I’d like to start our conversation with a look at the present situation in shoemaking.
The old generation cordwainers are glad to get out of the industry because they have a negative view of it and say it is hard to make a living, but many young people seem to be very positive about the future in shoemaking and are taking up the trade. Australia’s only `last maker’ Bruce Millar knows the state industry better than anyone else and is better connected than anyone else in the country, and he tells me many conflicting stories. The government certainly doesn’t support shoemaking in Australia, and certainly most local shoemaking has closed down and been taken over by China. None-the-less, Australian’s are fighting back and joining forces. There is a major university that now teaches bespoke shoemaking, but not the old labour intensive methods that took years to master because not many young people are interested in doing that anymore. The bespoke courses go for about 3 years and teach shoemakers how to use machines to make lasts, make patterns and make the shoes. The machines are costly so a group of shoemakers will share the machines to keep costs down. There does seem to be an increase in young shoemakers locally, but as usual, there are not the old skilled shoemakers to devote the time to teach them all the old tricks, so many makers are still pretty rough. Most shoes made in Australia have glued on soles, and a handmade shoe is finished within 2 hours.
In the last 5 years l have seen the mainstream go back to classic shaped footwear for the first time in decades. In Australia 20 years ago it was all inelegant square toes for several years, then it went to turned up toes on long loafers, and pointed shoes and fake exotic skins and white shoes for a number of years, but now when l look down at the public’s feet in the city l see neat shoes on reasonably elegant classic lasts. And for the first time in memory l now see quality footwear becoming much more affordable in Australia and young men starting to get into the classics that our grandfathers wore as everyday shoes. Ten years ago you saw very few people in brogues or double monk shoes, but now you see them regularly. Young men are starting to go away from the usual designer shoes and go towards the goodyear and fairstitch constructed traditional shoes because they know they provide a better shoe wearing experience.
Who are your favourites?
In regards to RTW/MTO and from a business point of view, my favourites in the market are traditional shoemakers who understand the need to be innovative in order to ensure survival. An industry icon once said to me that traditional shoes have a very limited market these days and most sales are for a more fashion forward shoe. I am a big fan of Gaziano & Girling because they make a decent shoe with great styling on great lasts and are innovative and update the classics with unsurpassed taste (Tony Gaziano is a genious), everyone comments on these shoes because they are very eye catching, so it shows Tony knows exactly what he is doing and is the superstar of eye catching shoes. Eventhough I love Gaziano & Girling very much, they are not a shoe l would want to wear too often because they are goodyear welted instead of hand welted – I prefer a hand carved feather instead of a glued on feather for many reasons including being more traditional craftsmanship. Personally, my blood gets really pumping with the more solid handwelted shoes in classic modern styles such as with Santoni limited editions, for me it is all about quality, solidness, the warm vibrations a shoe gives off (only handmade has it) and classic elegance. The top English shoes can’t imitate the warmth of a proper handmade shoe because it is cold and clinical by comparison.
My favourite bespoke cordwainer is Yohei Fukuda from Japan. His colouring and style resonates with me so much, and his shoes bring a heavy emotion out in me unlike any other maker. Anthony Delos from France is another favourite, but l have seen my maker George Cleverley match the best of Delos and Gaziano & Girling in terms of craftsmanship and make an even better and more detailed shoe when they are at their very best, my recent shoe is a fine example of what they are capable of, they can often surpass many of the big names including Gaziano & &Girling, Berluti/Delos/Lobb London/Paris etc when they really set out to take the extra time.
See, that is always an issue too, cordwainers have limited time, but when they do take the extra time it shows. I am not saying that Cleverley is better than other top shoemakers, but for my recent blue alligator shoe they took the extra time and the craftsmanship seem to surpass what you commonly see from Gaziano & Girling, Delos, Lobb and most other top makers. They are more than capable of making the best of the best. One of the Cleverley makers is exceptionally talented (the best of the best in the world), but l shall not name that great man. People tell me that Yohei makes the best shoes in Japan with a great fit and another man tells me that Delos also provides a great fit. The key to getting a good result from a great maker is to know what you want, appreciate the finest aspects of craftsmanship, know your feet and to develop an appreciation for fit. I see many ordinary fits on people who wear bespoke shoes because they don’t know any better – it takes time to develop knowledge so one can maximize the bespoke experience. So many don’t get the best of the best out of bespoke makers and push them to their limit because the true appreciation of artistry in not in their blood. Spending lots of time with shoemakers learning about lasts and patterns and many other things also gave me an enhanced appreciation for the craft which allowed me to communicate really well so we saw eye to eye on every little detail. When l would speak with Teemu (last/pattern maker/clicker) we would be on each other’s wave length within seconds because the communication was so good, it was almost like a psychic bond.
What chances have independent shoemakers on the global market? Could the case of Anthony Delos swallowed by Berluti make us think that their chances of survival are low?
An independent shoemaker needs to be good at marketing himself so he becomes well known, he needs to get his name out there to potential markets who are prepared to pay the asking price for his shoes. Delos had the amazing product, but not enough people knew about his work. Berluti had the name and knew Delos’ product was worthy of a big name house, so it proves that marketing and making oneself well known among certain markets is essential. If you go up to the average shoe connoisseur and ask him about Anthony Delos they will not know who he is, but if you ask them about Lobb, Cleverley, Berluti or Maftei and Materna they will likely know who they are because they have developed name appeal.
Let’s go back to the roots of your passion for shoes. When did you discover that you were a shoe aficionado?
