Stepping Into the Sole of Luxury

Stepping Into the Sole of Luxury

Back row, left to right, Graziano & Girling Adelaide oxford in dark brown alligator, £5,250, and Adelaide semi-brogue in red calf, £,2720; Church's

 Diplomat, £370; George Cleverley shoe tree; Alfred Sargent Keats brogue in rosewood calf, £640, andCarrol loafer in tobacco suede, £640 (just 

seen); George Cleverley Chow buckled loafer in black calf, £940; Edward Green Piccadilly slip-on in calf, £620; Tricker's shoe in tan Scotch-grain

 leather, £330; John Lobb Russell II in dark brown misty calf, £630; Barkers Westfield in cedar calf, £210. Front row, left to right, George Cleverley

 Tavistock in midnight blue calf, £940; Alfred Sargent'sMiller boot in oak calf and espresso suede, £640
Tony Gaziano loves shoes. Which is a good thing, since he has spent his entire career making them—first, in the Northampton, England, workshops

 of Edward Green, before moving on to learn the art of handmade shoes at neighbors George Cleverley & Co., and finally setting up his own

 bespoke and made-to-measure shoe business in Kettering, with his partner Dean Girling.

To speak with him is to shine a light into a little bit of British manufacturing history that has survived. The U.K.'s reputation for making the finest cars

, building the most luxurious ocean liners and running the greatest leading hotels may have waned, but in the county of Northamptonshire, which lies 

between London and Birmingham, workshops still produce what are regarded by many as the finest gentlemen's shoes in the world.

From Oxford brogues to Derby loafers, opinion formers and captains of industry have flocked to London's Jermyn Street to frequent the boutiques

 of shoemakers such as Church & Co., John Lobb Ltd. and Tricker's. Former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir Winston Churchill, Aristotle

 Onassis, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire all bought and wore English shoes.

Obviously, I'm biased," says Mr. Gaziano, speaking from his workshop in Kettering, "as I spend so much of my time looking at people's shoes that I

 have become an atrocious shoe snob. But there is something special in an English shoe. First, there is the longevity; they are built to last. The sole 

is thicker, more durable and weighty. Then there is the upper. The calf leather is tougher; overall, it is a heavier-looking shoe. All this is balanced with

 a more refined, delicate look."

But what is it about English shoes that separate them from their competitors in France and Italy, countries that also supply most of the leather? What 

has enabled bespoke shoemakers such as John Lobb, which still make shoes for the royal family, to retain their reputation as among the best in the


Part of their appeal, one suspects, is the fact that for upward of £350 one can buy a small slice of a genuinely crafted, handmade luxury. Looked

 after sensibly, Mr. Gaziano says a pair of shoes will last up to 25 years, making them one of the most affordable entries into the world of high-end 

luxury and, for pounds per wear, they offer the canny investor a healthy return.


"You could say that the British have always had a slightly understated air, which is reflected in our choice of shoes," says Mr. Gaziano. "In terms of 

shoemaking, Italy is as respected as England, but Italian shoes always tend to be a little more over-detailed from the design element and they tend 

to concentrate that all in one area, which is the top side of the shoe. They never really understand what we are good at, the understated. There is an

 old saying that Italian suits work with English shoes. I agree with that. The pair match perfectly."

Others say it is the unique handmade process that sets them apart. Renaud Paul-Dauphin, chief executive of John Lobb, says that a large part of

 their appeal is the manufacturing process used by Northamptonshire shoemakers known as Goodyear welting. The method essentially refers to the

 practice where the upper part of the shoe—the leather—is attached to the inner and upper sole by sewing on a leather strip, known as the welt

. Inside the layer between the upper sole and the welt, another layer of cork is added to increase protection and provide underfoot cushioning

. Finally, the sole is attached to the welt by what is known as sole stitching, where the stitch passes through the top of the flattened welt and exits

 through a groove made in the sole. The benefit of this process is that there is a constant flow of air through the shoe, which keeps it ventilated and

 strong, and it means the shoe can be repaired many times over

Philippa Jones, managing director of Crockett & Jones, which was founded by her great grandfather in 1879, and where her father and grandfather

 are still on the board, says that "Goodyear-welted shoes are comfortable, your feet adapt to the shoes and people do not want to part with them."

