Confessions of a Footwear Aficionado: Saint Crispin’s Shoes

I’ll admit it: I didn’t get what people saw in shoes.

Who looks at shoes? I thought.  The first thing people see is your face, then what surrounds it.  End of story.  For me, it was all about the suit.  Shoes were just an afterthought.

When I first joined Styleforum ten years ago and scrolled through page after page of inspiring photos of menswear, I was baffled at all the shoes.  Closeups, lovingly framed with mystical bokeh, as if prepped for their senior portrait. My feelings were ambivalent; I couldn’t help but be impressed at the intricate craftsmanship apparent in the pictures, but at the same time I couldn’t fathom the amount of interest in something that covers such a small percentage of your body.

Hardy Aimes famously said, “It is totally impossible to be well-dressed in cheap shoes,” which may sound like class bullying but is, in fact, true.  And finally, I bought my first new pair of shoes over $200, feeling somewhat ashamed at the expenditure.  Regular, utilitarian, basic black captoes from the Allen Edmonds store on Sutter Street.  Truth be told, I wasn’t incredibly enamored with them; they were nondescript and certainly heavier than the other two pairs of shoes I had in my closet.  However, I was struck at how comfortable they were.  Almost immediately I became a new convert and started preaching the gospel of shoes.  I could wear these for hours, I remember saying a million times to anyone that would listen.  

 Gradually my perceptions changed and I began to see shoes differently.  Was I misdirecting my attention?  Out of curiosity I started looking down more.  I was learning that shoes can say a lot about the wearer.  Then it dawned on me one day, while looking at my wife’s closet, and realizing the obvious, that shoes are kind of a big deal.  These pavement-hitters that envelop our foot in for practical protection can also be works of art unto themselves.  If not careful, one can be easily entranced by a shoe’s sweeping curves, beveled waists, and intricate stitching.  

Nowadays, my closet dwarfs my wife’s, and shoes make up a sizable part of it.  My favorites are from Saint Crispin’s, a company based out of Romania, where shoes are made passionately following the time-honored way, using only their hands or hand-powered tools.  I mean, just look at this video, and pretend to hide your awe of the craft.  The amount of hours making one pair of shoes rival that of a bespoke suit.  Leather is clicked (cut), then hand-stained, skived, glued, and sewn, before being put on the shoe last and hammered into submission.  A distinguishing characteristic of Saint Crispin’s that is usually noticed first are the dozens of wooden pegs in the waist.  These serve to provide lightweight sturdiness and a solid foundation to the shoe, unlike a heavier metal shank that may be used in other brands. Hard counters are present in the arches, something generally not seen with other makers.  These, together with the pegs, make up the backbone of the shoes’ legendary foot support.  

Zachary Jobe is currently in charge of how the brand is presented in the Western Hemisphere, and travels quarterly to various locations to offer their wares to shoe aficionados like myself.  I wanted to repair a pair I purchased off of the Buy and Sell section of the forum, and got a chance to hear a little more about the company.

“The Americas are a bit different from Europe,” he explains.  “There, due in part to simple geography and proximity, we have a larger network of stockists.  While we are maintaining relationships with our stockists here in the Americas and judiciously seeking to expand that network, it also made sense to make ourselves available to private clients.”

And so he comes, several times a year, filled with appointments with people from a variety of backgrounds.  Most of the lasts fit fine on me, but not everybody.  While I was ogling and snapping pictures of different makeups Zach had on display in his hotel suite, Justin, who works in real estate, came in for a made-to-measure fitting.  “The aesthetic is phenomenal, but because of fit issues, I’m limited in what shoes I can comfortably wear.  Here I can pay a one-time charge for a personal last, and get all my shoes for the same price as ready-to-wear.  That opened up a whole new set of options I never previously had.”  Justin came in wearing a trial shoe, something that Saint Crispin’s does for every client that gets a personal last.  Made a little less stiff, the trial shoe helps the customer get an idea of how the final shoe will fit, while allowing room to make minor adjustments if necessary.

