Luxury European shoemaking, like tailoring, traces its roots back to medieval master craftsmen. The most august tailoring houses are English and Italian, but in shoemaking there’s another venerable lineage: Austro-Hungarian.
If the English are known for refined yet robust shoes, and the Italians for sharp designs and lighter construction, the central European tradition emphasizes old-world methods and materials, continuing to prize the fully handmade shoe. Sometimes, this dedication can be accompanied by slightly antiquated design and presentation. Passus (whose name comes from the Latin for “step”) is a new brand dedicated to preserving the exquisite Austro-Hungarian craft while offering contemporary style and service.
In this spirit, Passus shoes are made almost entirely by hand, from the clicking (that is, cutting) of the uppers to the hand-stitching of the soles. Some elements of high craft shoemaking can only be felt and not seen, such as the composition of the toe and heel stiffeners. In this case, they’re leather—which shapes to the wearer’s foot over time—but most factory-made shoes, even at the top end, use plastic. Other aspects are immediately visible. The shape of Passus models is comparable to bespoke: higher arches, narrower waists, sharper angles and curves. The brand’s signature oak-tanned sole is hand-welted at the front but pegged at the waist (literally attached by hammering in small wooden pegs) so that the sole dramatically curves inwards and upwards towards the heel in a fashion that’s half craft and half sculpture. The lasts themselves are as lean and shapely as their English counterparts, but soft and unexpectedly spacious to wear.
Gabor Halmos, Passus’s co-owner, spent the past 25 years working as a United States liaison for several European luxury brands. In addition to working with Vass (whose founder László Vass helped to popularize Austro-Hungarian shoes internationally) when they were stocked at Bergdorf Goodman, Halmos founded Sartoriale, a groundbreaking online store centering on Italian luxury menswear, in 2000. It was through Sartoriale, Halmos explains, that he came across innovative shoemakers from England and Italy, France and Japan and the idea grew to combine the modern sensibility of newer European and Japanese brands with the old-world Hungarian craft he knew. Halmos launched the brand with Vass alumnus Rezső Kuti and now runs it with his brother Balint.
Though it’s a young brand with modern attitudes to styling, service and e-commerce, Passus was able to call on local shoemakers with decades of experience. This combination of traditional techniques and a contemporary sensibility is central to the brand’s appeal. It’s the way that high craft will survive, Halmos says, citing the tailoring houses of Anderson and Sheppard and Rubinacci as expert examples of staying fresh while upholding heritage.
One pillar of Passus is a sophisticated made-to-order program that begins with an online consultation, guiding the customer through a wide range of models and specifications. Like a suit or fragrance, many decisions come down to lifestyle and personal taste. The consultation can start by tweaking your current favorites or you can design a pair you’ve never seen but always wanted.
The shoes themselves are endlessly versatile: the elegant split-toe derby can be made up as an archetypal formal shoe with a beveled waist, a more casual shoe with a sturdy double leather sole, or even Goyser-stitched for storm protection. Sizing is straightforward and Passus’s consultants have an encyclopedic knowledge of how their lasts compare to other brands. If you have difficulty finding the right fit, Passus will even send a trial pair for you to check before starting work. The result is a handmade, personally specified shoe that arrives gleaming from the workshop in 6-8 weeks.
Yet, for all the modern conveniences, Halmos says, “What we don’t want to compromise on is the quality. Our methods are the same as bespoke, we cannot produce more than 30 pairs a month.”
In keeping with Halmos’s insistence that the best heritage brands continually adapt, Passus has also been developing a new range of boots inspired by US military and vintage work boots but employing Austro-Hungarian craft techniques: hand-welted and hand-lasted, using Goyser stitching and Vibram soles. A lot of guys who are into boots appreciate their craftsmanship, Halmos remarks, but this will be a whole new level.