Northampton shoemakers, such as Crockett & Jones, which offers a special-order service at its stores in Paris, London, New York and Brussels. “Clients can order a style from our range to their own specification – they can select materials, soles and fittings” says the firm’s managing director Jonathan Jones. “They can also design their own pair using existing styles and patterns as a guide: we offer a swatch of 20 colours of calf and suedes, and all width fittings, which is very important.”
Indeed, it was often out of a need to fit customers with wide, narrow or different-sized feet that these services first grew. “We stock ready-to-wear shoes [from £740] that customers can have made up in the correct size and colour,” says Hilary Freeman, managing director of leading British maker Edward Green. Beyond this is the Top Drawer service, which allows further “tweaking to provide the ultimate comfort”, continues Freeman. “Our Top Drawer service reflects the most refined shoe our craftsmen can produce and we are proud to be complemented by many bespoke shoemakers.” After clicking and closing (hand-cutting and sewing) in the usual manner, the shoes (from £1,450) are assigned to a single craftsman who completes all the other tasks. As well as such touches as a bevelled waist between sole and heel, and customisation (should the customer wish initials picked out in tiny brass or steel pins), the style can even be given a new name; one customer requested Green’s Chelsea style with a red lining – and asked for Arsenal to be written on the box.
This high level of not-quite-bespoke shoemaking is attracting new customers to old names. “We have seen an increase in the number of people looking for made-to-order shoes – and more specifically high-specification shoes that are closer to bespoke without the price tag,” says George Glasgow Jr, co-owner and CEO of GJ Cleverley & Co, “and when we introduced our Anthony Cleverley ‘semi-bespoke’ range (which includes the Cameron, from £995), we saw a completely new customer, one who wanted a shoe with more handwork than ready-to-wear but who couldn’t quite reach the price of bespoke.”
International fashion houses are also offering their male customers sophisticated made-to-order services – from Gucci’s classic snaffled loafer (from about £520), which allows for initial embossing as well as leather choice, and has been available made to order since 2011, to Ferragamo, which launched a service ( from £520) for its driving shoes earlier this year that allows buyers to select material, colour, metal hardware and sole. Increasingly too, these services are presented with a flourish. In 2012, Louis Vuitton started an ambitious made-to-order programme with dedicated private rooms in the men’s departments of its larger stores. Once the various permutations of last, construction, colour and leather have been taken into account, Vuitton offers 3,000 different options (such as the Héritage Richelieu style, from £5,750). A year later, Tod’s launched its Sartorial concept with a choice of leathers for six styles (including a moccasin, from £1,050), shown to clients in the club-like environs of a special area in store.
And when Swiss shoemaker Bally opened its David Chipperfield-designed flagship on Bond Street in October last year, CEO Frédéric de Narp made much of the specially designed “Gentleman’s Corner with a unique made-to-order service”. Bally has long had a made-to-order service for its Scribe model (Nuovo style, from £650), but the Bally 1851 Collection (shoes from £1,150) is significantly enhanced; individual customers can choose from eight models with Goodyear construction, three models with thinner soles in the Blake construction (where the sole is stitched directly onto the upper), nine different leathers, 10 colours and then the option to have such additions as solid rose-, white- or yellow-gold hardware.
Narp believes that the idea of buying a made-to-order pair of shoes is an antidote to the increasingly instantaneous and overwhelming pace of modern life, and he rhapsodises about the luxury of the colour application process, which can take place in store as the customer watches and last anything up to eight hours – plenty of time to request a little more intensity of colour here, or darkness there.
It is exactly this sort of attention to detail that characterises shoemaking that is somewhere between traditional bespoke and made to order. When I visited the Santoni workshops in the Marche region of Italy, I was impressed to find one corner of the factory staffed by women who were working with very fine brushes, painting shadows between the scales of crocodile designs. “We use the technique of velatura,” explains CEO Giuseppe Santoni. “It builds up different layers of pigment and achieves a special transparency and depth of colour.” Santoni hires graduates from the local art college with expertise in colour. “We do not buy skins that are already coloured; we create it on the shoes themselves, so you can customise until you have your own specific shade” – and, if you are so minded, your own specific shadow too. (Example of Santoni shoes, $985).
An increasingly broad range of nationalities are requesting such specialised work from European shoemakers. Traditional ideas of taste are being challenged. Company director Till Reiter of Vienna-based Ludwig Reiter (Chukka boots, from £1,069), who has been asked to make, among other things, a pair of crocodile polo boots, finds that clients requiring this level of personalisation are both younger and more daring than in the past. “These men want the individually made and extravagant.”
Tony Gaziano, one half of British shoemaker Gaziano & Girling, agrees. “Because men are wearing more colourful clothes they want variation of shoe choice.” Both Gaziano and partner Dean Girling are bespoke shoemakers, and it is from this perspective that they have approached the idea of making their designs in a factory, albeit one that only produces around 80 pairs a week. Rather than being industrial manufacturers looking to optimise procedures to offer a higher level of product, they are craftsmen seeking to rationalise bespoke practices and finishes, and bring them to a new audience at lower-than-bespoke prices (such as the Mitchel style, from £1,200).
As well as the range of colours, leathers, lasts, toe shapes, width fittings and so on that add up to what Gaziano says is around 5,000 different options, many processes are similar to, if not the same as, those for bespoke. For instance, he shapes the master lasts himself before sending them off to the last-makers; he selects the skins as if he were making bespoke shoes; he uses a full leather shank in the sole construction; he selects Baker’s oak bark tanned soles (which he says are less rigid than the more widely used Rendenbach soles, enabling them to be shaped into the coveted fiddle back); his craftsmen stain the soles’ sides using traditional rather than self‑shining inks – and so on.
Pierre Corthay in Paris is another maker with a bespoke past; according to CEO Xavier de Royère, “we get very close to what bespoke offers.” Of the made-to-order service he says, “we have six lasts and three widths; one advantage of starting a business through bespoke was that when Pierre designed his ready-to-wear [from £1,020] last he had accommodated so many feet he had an idea of what worked, and was very receptive to personalisation and accommodating whims and desires.” Thus, even though the business has grown from 1990’s original Paris store to a total of nine by the end of this year, the importance of customisation remains at the heart of the business. “When we started ready‑to‑wear, that philosophy of personalisation was maintained; if you walk into a Corthay store and ask for a catalogue it doesn’t exist.”
Royère estimates that around 70 per cent of the firm’s business involves some level of customisation – from relatively modest changes such as contrasting piping or different coloured lining, to “a customer who wanted cowboy boots with a detail on the front that was the same as the instrument panel of his private jet”.
Talk of this bespoke special order prompts him to liken shoemaking to aviation: “Once you have flown private, flying business or first class, while pleasant, is never quite the same.” To take that analogy a little further, if a bespoke pair of shoes is the equivalent of owning your own jet, then the multioption, highly detailed customisation and made-to-order programmes offered by today’s shoemakers might arguably be compared to the various fractional, leasing and flexible flight purchase plans offered by private jet operators.