“I had been looking at other options,” he relates, “but the ability to have my own last made, and get all future purchases made in that last, prompted me to make an appointment the last time Zach was in town.  And their style.  There are so many options.  It was really hard to order just one pair.”  Justin had been to trunk shows from other makers in the past, but he was impressed with Zach’s attention to fit.  “Others would just put me in a trial shoe, but Zach got out a tape measure and wrote down notes.  This gave me the confidence that this first pair would fit perfectly.  Even this trial pair is better than any other shoe I had ever owned before, and I’ve been walking in them all morning.  I can’t imagine how the final shoe will look and feel.”

Those two words – look and feel – succinctly encapsulate what draws the shoe aficionado.  Achieving perfection may cost dearly, but at the end of the day, your feet will thank you, and you can go to sleep knowing that your outfit was complete, feet shod admirably. 

Below is a slideshow showcasing some of Saint Crispin’s offerings. If you’d like to read more about Saint Crispin’s, head over to the St. Crispin’s Appreciation Thread

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The Rise of the Shoe Enthusiast

Something is happening in the world of shoes. Or rather, in the world of quality shoes. It’s not a tidal wave, but then again, few things are when you’re dealing with classic menswear. It’s more like a small trickle that’s turned into a steady stream of obsession. It started out with a few enthusiasts and their newfound interest in this ancient craft, then merged with the new-ish ability to connect through the internet, and found a home at a place in time where appreciation for tangible, luxurious objects is higher than it’s been for decades.

I’m a Swede, so naturally my perspective is mainly Swedish, but at the same time I think what’s happening over here may be at least mildly indicative of a global trend. In 2012, Skoaktiebolaget (a fine men’s shoes store and Styleforum affiliate) opened the doors of their brick and mortar shop in Stockholm, not only to the Swedish market, but to an international market that was just about to boom. I remember my initial reaction as being: “Is it a viable business idea to sell premium shoes in a city as small as Stockholm, when the price of a pair of shoes may very well be as high as some people’s monthly wages?”

Rise of the Shoe Enthusiast My friend Jussi wearing a pair of handcrafted from shoe artist Mario Bemer

Apparently, the answer to this question was a resounding “Yes!” And they didn’t just appeal to a market consisting of the financial jet set. A fairly newfound appreciation for workmanship, construction and leather quality had – and has – flourished among enthusiasts from all walks of life. Students saved up on their bursaries to be able to buy a pair of MTO’s from Carmina, maybe a first step down the slippery slope towards top-name makers in the business, such as Gaziano & Girling, St. Crispins, John Lobb, and others of their ilk.

Rise of the Shoe Enthusiast A picture I took in Skoaktiebolaget’s former store. They have since moved to a much bigger location, on one of Stockholm’s most popular addresses

I’ve heard some people attribute the success of Skoaktiebolaget to a fortunate timing of exchange rates between the US Dollar and the Swedish Crown, where the Dollar became very strong in comparison, and gave the US customer base a chance to buy European premium shoes at a very competitive price.

In my opinion, this is an oversimplification. I think Skoaktiebolaget managed to tap into something that’s more complex than basic economics. Exchange rates and a fairly steady Swedish economy can explain some of the business, but it can’t quite explain why the interest for artistic, well-crafted crafted shoes of the highest quality keeps going up, for an ever-growing number of men from widely-differing demographics.

My layman’s guess is that it has something to do with the times in which we’re living. A lot of people are stumbling around, trying to make sense of things. Economic markets don’t behave according to old predictable patterns of booms and recessions in perpetual cycles (in fact, nowadays booms and recessions can even exist simultaneously). Digitalization of practically every type of business has created a longing for something tangible, something lasting, as opposed to the ephemerality of the internet. Hence the reemergence of old crafts, hence the appeal of products that will not only last a lifetime if treated properly, but actually grow more beautiful with age, hence stores like Skoaktiebolaget.

