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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.