An intense conversation with master bootmaker Stephane Jimenez

An intense conversation with master bootmaker Stephane Jimenez

There are some of us who prefer to stick to our roots and stay on our path--foregoing the bells and whistles and hoopla circulating around us. This way of life is a chosen one and in the end, the consistency usually pays off.

Inside the small world of bespoke footwear, it is an understatement to say that the name of Stephane Jimenez is revered.

Testimonies of a few names you may recognize :

  • Pierre Corthay, one of his Compagnon's brothers expresses his highest regard for Stephane's work.
  • Antony Delos, one of Stephane's students during the rigor of training of the "Tour de France" continues to recite heartfelt praises of the man and his virtuoso work.
  • Seiji Miyagawa, the Japanese bespoke boot-maker at Mario Bemer in Florence, names Stephane as one of his all-time greatest sources of inspiration, and the list goes on...

Early accolades include member of the Compagnon du Devoir (the French craftsmen brotherhood guilde), experience at John Lobb Paris (boot-maker and maintenance atelier creator) and head of Stefano Bemer bespoke atelier.

Paradoxically, in public, the Stephane Jimenez name remains confidential.

Last year, Stephane finally decided to launch his personal bespoke operation in Bordeaux, along with his wife Tomoé (see StephaneJimenezBottier).

To get the story straight-from-the-mouth of Stephane Jimenez, I spoke to him personally at length about his vision of bootmaking, the trade, and most of all...about his spectacular shoes.

Stephane Jimenez Bottier : patine Stephane Villette 2

PG : You have a rich history working with John Lobb in France and Stefano Bemer himself in Italy. Can you give us an idea about what it was like to work with Lobb? How about Stefano Bemer?

SJ : John Lobb, Paris, is a magnificent traditional boot making house whom made it possible for me and fellow compagnons to advance quickly in experience and know-how of the trade. Working for Lobb also created a sense of professionalism among the gifted bootmakers who worked there.

Those who passed through the Lobb institution still owe a lot to the company—including great names like Eric Devos, Anthony Delos, Philippe Atienza, and Pierre Corthay.

I left the company because eventually, it represented a type of “golden prison” that limited my personal progress. Although there was an enormous amount of individual skill and technical know-how there, it felt as if team cohesion wasn’t a priority, and this absence of a coherent team spirit was out of line with my personal convictions about how a workshop should operate.

At Stefano Bemer, during the time he was still alive, I found the right place for me. Everything needed to be done. I had a staff to train, projects to develop, and a fantastic spirit of creativity. No rules. No traditional frame of thinking. And mostly, a good team and family spirit of closeness, freedom and creation. This time in Italy proved pivotal in helping me get rid of many personal limitations. The atmosphere I experienced when crafting with Stefano Bemer himself, his family, and the other workers, is the same spirit that I want to nurture inside the Stephane Jimenez atelier.

Stephane Jimenez Bottier Brogue

PG : Your years of experience of not only shoemaking, but also in shoe reparation, is vast. Can you tell us about what kinds of shoes you’ve repaired and perhaps share some things you’ve learned through literally tearing different types of shoes apart and reconstructing them?

SJ : Many people who are doing my job, even the greatest houses, have never deconstructed their own pairs of shoes!

With my wife, Tomoé, we ran a cobbler workshop in Bordeaux for 10 years. Our shop was dedicated to serious shoe repair only—that is, no keys or car I.D. plates or side projects detracted us from the job at hand.

For years, we’ve been tearing apart and dissecting the best brands in the world—like Edward Green, Gaziano & Girling, Crockett and Jones, Corthay, Berluti, Weston, Santoni and Lobb, which I already knew too well. The only reason we were privileged enough to tear apart, explore and repair all these wonderful shoes is because we had the honor to service a most incredible and fantastic high-level clientele.

Some of the shoes we worked on have been beautiful products, but what I regret is that many of these houses did not and do not maintain and repair their own products. If only they would deconstruct their own products, they would learn so much about how their shoes are aging, and how they can be improved as well as their product’s weaknesses and strengths. The reparation process confirmed to me that crafting a shoe without an awareness of how it is aging is nonsense. It represents to me a lack of professionalism—simply because discoveries during the reparation process should be a part of the conception of the product itself. By choosing not to repair their own shoes, these companies miss important information to help them craft better. For example, shoes with certain metal shanks can experience rust on the metal. Only through deconstructing an aged shoe is it possible to know this.

