The London showroom and workshop of John Carnera and George Glasgow, two of England’s best-known bespoke shoemakers, is a dark, three-story space that smells of beech wood, oil, and leather. To say that their G.J. Cleverley shop at 12 The Royal Arcade on London’s Old Bond Street is small is something of an understatement. There is barely enough space on each floor for four people to maneuver, and you have to be agile to make your way from one floor to the next via the shop’s narrow, lighthouse-style circular staircase. Yet, within this cramped, cluttered space, men with a penchant for truly remarkable footwear can discover something akin to a religious experience.
G.J. Cleverley is not so much a shoe store as it is a link to another era, when making footwear was a time-honored trade that was passed down from generation to generation. It is also a disappearing world. Elias Howe’s sewing machine and the subsequent automation of the shoe industry have taken a heavy toll on what was once a thriving craft. At the turn of the 20th century, 3,000 shoemakers (or “bootmakers” if you prefer the Queen’s English) made their livelihoods in London. Last year, the West End Master Bootmakers Association tallied only six registered members.
Cleverley is among the survivors who exist purely for the pleasure of men like me, with more than 300 pairs of shoes and boots nestled in custom-built cubicles in a bedroom suite-turned-extended closet. Andrea Tamat, the owner of the Italian shoe brand Stonefly, once said that such devotees were simply “born in a box of shoes.”
For some men, a pair of custom-made shoes is not simply a frivolous luxury item but a necessity. Wearing poorly made or ill-fitting shoes can be painful and can affect the way you walk and the amount of stress put on your spine.
Bespoke clothier and best-selling author Alan Flusser, who runs a signature shop out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, believes that bespoke shoes, which can run from $1,300 to $3,000 and more, offer three distinct advantages over ready-made footwear: fit, quality, and style. “Factory-made shoes require the wearer’s foot to fit the shoe, a hit-or-miss proposition given the nuances of the individual foot,” writes Flusser in his book Style and the Man (HarperCollins, 1996). “Custom-made shoes are constructed around idiosyncrasies, such as bunions, calcifications, unusual toe joints, bone spurs, and crooked toes. The arch of the handmade shoe can be fitted up under the foot’s instep, bolstering the arch while supporting the body’s weight.”
Whereas shopping for ready-to-wear shoes at Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, and other chic, minimalist fashion emporiums offers immediate gratification, buying bespoke rewards your patience with a personalized experience that celebrates custom craftsmanship. The only thing minimal about Cleverley—or the showrooms of fellow bespoke shoemakers such as John Lobb or Jason Amesbury—is the merchandising. Though the shop displays beautiful handmade black calf oxfords, brown suede tassel loafers, and chestnut cap-toed brogues, Cleverley’s business does not rely on cash-and-carry clientele, so there is little need for fancy retail trappings. Come to think of it, there really isn’t a need for a store at all.
Today most of the sampling and selling of bespoke footwear, regardless of the cobbler, is done on the road, with representatives meeting clients in five-star hotel rooms around the world. George Glasgow makes several trips to America each year, visiting at least five major cities to take orders and carry out fittings. However, if you have the opportunity, it is well worth the effort to take a tour of the London workroom where John Carnera and his two apprentices hand carve every last—an exact replica of one’s foot sculpted from beautifully grained maple, beech, or hornbeam woods.
While in London, you should also visit the basement at John Lobb, just a few blocks away at 9 St. James’s Street (not to be confused with the Lobb shop on nearby Jermyn Street that sells the ready-made collection produced by Hermès). Here, surrounded by a stockpile of more than 9,000 wooden lasts from such illustrious former clients as King George V, the Duke of Windsor, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Jackie Onassis, you can appreciate how England’s top-tier shoemakers have elevated the status—as well as the price—of footwear to a high art.
Upstairs, in Lobb’s mahogany-paneled showroom, an array of footwear-related curiosities are displayed like artifacts under glass. Among them is an antique pair of 3-inch-high black leather boots, which served as the miniature models for Wellingtons. An inscription under the tiny sample boots reads: “The Duke of Wellington approved in the field for wear after a day’s campaigning.”
