John Carnera and George Glasgow of G.J. Cleverley made headlines in the early 1990s when the British bespoke shoemakers acquired a cache of Russian reindeer hides at auction that had been resting in the hull of a recovered sunken cargo ship for more than 200 years. The skins, which the duo used to make dozens of pairs of custom shoes, had a distinctive color and texture because 18th-century leather tanning took as long as 18 months, as opposed to the few days required today. “It was truly a labor of love,” offers Carnera.
The same could be said of the bespoke, or custom, shoemakers who still make footwear by hand with leather, a hammer, and nails. Although custom footwear is slowly becoming a lost art, a handful of shoemakers are steadfastly keeping the age-old craft alive. Once you step out in a pair of bespoke shoes, customized to your foot’s individual characteristics, it’s hard to wear anything else. Here is a guide of what to expect when purchasing bespoke footwear.
- It’s no longer necessary to cross the Atlantic to be fitted for a pair of custom shoes. Most shoemakers visit the U.S. several times throughout the year to take precise measurements, orders, and fittings using luxury hotel suites as their temporary showrooms.
- The bespoke process, in fact, has nothing to do with trying on shoes. Instead, the shoemakers meet with clients to learn their style, leather preferences, and lifestyle needs. Next, shoemakers take tedious measurements and trace the shape of the feet on paper, in addition to taking careful notes on every nuance of the foot, such as unusual toe joints, bone spurs, and crooked toes.
- From these measurements, personal lasts (hand-carved wooden replicas of a client’s feet) are created. A typical set of lasts will take as long as two weeks to produce, and, although technically owned by the client, they will remain in the shoemaker’s workshop for future orders.
- The wooden last is sent to a closer, a craftsman whose job is to create a series of paper patterns around the lasts. The patterns are delivered to a leather specialist who cuts the actual pattern in leather for the footwear.
- Once the insoles, outsoles, and heel material have been cut into patterns, they are returned to the closer, who sews them together using the appropriate linings and stiffeners, later marrying them to the sole of the shoe with heavy-strength hemp cord. All of this is done while the leather is still on the wooden last to be sure the shoes fit the foot like a second skin. The entire process takes months, primarily because the leather has to be wet, molded, and dried several times throughout the making to ensure the leather holds its shape.
- Custom-made shoes always remain on the last for three weeks or more for the shoe to mold and hold the proper shape for its lifetime. When the wooden last is finally removed from the finished shoe, a leather “sock” bearing the shoemaker’s name is inserted inside, and the leather is polished.
- The finest bespoke footwear is produced with Goodyear-welted soles. This means an extra layer of material, known as the welt, is sewn between the upper and the sole. Because the welt is sewn, not glued, in place it can be easily taken apart and replaced when the soles develop holes. If the leather upper isn’t damaged, a good pair of bespoke shoes—resoled when necessary—should last a lifetime or longer.
- It takes anywhere from six months to more than a year for delivery of a pair of bespoke shoes, depending on the workshop and its workload. But once the original last is made, future orders can move more quickly. A typical pair of custom-made calfskin lace-ups from G.J. Cleverley start about $3,500, and a pair of Silvano Lattanzi hand-finished crocodile brogues can run six figures.
- Bespoke footwear should come fitted with wooden lasts made especially to help retain the shoes’ shape and absorb moisture when the shoes are not being worn.