These companies who produce on a routine basis can miss the most basic information about their own shoes, which can be easily discovered by repairing the shoes they make—like where the shoe needs reinforcement. If shoe companies maintained their own shoes, they would probably quickly improve the way shoes are crafted in the first place.

As far as I know, only Weston has its own workshop for maintenance, an operation which is pretty organized but famously known for its long delay times. But for the others, there is no consistent system in place that I’m aware of—maybe because it can take as long to deconstruct and reconstruct a pair of shoes as it does to build them. But again, these companies miss the point…it’s not about how long it takes to repair a shoe but about what you can learn in the process and the quality of service you provide for your customer.

stephane-jimenez at work

Crafting a new product is easier than repairing an aged shoe. For big shoe brands, repairing an aged shoe is complex and painful in terms of organization. Lobb did the job for a while, but eventually stopped and asked me, in the late 1990s, to organize a fully mechanized reparation workshop—which I did for them until I left the company for Bemer in 2000.Of course, it is my goal to take care of my own shoes. I want to organize my company to take care of the maintenance of every shoe made under my name. You can create an amazing relationship with clients by combining crafting, selling, and reparation. Such a relationship continues after the sale and this is a much better scenario, compared to simply selling a pair of shoes and then saying to your customer “you’re on your own so help yourself…”

What I find stupid is that big brands do not even make the effort to train “outside cobblers” on how to maintain their products. Why do these companies not take the time to educate outside cobblers on how to take care of their shoes?  For example, competent cobblers could be ‘officially accredited’ for the maintenance of shoes of specified companies. If my team becomes too overwhelmed to repair our own products, I intend to use this model of accrediting cobblers to repair shoes. The effort is worth building a long-lasting trust with customers—not unlike buying a beautiful car which you know will be well-maintained by the car maker.

The great thing about maintaining your own products is that you get direct feedback from clients on how your shoes are performing and how you can make them better. If we are able to do this properly as we develop, we will have an arsenal of information on how to make the best shoes possible, whether bespoke, MTM or RTW.

I want to push the concept of service in our trade to a new level. We already replace the “Jimenez irons” for customers free of charge, which gives us a chance to do other things like refresh the heel or leather.  As you have probably figured out by now, uncompromising customer care on every pair of Stephane Jimenez shoes is my obsession.

I once had a client who owned a pair of Edward Green’s that he loved to wear. I resoled this same pair of EG shoes five times! Each time, I restitched the sole by hand with careful attention to each pre-existing hole. The shoes have had a long life because I respected the shoe and the work of the shoemaker. If you miss a hole with a machine during restitching, the leather can tear and it can be a disaster for the performance of the shoe, and so with all high level shoes, only hand stitching was acceptable.

As of today, the best houses for “ready-to-wear quality construction”, according to my personal experience are Edward Green in the UK, even if they use gemming (see below) and J.M. Weston in France. The latter provides consistent quality because they think about how shoes will be repaired before making them—which gives Weston the advantage for improved design and function.

Stephane Jimenez Souliers noirs bespoke
Stephane Jimenez Chukka : Patine Stephane Villette

PG : The big controversy of “to gem or not to gem” a shoe continues. Can you describe the meaning of “gemming” and give your final word on the subject?

SJ : This is a very polemic subject, but I have a marked point of view on the topic.

First, I’m not against gemming, but it’s important to go back to the traditional definition of Goodyear construction in order to be informed. I’m not speaking of the definition of Goodyear by Wikipedia, but rather from a shoe maker’s dictionary—which describes a method of shoe assembly in which a ribbed welt is stitched directly into the insole.

The precise problem with gemming is that the insole itself is not attached to the welt; instead, what I call “a synthetic wall” [or strip of canvas called gemming] is glued around the perimeter of the insole. This synthetic wall which is glued to the insole, extends-out past the perimeter of the insole, waiting to be sewn into the shoe. I like to use the term "synthetic wall" because the word gemming can be confusing since the word describes the synthetic wall itself, but has also evolved to describe the "process" of gluing the synthetic wall to the insole.

When a "cemented synthetic wall" is introduced as an attach-point for the sole—for me, this is not the definition of Goodyear (whether machine or hand-welted).

Some say that the gemmed shoe can be sturdy and is much easier to make, but the welt is not stitched through the insole, it is stitched to the wall glued to the insole!Many of the great houses I love which are located in England, Spain and Portugal use gemming, but few if any, use the method in Italy. Until recently, many shoemakers in Italy didn’t even know that gemming existed!