With an everyday reality that currently feels increasingly volatile, the idea of long-lasting, quality products seems more attractive than ever. The re-popularization of Goodyear- and hand-welted shoes has naturally drawn the interest of people who see a gap in the market for quality shoes, where price is a boundary that still keeps a major part of an untapped market out. When I tell uninitiated people about the cost of even one of my “cheaper” pair of shoes, they look at me with an understandable amount of skepticism. Some of them could probably afford several pairs of Lobb’s every month, but the idea of paying these amounts for shoes, or clothing for that matter, is still a high threshold for the majority of men to step over.

However, there’s plenty of room for growth. One Swedish brand that has capitalized on this idea is Myrqvist Shoes. Swedish company Herrstil decided to launch their own brand of good year welted shoes with a good price/quality ratio, so they started a Kickstarter campaign and managed to even exceed their original funding goals. The idea was simple, they cut off all the middle men and went straight to the factory and suppliers of raw materials, and then offered the shoes directly to their customers without the added retail-margins. Other companies have used similar business models to get into the coveted “budget price market” (in reality this is still a premium price for most people). For example, Styleforum favorite Meermin sells Goodyear-welted shoes at a very competitive price, much due to their business being mainly online, and because they can do self-funded MTO-shoes for small groups of customers.

Rise of the Shoe EnthusiastWearing a pair of Chelsea boots from Myrqvist

Naturally, there are also makers catering to buyers who want nothing but the finest in shoemaking – the bespoke shoemakers. Gary Tok (@Gazman70k) recently wrote a book on this subject, called Master Shoemakers: The Art & Soul of Bespoke Shoes (also available at affiliate The Hanger Project). In this book, Tok sets out to capture the allure and beauty of bespoke shoemaking. The book consists of beautiful photographs, accompanied by written portraits of the different shoemakers. These are men whose shoes have more in common with art than with commodities. They are the masters of their trade, most of whom still do everything as they have always done it. If I were to make a wild guess, their business is more resistant to fluctuating markets and predictions of recessions than most shoe makers’. They make a product that attracts the sort of clients who don’t splurge on loud items to showcase their wealth, but rather the sort of clients who appreciate the craft and see their purchase as a good investment.

Master Shoemakers: The Art & Soul of Bespoke Shoes rise of the shoe enthusiast gary tokSpread from Master Shoemakers: The Art & Soul of Bespoke Shoes. Picture courtesy of Skoaktiebolaget.

The connection between the new entrepreneurs on the welted shoe market, and the old craftsmen and artisans may not seem like an obvious one. But, a merger of these two worlds could actually be the future of the trade. Not only in the manner that welted shoes in the lower price tiers are “gateway drugs” for future bespoke customers, but also in the general idea of how the most traditional makers will be doing their business.

The World of Shoes, yet another Swedish company, has set out to be a bridge between some of the less attainable shoemakers and customers from all around the world. The concept is rather unique, at least when it comes to shoes. They run an online editorial platform, on which they write about classic shoemakers, and they also have a market place, where people can buy some of these shoes. This, at least, takes away the geographical barriers between the traditional shoemakers and their potential customers.

rise of the shoe enthusiastHannes Rebas, editor at The World Of Shoes, talking to Olof Nithenius

Who knows, with the development of 3D scanning/printing and other technological advances, the next step may actually be to be able to produce proper bespoke without having to physically meet your shoemaker. I’ve talked about these, and other kind of developments with my friend & bespoke shoemaker, Norman Vilalta, and he embraces the advantages new techniques bring to the table. If his benevolence towards this evolution in traditional shoemaking is embraced by the next generation of makers, I’d dare say the future looks bright for this craft.

rise of the shoe enthusiastSpanish shoemaker Norman Vilalta in focus

rise of the shoe enthusiastFernando, Vilalta’s business partner, shows us around their trunk show in Florence last month

Erik is co-founder of EFV Clothing. You can find him on Instagram at @ErikMannby