With centuries-old shoemakers still turning out popular styles, the market obviously agrees. Brands that have been operating for more than a 150

 years, such as Church's, Crockett & Jones, Edward Green, John Lobb and Tricker's, still have factories in Northampton, says Rebecca Shawcross

, shoe resources officer at Northampton Museums and Art Gallery. And a little further afield, in the county of Northamptonshire, traditional shoemaker

s such as Barker, Loake and Alfred Sargent, and the recently formed Gaziano & Girling are still producing brogues, loafers and boots for boutiques

 in London, Paris and New York
ut the industry hasn't remained immune to change. Luxury-goods group Hermès took over John Lobb in the late '70s, leaving the bespoke shoe shop

 on St. James's Street to operate independently. Then in 1999, Italian fashion house Prada purchased Church's in a takeover that some loyal

 customers have suggested led to a change in style for the English shoemaker—a claim refuted by Church's, which maintains that there has been no

 change in style and that the craftsmanship has remained the same


It is a craftsmanship that historians say can trace its roots back to the 13th century. Ms. Shawcross says the unique geographical situation of 

Northampton, on the main drovers road to London, meant that a lot of farmers came through with their livestock, attracted by the proximity of the river

 Nene and the plentiful pastureland. With a large oak forest nearby, the town had all the raw materials for the tanning process and as a result, a


 industry emerged.

In 1213, King John, of Robin Hood fame, passed through Northampton and purchased some shoes. But the town came to national prominence in

 1649, when Oliver Cromwell's army, then fighting in Ireland, placed an order with the town's shoemakers, headed by Thomas Pendleton, for 4,000

 pairs of shoes and 600 pairs of boots. In the 1660s, historian Thomas Fuller wrote: "The town of Northampton may be said to stand chiefly on other

 men's legs. The most and cheapest, if not the best boots in England, are to be bought in Northampton."

It wasn't until the 19th century that the first factories emerged, with the introduction of the Blake sewing machine from America, which was too

 expensive for individual shoemakers to buy. In 1841, in what was perhaps the heyday for small shoemakers in Northampton, there were 1,821

 shoemakers in the town. By the end of World War I, the town had made more than 47 million pairs of shoes and boots for the British and Allied


According to Ms. Shawcross, the industry faced consolidation in the 1950s with the introduction of mechanization and mass production. Although 

bespoke shoemaking survived it evolved, into a smaller and more niche premium industry. An industry that John Lobb's Mr. Paul-Dauphin says is

 experiencing an uplift in recent years. As well as a sharp rise from traditional markets such as Europe and the U.S., new markets in Asia and the

 Middle East are growing as a vast swathe of the population wake up to attractions of tailor-made shoes.

"Our sales are up nicely," says Mr. Paul-Dauphin. "Ready-to-wear have a lot of the ingredients of bespoke, but there is something about bespoke that

 is special. We are making something for the first time, creating something that hasn't existed before."

The recent boom has led to a challenge on the old order. Gaziano & Girling was set up just four years ago and now bespoke is a large part of its


"A bespoke shoe is completely handmade," says Mr. Gaziano. "We take a measure of the customer's feet, a last of the foot is then carved out of

 wood and the shoe is made up to a half-way stage. We try the shoe on before it is finished off and the customer may go through half a dozen fittings

 before the shoe is complete. It really is an exact, tailored shoe

The process takes around 50 to 60 hours to construct, with the customer choosing the skins from a range that can include calf, bull frog and even

 crocodile skin. "It is not just about having a shoe made to fit your feet. It is about having the best materials, about everything being hand-stitched and

 it is about service and having the design you want."