A foot in theatreland

From taxidermy to Victoriana skulls, Caroline Groves’s bespoke shoes mix history, skill and one-of-a-kind drama

Long before choice gave birth to supersizedshoe emporiums such as Selfridges, finding someone who could skilfully handmake bespoke women’s shoes wasn’t so difficult to find. In the 1980s and early1990s, a number of Cordwainers College graduates, such as Emma Hope, JeanClaude Bidi, John Moore, Elizabeth Stuart-Smith, and probably best-known of all,the Malaysian-born shoe designer Jimmy Choo, began by making one-offs.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and now theskill and craftsmanship offered by Caroline Groves is considered somethingextra special. “Maybe it’s because it’s so hard to do this,” ventures Groves, who started off in orthopaedic footwear and was trained in the Cotswolds by amaster craftsman who learnt all he knew at John Lobb.

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Ten years ago, Groves decided that she’d prefer tocreate shoes under her own name, and rather than conforming rigidly to the demandsof health and comfort, she plumped instead for “much prettier things”. Clientsmight require a shoe that incorporates gold or silver, hand embroidery that hasto be outsourced to a specialist, or a faithful reproduction of an ornate shoespotted while flicking through one of Groves’s many shoe books that she keeps inher studio for reference. This approach has helped her to develop a reputation fordelivering highly decorative and elaborate creations, such as shoes based on, ofall things, a turquoise parakeet (first picture).

Nevertheless, Groves still stays true to hermentor by creating everything from scratch. “There are no pre-formed shapes orplastic heels,” she says, adding that most are carved from beech wood.Also, many of her silhouettes have an antique quality, which probably hassomething to do with the fact she has an “enormous archive of lasts that dateback to the 1920s” – to wit, the red and white swirls of Joclyn (secondpicture), the yellow, heeled brogues of Margaret (third picture), or theskull-buttoned Victorian boots of Something of the Night (fourth picture).

Groves’s creations are extremely sought-afterby a flurry of international women, who might already have a wardrobe ofLouboutins or clothes by the Russian couturier Ulyana Sergeenko, but willhappily pay up to £6,000 for that extra-special shoe that just can’t be bought off the shelf. A pair starts at£2,500 (gift vouchers are also available for £2,500), which includes three fittings, with specially commissioned embroideryor crochet-work increasing the price to between £3,500 and £4,000, and the additionof gold or silver fittings, antique buckles, lace or taxidermy pushing theprice up further still.

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“The first pair for a client takes thelongest  – about three months,” says Groves, who divides her time betweenher home near Chipping Camden and the Great Western Studios workshop she moved to in February earlier this year.

On a typical first meeting she will visit aclient in their home or hotel. But it isn’t long before they come down to visither workshop next to the Westway. After all, the allure of bespoke shoes comesfrom seeing first hand exactly how the shoes are made.

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