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Cheap bespoke – too good to be true?

10 June 2009

Entirely handmade shoes are not cheap. The high-end benchmade shoes are hand-clicked and hand-lasted, but not hand-welted. In this country, most of the entirely handmade ones are made bespoke. And that makes them even more expensive, as the shoe is being made unique to your foot, as well as being constructed by hand.

Most entirely handmade shoes are pushing £1000 or more. Laszlo Vass of shoemakers Vass in Hungary is one exception, but then unless you want a pair of shoes you haven’t tried on, you have to go to Budapest.
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One exception has recently popped out of the brickwork. His name is Clifford Roberts and he worked for one of Northampton’s biggest shoemakers for 30 years (though he won’t say which for the sake of discretion). Having left that firm, he now makes handmade shoes from his house, just outside the town. And they start at £290. Less than £300 for entirely handmade shoes.

Since he was first discovered, on eBay and by the members of a discussion here, the timeline for the work has extended for six weeks to twelve. But that is still a lot quicker than the five months it takes, for example, for a pair of made-to-order Gaziano & Girling shoes.

Several members of the forum have made their own orders and reported their results. The quality of the leather seems to be good, the fit equally good and all the work (noticeably, the welting) all done by hand. There have been one or two criticisms that the lasts Cliff works on are ‘blobby’, but this is only one of the three or four shapes he works with – and besides, it is a question of taste.

Now, the dream of any shoe geek is to be able to get bespoke handmade shoes at an affordable price. If Cliff can make handmade shoes, is there any way he can do bespoke? Well, in theory yes.

Pretty much all the lasts in this country are made by Spring Line in Northampton. The only remaining last-maker in Britain, the company makes wood and plastic lasts for everyone from Nike to Edward Green. They will make you a bespoke last for around £190 – just send them a 2D foot draft or a 3D foot scan.

The first of these methods of measurement should be done after requesting specific instructions from Spring Line. Or, ideally, by getting an experienced shoemaker to make a draft of your feet. The second method, though, is pretty easy to accomplish. Just go along to Lodger, the new shoe company on Clifford Street that has been mentioned on this site before. They use an electronic scanning and imaging machine to build up a 3D picture of your foot. It’s for their shoes, but they won’t mind doing it for your own use as well.

So measurements from Lodger, a bespoke last from Spring Line and then handmade shoes on that last from Cliff Roberts. Bespoke shoes for less than £500?

Well, not quite. You see, bespoke shoemaking is not that straightforward. No one gets your last and shoe right the first time. If you have a bespoke pair of shoes made at, say, Foster & Son, the process will involve several fittings. First you will get a trial shoe, only half made or constructed in a cheap leather than can be thrown away afterwards. You try that, you make a few comments and the last is adjusted accordingly. Even when the final shoe is constructed it can be altered, and often the last will be tweaked slightly for the next order.
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So to recreate this experience at Spring Line would take more than one visit to Northampton. For someone in the UK, this makes it a little tiresome. For someone in the US, it makes it impossible or very expensive – particularly given the extra steps and communication between the two craftsmen, of lasts and of shoes, that wouldn’t be needed at a bespoke shoemaker.

The other catch, of course, is that your last could only be in one toe shape. If you are at all interested in design, this could be a constriction. You could have another last made, but it would cost another £190.

Now if you already have a bespoke last you are happy with, you’re sorted. Just send it to Cliff with some instructions. Very few shoemakers will do made-to-order shoes on a bespoke last – they would rather you went through their bespoke service. But Cliff will do it for the same price.

Also, if you have very unusual feet (and live in the UK) it is still probably worth the effort to work with Spring Line and Cliff to get a last you are happy with. If you don’t, then (blasphemous as it is to say) ready-to-wear shoes are a good bet. The advantages of bespoke are not the same for everyone.