Before l could walk as a baby. I always had an eye for classic gentleman’s footwear and preferred to check out my dad’s best shoes instead of play with toys. My toys were dress shoes. When l was about 5 years old l saw a pair of great loafers on my uncle’s feet that were very high quality and beautiful and that started my first strong shoe ambition that stayed with me for 19 years until l could afford my first respectable pair with a big name. I also used to watch all the old black and white films solely to see the shoes, and l used to dream how great it must have been to own those shoes and to live in a world where every man owned hand welted dress shoes that made loud authoritative noises when one walked. Watching those old films was like going into my ultimate fantasy land. When l was 8 years old l developed a strong attachment to the classic black cap toe oxford shoe that has lasted to this day, and l wanted my mum to buy me the top pairs that all the cashed up businessmen wore, but alas, she said “no way”. All l wanted was my feet to stop growing so l could save up for my first good pair.
When did you buy the first real pair of shoes?
When l was 13 l inherited my grandfather’s dress shoes, and when l turned 14 l started buying Florshiem seconds from the factory outlet for a number of years with my pocket money, and when l turned 16 l bought my first respectable shoes called R.M.Williams `Bushman’ boots, they were $180 in those days and considered a lot of money and l thought they were the world’s best boots back then. But my first real pair of shoes was the more upmarket Moreschi. I called it my first real shoe because it was my first dressy shoe with an internationally respected name, it was my first $500 shoe, and after that l was completely hooked and only sort to increase my shoe experiences to better and better shoes. I bought that in the mid 1990’s. It is important to remember that the shoes available in Australia before the last 8 years were very limited, so shoes like Moreschi were a very big deal over here. It is still one of my all time favourite shoes because l remember all the strong emotions it brought out of me for many months after purchasing it, I was on cloud 9 for three or four months after buying it and would look at it most days admiring how amazing it looked. I still strongly admire it, and many of Australia’s cordwainers are inspired by the Moreschi designs.
Many persons don’t understand men’s passion for shoes. Christian Laboutin said once that “Shoes for men are about elegance or wealth, they are not playing with the inner character. That is why women are happy to wear painful shoes.” Could men shoes be just about elegance and wealth?
For years in Australia the more pricey men’s shoes were mainly about status and wealth because it was about buying expensive designer shoes by big names. In the last 8 -10 years the clothing forums and blogs have influenced the world of men’s fashion whereby many men have now discovered the appeal of classic Italian and English shoes, and now the snob appeal of highend designers has been replaced by true passion for classic goodyear welted and fairstitch constructed shoes. The discovery of the classics by young men makes me so happy to see. In the old days very few of us in my city had a passion for good quality footwear, but these days the enthusiasm has really taken off. Trying to find a goodyear welted shoe in Australia 20 years ago was very difficult, in my state they were only sold in four or five shops in limited quantities.
What is your favourite model?
My favourite model is the Vass black captoe oxford on the P2 last. It is a solid and beautiful handmade captoe that is grand and tells me how my ultimate dream has come true by having such a shoe on my foot. It is complete satisfaction that words could never describe. Every time l wear it l feel the luckiest man alive, it is the ultimate experience.
But the one you prefer the least?
A boring black Grenson oxford with really weird stitching. Only worn it once in the last 11 years. Out of shoes l don’t own, the shoes l can’t stand are the two tone `galway’ style boots by Edward Green, Vass and Gaziano & Girling in suede and conventional calf. They are very popular at Style Forum.
How many pairs of shoes do you have?
These days l try to keep things manageable and minimal due to my limited storage space and new spiritual philosophies, so about 100 pairs. In Australia it was very difficult to build a good collection because for many years the choices of good quality footwear was very limited and shoes were some of the highest priced in the world with NO sales prices. For eg, 20 years ago we had a small selection of Church’s priced at $900, a very small selection of norvegese Santoni at $1,200 and Loake at around $400, and not much else. About 8 years ago Edward Green was sold for $2,000 locally and mto for $2,700 and up. In the last 4 – 5 years the prices in Australia have gone down and the selection of shoes has greatly increased due to the passion created online for classics.
My collection is very eclectic to cater for my very eclectic personality. Each day l need to find a shoe that fits my mind set and mood. Choosing the right shoe for my specific mood is very important.
If l feel a farm boy vibe coming on l will wear a Vass brogue on a traditional last like the Budapester or 3636 or an extremely old fashioned shoe by Grampa Kiss, but a tan or light brown is even better to put out the extra old fashioned and farm boy vibe to the public. If l want to be hip l might wear a classic black gusset chisel toe ankle boot or an elegant bespoke navy blue alligator wholecut. If l want to be a grand old man l will wear a black half brogue oxford on a full last so it is a big shoe. If l want to be a respectable conservative businessman type l will wear a very beautiful elegant black captoe oxford. If l want to let it all hang out and stick my fingers up at everyone and have attitude l will wear a monk with a big buckle, and if l want to really upset people and get in their face l will wear a double monk. I wear monks when l feel like living by my own rules and calling the shots. If l want to potter around the house or not travel too far from home l will wear a loafer, but sometimes l will wear a fancy Italian loafer to a meeting to signify that l do as l want and l will call the shots because the high flying 1980’s is in my blood today. Other shoes like a split toe derby will be a neutral shoe where I hang around in the background. All my shoes have a role and emotion behind them. Some pairs are meant to get attention and others aren’t. I am a shooman so l can make a feature of my shoes and get away with things other men can’t.
To be continued …