From 1866 until nowadays John Lobb Ltd. history was a story of perseverance. John Lobb’s perseverance in being the world’s best shoemaker and his ambition to return to London, William Lobb’s determination to expend the business to Paris, Eric Lobb’s commitment to revival a lost treasure and nowadays John Hunter Lobb’s perseverance in “keeping the traditional craft alive“.
This kind of belief helped John Lobb Ltd. to survive in a world in permanent change and over the years to outcome even the most difficult periods such as the war times when John Lobb Ltd. premises were bombed several times.
The Great Depression affected many businesses in a major way. How did you cope with the Depression years?
If you mean the 1930s I was not born then and have only been told about it. There were still customers seeking to be well shod; the old social order was still lingering on and customers from America were coming to London more than before. I think perhaps the 1920s was the extravagant period with Maharajahs from India spending freely. After the 2nd world war my Uncle was the man who revived the fortunes of the firm.
In a discussion with the Viennese shoemaker Alexandru Maftei, I was told that there is not a single shoemaker that was not influenced by John Lobb creations and techniques. What is the key element of this remarkable influence from your point of view?
If our influence has been widespread it is perhaps due to our willingness to be quite open about how we work and indeed for many years young people have spent short periods of time in work experience then going off on their own. Our models have really evolved; Lastmaking has always been of supreme importance since that is the basis of a good looking shoe.
You confessed once that you have turned your face against the machines. How hard is to keep the tradition alive in our days?
There have always been young people keen to work with their hands and we have been fortunate to have skilled craftsmen and women prepared to pass on their skills. It is always a one to one process whether it is Lastmaking, clicking, closing, rough stuff cutting, making or polishing and then treemaking. When I joined the firm there were three generations of one family of closers who had worked for the firm for many years and a family of makers as well. Three employees at the shop each celebrated 60 years of service just before I joined. You will see that it tended to be a job for life and that more or less continues.
Comparing a 19th century shoe with a 2013 shoe, are there differences that we can observe?
I do not think that my Great grand father would see much difference in the actual handwork involved in making our shoes today. So far it is only in the office that change has been forced upon us!
How hard is to find good materials today?
Good materials are still available although vegetable tanning is not what it was. I think that there may be some short cuts in the tanning process which make some leathers less malleable.
How would you define Lobb bespoke?
Bespoke simply means doing what you are asked to do. The fact that we do everything by hand enables us to cater to all idiosincracies.
Please tell my readers about your relation with the Royal Families and the significance of the Royal Warrant. I noticed that Prince Charles of Wales is a great fan of your shoes…
Obtaining a Royal Warrant (Royal Warrant Granted in 1956 by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and Royal Warrant Granted by HRH The Prince of Wales in 1980) is a sign of Royal patronage, indicating the best work and highest level of service and excellence. There is no doubt that it marks out a firm as special.
In your famous last-room are stacked wooden lasts carrying the names of Cole Porter, Winston Churchill, Prince of Wales or J. Paul Getty. Did you had Romanian Royal Family members as clients in your records?
We have an impressive list of famous customers over the years. With the present emphasis on celebrities I think it is only since the 1920s and particularly 1940s when my Uncle took over that there has been interest in them; and more so in the last 25 years. That being so the world behind the iron curtain and after the Russian revolution did not get to the West End of London! Also until 1940 there were handmade shoemakers still working around the world.
Your specialty being lastmaking how were your beginning years in the firm and how do you feel now as the Chairman of Lobb?
I became involved in measuring customers and making lasts soon after I joined the firm in 1959. My Father gave me my first lessons but he died soon after so I continued to learn from the lastmakers who were employed at that time. Being Chairman has fallen to me as successor to my Uncle, who kindly recommended this. A family business often continues in this way giving continuity and a particular interest in keeping the old firm alive in the face of changing times.
Why is the lastmaking stage so important and what is the thing that makes Lobb lasts so famous all over the world?
The Lobb last is essentially a last to fit a particular customer. The appearance follows and to achieve both a good fit and appearance is an important skill which we do our best to preserve and nurture.
From all Lobb models do you have a favorite one?
I am a traditionalist and I suppose that the plain oxford worn by my father has always appealed to me.
Who will continue the Lobb legacy after your retirement?
I have 3 sons and a 2nd cousin working with me so the future legacy looks hopeful.
Lastly, after all those years spend in shoemaking what is it all about in the end?
It has been called the gentle craft and it is satisfying work to be involved in. Heaven is my objective and working with decent people and for decent people, for a large part of one’s life, seems to be one hopeful means of achieving it!
Pictures courtesy to Mr. John H. Lobb.
For more information about John Lobb Ltd. history and shoes please visit: johnlobbltd.co.uk.