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Sales success: George Cleverley bespoke

4 January 2009

My philosophy has always been to buy classic items that will last me a long time, in the best quality I can afford. Over time, I will upgrade the clothes I have and give away the old ones, rather than merely accumulate. There’s nothing wrong with variety, but I want my clothes to be worn regularly. Buying something cheap that will rarely be used is not value for money.

Buying extremely high-quality clothes that won’t go out of style, and looking after them well, is almost a form of miserliness. Though I do seem to spend more and more money on clothes over time. Hmm.

I was pleased to prove loyal to this theory in the January sales. Having saved up a few hundred pounds in the preceding months, I was on the lookout for one of two classic items: a navy, double-breasted overcoat or a pair of black Oxfords. My only overcoat is not that suitable for business and I really need more than one pair of black shoes.

My luck struck at George Cleverley, one of England’s oldest and arguably best bespoke shoemakers.

It’s not the easiest place to find, or even to get into. Tucked half way down the Royal Arcade off Bond Street, it’s a small shop that requires a doorbell summons. I had been in once out of curiosity, but was lured in this time by the ready-to-wear shoes that were going for £225 down from £400.

Something much better was in store for me, though. (No pun intended.)

The sales assistant Andy pointed out to me that Cleverley was selling off a few bespoke and semi-bespoke shoes that had either not been picked up by clients or were ex-display. In the case of the bespoke shoes, that meant a reduction in price from £2000-£2500 to £300-£500.

The shoes are made by hand; the difference between the bespoke and semi-bespoke being that, with bespoke, the sole is also sewn on by hand. Apparently this adds up to £1000 to the price.

Of course, they were made specifically for someone else’s feet, not mine. But then any pair of ready-to-wear shoes is made for another pair of feet as well – the mythical average or standard proportions that no one actually conforms to.

Of the three pairs on offer, two were too wide and had too much arch support. The third fit very well. A little big across the bridge perhaps, but only a little.

Interestingly, I didn’t have my normal problem with any of the bespoke or semi-bespoke shoes. For those who haven’t read all about my feet and their oddities on this blog, the “normal problem” is that a narrow shoe crunches my little toe while a broad shoe, or a bigger shoe, leaves too much room at the back – there isn’t enough purchase to stop my heel from lifting out.

Bespoke shoes are generally made with narrower heels and higher backs. The heel can afford to be narrower because there is no risk of preventing some men from actually getting their foot in (a similar dynamic to suit sleeves always being a little too long – few people notice if they’re long but everyone notices if they’re short).

The back can afford to be higher for a similar reason – it can curve more to the shape of the client’s heel and not risk being too tight on anyone else.

This is one reason shoe horns have fallen out of use – it is almost impossible to get into a bespoke shoe without one, even if you’re in a hurry and don’t care about ruining the heel’s structure.

(In the book “Spies” by Michael Frayn, he describes life during the Second World War in England – a time he lived through. The hat stands in the hall are remembered as being “littered with shoe horns, clothes brushes and the like”. How many houses are like that today?)

Of course, the most noticeable thing about a bespoke shoe is the shape of its sole – particularly the waist. As the picture shows, the waist is far narrower than on a ready-to-wear shoe. The sole also does not mirror itself as it curves around the rest of the foot, turning outwards earlier and much more sharply on the instep. This reflects the actual shape of the foot more accurately.

Bespoke shoes are also a lot lighter (I don’t know the reason for this, if anyone does please tell me) and are rounded or “bevelled” across the whole sole. Sit them on the ground and they can rock slightly from side to side.

The reason ready-to-wear shoes have wider waists, flat soles and symmetric sides is economics – just like everything else in the manufacture of clothes. It takes longer to do it, so it costs more, so they don’t do it.

(As a side note, it does not do to follow this rule absolutely. Things that take more time and are therefore more expensive are not necessarily better. A seven-fold tie, for instance, is harder to construct but is arguably of no greater quality – different types of tie construction are largely a matter of taste and personal preference.)

Anyway, back to the shoes. I bought that third bespoke pair, as you have probably guessed. On the way out, one of the craftsmen (there is still work done on the premises) congratulated me on the purchase, mentioning that the shoes were originally made for a hedge fund manager whose fund went bust. Apparently he lost £80 million.

The craftsman also mentioned that the shoe trees alone normally cost £200, yet they were thrown in with the price. A pretty good bargain, and true to my philosophy of upgrading rather than merely adding to a collection. I may never be able to afford real bespoke, but having shoes made with that quality of craftsmanship is a significant step up.

The only problem now is I only get to buy one thing in the sales. No more browsing for the rest of January.