History and patronage are fundamental to the legacy of bespoke shoemaking. George Cleverley began making shoes in Edwardian London and spent most of his 93 years perfecting his craft, working for Tuczek, New & Lingwood, and Henry Maxwell, as well as for his own label. Before he died in 1991, he passed his clients’ lasts and the use of his name to John Carnera, with whom he worked side by side for nearly 13 years. “Cleverley had about 200 high-profile clients, so it would have been stupid not to use the name,” says Carnera, who personally carved my own lasts and made my shoes.
Achieving the perfect fit depends on the preparation of the last. Most bespoke shoemakers practice the art of last-making in much the same manner, honoring traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. Choosing the cobbler whose sensibility is right for you is more a matter of taste than a question of quality.
British shoemakers, such as Fosters, James Taylor, and Henry Maxwell, are known for heavier, more industrial-looking shoes. The Italians, especially Silvano Lattanzi and Santoni, are unmatched when it comes to their exotic approach to tanning and dyeing and to the Neapolitan-style brogue with its exaggerated welts and contrast stitching. I prefer Cleverley because of the firm’s exclusive chiseled square-toe design, commonly referred to as the Cleverley Shape.
At Cleverley, I am known by name as well as by my last number, 318. This number can be used to reference my history of purchases. My first pair of Cleverleys was style number 8428-12, a pair of chocolate brown suede Norwegian lace-ups, chosen for their unmatched versatility.
Glasgow measured me for my Norwegians in a suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. A bespoke footwear purchase has nothing to do with trying on shoes. Instead, you engage in a long discussion about style preferences, the width of the welt (which should be cut close to the upper), the thickness of the sole (no thicker than one-quarter inch for dress purposes), the height of the heel (which should be low and follow the lines of the shoe), and choice of leathers (the softer the better).
After the consultation, your feet are measured for length, width, and every other distinctive feature. Because only 15 percent of people have right and left feet that are exactly the same size, a credible shoemaker always measures both feet. Accuracy is crucial because these measurements are used to make the lasts on which the shoes will be built. John Carnera spent two weeks carving my lasts. Technically, the customer owns the lasts, but they always remain in the possession of the shoemaker. Most shoemakers eventually pass the lasts down to their apprentices to accommodate future orders and guarantee the survival of the craft.
Once an order is placed, the lasts are sent to a closer, who creates a series of paper patterns around them. These patterns are then passed to a clicker, an expert trained to understand all the nuances of leather, who cuts the various pieces to create the upper part of the shoe. After the essential grinderies (insoles, outsoles, and heel material) have been cut, 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-duty hemp. When the wooden last is finally removed from the finished shoe, a leather sock bearing the maker’s name is placed inside, the leather is polished, and the shoe is laced.
The entire process takes months, primarily because the leather has to be wet, molded, and dried several times throughout the production. An established company like G.J. Cleverley, with six full-time employees and 12 others working out of their homes, makes about 10 pairs of bespoke shoes a week, or roughly 500 pairs a year. Italy’s Silvano Lattanzi works with 26 cobblers who produce 200 pairs of bespoke shoes per year priced between $2,800 and $11,000, and larger firms, such as John Lobb, have a slightly higher output.
Although the average lead time on initial orders is six months, my Cleverley suede lace-ups took almost a year to complete. The fit is so ex-act that if I were blindfolded, it would be difficult to tell if they were on or off. That’s the beauty of buy-ing bespoke, says Carnera. “They are not only the most beautiful, but also the most comfortable shoes a person can own.”
William Kissel is a Robb Report contributing editor.
The following craftsmen represent the top tier of the very limited world of custom shoemaking.
Enzo Bonafe, Bologna, +39.051.601.2992
G.J. Cleverley & Co. Ltd., London, +44.20.7493.0443, www.gjcleverley.co.uk
J. Amesbury & Co. Ltd., London, +44.20.7377.2006, www.amesbury.co.uk
John Lobb, London, +44.20.7930.3664.5
Silvano Lattanzi, Rome, +39.0734.810213