I ask myself why a shoe maker would not stay with traditional Goodyear welting techniques? The answer is that through the practice of gemming, one can save up to four hours of work on a pair of shoes and it is much easier to sew through a strip of fabric surrounding the insole than it is to sew through the leather insole itself. Also, preparing the insole for traditional Goodyear welting does take time, as the leather around perimeter of the insole has to be sculpted down (i.e., ribbed) to prepare for the sewing process and to fit nicely around the perimeter the shoe. In my opinion, this time-savings and ease-of-work are the only reasons a maker would choose the practice of gemming instead of the practice of traditional Goodyear welting.

I have seen firsthand a few problems that can occur when shoes are gemmed. For example, sometimes the wall glued to the insole is ill-placed and other times sweat and moisture causes slippage of the entire insole. Later, when a shoe owner takes his shoes in for repair, if the gemmed-area is a mess, resoling can prove so difficult that I’ve seen (bad) cobblers deconstruct the gemmed shoe and resort to clandestinely reconstructing the shoe in Blake instead of Goodyear! These types of stories increase my distaste for the practice of gemming.

I’m ready to engage with anyone on the subject of gemming. Many will say that I am playing with words in regard to the definition of Goodyear and what I speak about is strictly “hand welting”. But I disagree because I am among the purists advocating for the nobility of the Goodyear method, and I’m annoyed by these details which goes against the original definition of Goodyear.


PG : You have said “a good blake constructed shoe is better than a bad goodyear constructed shoe”. Can you explain in layman’s terms what you mean by this statement?

SJ : That is also a polemic debate, and it is linked to the question above about gemming.

If a synthetic wall is badly positioned on a Goodyear shoe, during welting, the down-stitch can be thrown off position and cut and destroy the line of thread—thus compromising the structural integrity of the shoe. [Note: the down stitch requires a closer stitching pattern than the up-stitch. A ‘lock stitch’ method is also used on all stitching to ensure the chain will not unravel if any stitch in the chain breaks]. Good cobblers will confirm this problem to you : when this happens (and it happens a lot on low cost Goodyear shoes), the shoe is compromised, if not dead.

I love a beautiful Goodyear shoe, but a well-made Blake shoe can also be of very good quality. In fact, if you know how to properly change the insole of a Blake shoe, the shoe can have a new life. Working with a Blake can be technical and complex, but a good cobbler will be able to do it.The advantage of the Blake is that there is no « wall » and that the stitching is made directly from the outside to the inside of the shoe. In one stitching, the shoe is assembled. The line of stitching is visible inside a Blake shoe. And for me, it should not be covered by any neoprene sole because if you want to keep the properties of the leather (even with absorption of the sweat) it’s better to walk directly on the sole.

A good Blake has a lot of advantages in terms of softness, flexibility and comfort. And unlike what many people say without really knowing the subject, a Blake shoe can actually be perfectly maintained and resoled by a competent cobbler. I have personally resoled many good quality Blake shoes [Aubercy, Santoni] and if the upper is in good condition, a resoled Blake can be ready-to-go for another decade.

On the contrary, when a cemented wall on a GoodYear shoe is destroyed, it’s very difficult to properly repair the shoe without using the last that has been used to make it. Some cobblers, when they have to deal with this type of issue, don’t even try to redo a wall (like I used to do), and prefer to transform a Goodyear into a Blake which is very bad because the Blake stitching will “cut the wall” and the whole GY construction is damaged.A good Blake, unlike what many forums says, can be of high quality, very comfortable and easy to maintain. Just find yourself a great cobbler, which is not so easy, I admit.

Stephane Jimenez Bottier

PG : Through the power of observation, how can someone tell the difference between a bespoke shoe and a ready-to-wear shoe ?

SJ : On some very rare high-end RTW products it can indeed be very difficult for a client to tell the difference. Of course I immediately know if a shoe is bespoke or RTW, but some high quality shoes can be very close to bespoke in terms of quality of construction. To tell the difference look for level of finishing, narrow bevelled waists, or an English heel [i.e., a heel-back which is set flush against the shoe upper, where there is practically no ‘break in the line’ of the back of the shoe].

