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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

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8 replies »

  1. Erik – Enjoyed your post do you have any suggestions for shoes for someone with a wide foot (EE) other than made to order?

    • Thank you for the reply Steve. I think I’ll refer you to the pros instead, since my own foot width is pretty standard. The guys at Skoaktiebolaget are really good at informing you about which shoes would probably fit you best. Good luck!

    • Thank you for the reply Paul, I can also guarantee that this is not paid content. It’s pretty hard writing about menswear without dropping some brand names/makers. I know a few of the people I write about, but it’s hard avoiding when the market is so niched and I’ve been a part of it for a couple of years.

  2. Hi Erik – enjoined the piece. Totally agree that there has been more of an interest in quality menswear than previously.

    From the US, I’ve seen a lot more ‘Everlane-type’ shoe companies crop up like Jack Erwin, Paul Evans, Becket Siminon that try to replicate the quality of the old masters at more accessible e-commerce portal and palateable pricing. What do you think of them? In the clash of of the old and new shoemakers, do you see one side winning?

    • Hi Paul, I haven’t had the chance of trying any of those makers out. Would be interesting doing a comparison over time. I guess when you talk about “quality”, it means so much more than just a shoe that will last long, it’s about the elegance of the last, the handwork, the suppleness and smoothness of the leather etc etc. Still, to evaluate a product like a shoe you’ve gotta give it a bit of time before making a proper assessment.

      I don’t think any side will win, I think both sides has a lot to learn from the other. Some traditional masters have adapted to the changing markets by becoming more “e-savvy”, and a lot of new, less expensive shoe makers strive to increase their quality on several levels to accommodate to a more knowledgeable/demanding market.

  3. Great article!

    I myself am a shoemaker (in the US). I have seen this trend over the last few years, which is exciting for my brand. When I started making shoes I never expected to do anything other than make custom shoes for the super rich. Now, I have revamped my business to make my footwear more accessible.

    Thanks for sharing.