Long before choice gave birth to supersized shoe emporiums such as Selfridges, finding someone who could skilfully handmake bespoke women’s shoes wasn’t so difficult to find. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a number of Cordwainers College graduates, such as Emma Hope, Jean Claude 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 the skill and craftsmanship offered by Caroline Groves is considered something extra 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 a master craftsman who learnt all he knew at John Lobb.
Ten years ago, Groves decided that she’d prefer to create shoes under her own name, and rather than conforming rigidly to the demands of health and comfort, she plumped instead for “much prettier things”. Clients might require a shoe that incorporates gold or silver, hand embroidery that has to be outsourced to a specialist, or a faithful reproduction of an ornate shoe spotted while flicking through one of Groves’s many shoe books that she keeps in her studio for reference. This approach has helped her to develop a reputation for delivering highly decorative and elaborate creations, such as shoes based on, of all things, a turquoise parakeet (first picture).
Nevertheless, Groves still stays true to her mentor by creating everything from scratch. “There are no pre-formed shapes or plastic heels,” she says, adding that most are carved from beech wood. Also, many of her silhouettes have an antique quality, which probably has something to do with the fact she has an “enormous archive of lasts that date back to the 1920s” – to wit, the red and white swirls of Joclyn (second picture), the yellow, heeled brogues of Margaret (third picture), or the skull-buttoned Victorian boots of Something of the Night (fourth picture).
Groves’s creations are extremely sought-after by a flurry of international women, who might already have a wardrobe of Louboutins or clothes by the Russian couturier Ulyana Sergeenko, but will happily 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 embroidery or crochet-work increasing the price to between £3,500 and £4,000, and the addition of gold or silver fittings, antique buckles, lace or taxidermy pushing the price up further still.
“The first pair for a client takes the longest – about three months,” says Groves, who divides her time between her 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 a client in their home or hotel. But it isn’t long before they come down to visit her workshop next to the Westway. After all, the allure of bespoke shoes comes from seeing first hand exactly how the shoes are made.