In order to reach the highest quality of RTW finishing, some hand work is required. Today, no machine is able to do what an artisan’s skilled hands are able to produce in terms of precision and beauty. Even a very experienced technician cannot produce a perfect English heel with a machine because it’s a meticulous process and getting too close to the leather of the upper with a machine can be risky. Only the hand can produce this level of finesse.

On the subject of heels, very few people know that each house has its own heel style. For example, the John Lobb heel (aka « the Parisian heel ») has a square proportion where the length is equal to the width. Others, like Corthay or Gaziano, prefer to have rectangle proportions with a slightly stretched length. In fact, I’m able to say if a shoemaker has been trained at Lobb or not, just by looking at the heels he produces!

Anyway, a bespoke client normally educates himself on what makes the difference between a true bespoke shoe and any other type of shoe. Today commissioning a bespoke shoe by an artisan is almost a militant gesture.

Bespoke footwear is, in my opinion, a summit in the luxury world, with extreme refinement and the quest for details in terms of proportion, stitching, construction, and pattern. Bespoke has no limits, but you must educate yourself a lot in order to understand and truly appreciate it. Money alone is not a sufficient motivator to own a pair of bespoke shoes—what we speak about is wearing a unique object which is created exclusively for ONE person in a world of billions.

PG : What bespoke shoe makers do you admire and why? What makes your bespoke shoes different from these makers that you admire?

SJ : This is a very difficult question for me, because most of my friends are shoemakers and are French, Italian, Japanese or Spanish … Each of them inspire me for different reasons : for some of them it’s because of the design of their shoes, for others it’s because of their mastery of proportions, for others it’s because of their creativity. And above all it’s the passion they show for their craft that touches me.

I particularly loved the work of Gatto in Rome, of Cleverley in London, of Lobb in Paris (where I was trained) and of Corthay in Paris. All of them for different reasons as I mentioned above. But the most inspiring shoes for me, when I was still in training, were old pairs of Gatto and Cleverley.

What Stefano Bemer brought to me was different. It was not about the shoes themselves, not even about the technique, but more about the state of mind and the freedom of creation. Stefano helped me to open my mind, to get rid of my technical limits and to understand that rules exist to be broken. This was a very difficult thing for me as a Compagnon because in this unique corporation we are trained according to the strict rules of shoemaking. So it took me some time to really understand what Stefano wanted to teach me. Actually I probably really understood it only a few years ago. When I was working with him, as the head of his workshop, he was sometimes asking me to craft some crazy projects. Many times I asked him : « How can I do this ? ». His answer was always the same : « It’s your problem , not mine ».

I’ve been inspired by the old pairs of Cleverley because of the lines, the style, the proportions and the lasts although it was a little too British for me. The old pairs of Gatto from Rome were less conservative, more audacious, more creative, with a lot of freedom in the colors of the leather and of the threads.

When I was working at Stefano, back in the years, one of our good clients passed away. His widow came one day at the workshop to donate to us all the bespoke shoes of her husband. Among these shoes were 15 pairs of Gatto. I can confess today that I’ve spent hundred of hours studying this marvelous shoes in terms of lines and proportions. Of course as they were pure Italian shoes, they were sometimes really crazy and even a little bit too much. But I found all of them to be very interesting and inspiring for me.

I also love the Japanese shoemakers of course. As you know my wife is Japanese and is also a bootmaker. We work together. In the future, I would love to have more Japanese bootmakers in my team because they are great artisans with an impeccable spirit and I love to work with them.

My favorite Japanese workshop nowadays is Tye Shoemaker. These people are insanely gifted and passionate about their work.

My work today probably represents a fusion between the old bootmakers that I worshiped (Gatto, Cleverley), the contemporary ones with whom I’ve been raised as a shoemaker (Lobb, Corthay) and the new ones that I admire, like Tye in Japan. It’s difficult for me to speak about my own work, because in the small world of bespoke bootmakers, we all have a lot of respect for each other and we are traditionally very discreet and low-key about our own work. But to put it in simple words, we try, at Jimenez Bottier, to push the limits of the craft in terms of precision, of proportions and, of course, of extreme quality of construction.

Stephane Jimenez trunk show

PG : If someone is investing in a pair of bespoke shoes for the first time, what are the few things he should be aware of ?

SJ : The first thing a person should be aware of is the difference between a real bespoke shoe, a Made-to-Measure shoe (on standard lasts that are modified for him) and a Made-to-Order shoe (standard last and standard pattern). It’s the difference between a 800 euros and a 6000 euros shoe. Today a lot of people claim to do bespoke shoes. But at 800 euros, it’s not bespoke. It’s just not possible. Even at 3000 euros, it’s generally not real bespoke but hand-made shoes on modified lasts.

When you enter the world of real bespoke you enter a different world in terms of leather quality, of sculpted last and, overall, of precision of work. Going bespoke today, requires a lot of education in order to really understand what you buy and the unique experience that goes with it.

PG : Why is the Borgo model unique ? Does anyone else offer such a shoe on the market?

SJ : I think that except the boot that Anthony Delos crafted for his « Best Craftsman in France » prize a few years ago (and that he replicated for one client later at Berluti), nobody is currently offering this kind of product on the market today : an hybrid shoe with Norwegian stitching on the front of the shoe and normal stitching at the back.

The name Borgo is coming from « Borgo San Frediano 143 » which was the address on the ancient workshop of Stefano Bemer in Florence back in the years. In fact I started working on this idea at Stefano’s workshop when we’d been working on a prototype with Norwegian construction on the front of the shoe, a rounded bevelled waist (internal and external) and an English heel. But we never finalized this project which was extremely technical and difficult to craft.

Stephane Jimenez Borgo 4

What I did when I opened my workshop, is to « urbanize » and update the model. When I say « urbanize », it means, for example, that I used a thinner thread of linen for the Norwegian stitching in order to slightly offset the countryside character of this kind of construction. The Borgo that you can see now actually has nothing in common anymore with the Bemer prototype, but the idea of the model was born at the time.This shoe is full of small details that even the customer will probably not see at a first glance. For example we decided, with Tomoé, to play with the perforations on the model which progressively evolve from a round shape in the middle to a star shape at the front and at the back. This is the essence of bespoke : extreme details that are almost invisible at first but which make a world of difference in terms of sophistication and refinement at the end.

PG : Can you tell us about the masterpiece you presented for your Compagnons reception work? Is this motorbike boot available to be ordered today?

SJ : I think that this creation (which represents a once-of-a-lifetime piece of work in the Compagnons guild and which is commonly called your 'Masterpiece') is pretty much a mirror of myself, a translation of my spirit, my obstinence and my passion for the craft.

You may not know this, but if you are officially accepted as a « Compagnon » in the great family of the « Compagnons du Devoir » in France, the tradition is that your peers give you a name based on the region you hail from (Bordeaux in my case) combined with a particular trait of your character. My compagnon’s name is « Bordelais la persévérance » (Bordelais, the perseverance). This particular work is an insane work which required not only an enormous amount of time, but also a lot of courage and total dedication without faltering.

When I started the project, I decided to do it entirely alone, with no help : no last maker, no pattern cutter, no closer—just me, including all external stitching of the upper by hand. No machines…strictly by hand !.

This piece took me 450 hours of work. During the making of my masterpiece, I went through all kinds of problems and all sorts of emotions, from tears, to discouragement, to joy—but an amazing human experience.

Of course we’ve received some quote requests for this particular model, but 450 hours of work by hand makes this pair accessible only to an ultra niche of those who are wealthy and educated in the art of shoe craftsmanship. Still, we are thinking of making this model in a more mechanized way combining machine and handwork.

Stephane Jimenez Boots

PG : Tell us about your wife Tomoe’s experience with bespoke shoe making and how you met her ?

SJ : My wife’s name is Tomoé Furuta, she’s 40 years old and she’s from the town of Sapporo in Japan.

When I was working as the head of the atelier at Stefano Bemer, I decided to offer to my cousin and her future husband, two pairs of bespoke shoes for their wedding. It was my wedding present to them. At this time Tomoé Furuta was working at Roberto Ugolini as a bootmaker (not a closer). But she was doing some closing as extra work after her day work at Ugolini. Some of my Japanese staff at Bemer told me about her and her extreme quality of work in closing. For those who are not familiar with the term closing (« piquage in French ») let me re-define it precisely. A closer is someone that will start with a cardboard pattern, then cut the leather parts (according to the pattern), then work on the finesse of different shoe parts to refine the look, and finally stitch the entire object. A closer transforms flat cardboard parts into a 3D object called the upper. This is in my opinion, the most important part of the shoemaking process with the last-making, because these two things (the last and the upper) are the visual parts of a pair of shoes.

For this wedding present (the two pairs) I had very high expectations and was extremely demanding. At the time, the closer working for Stefano Bemer didn’t have the level of precision I was seeking for this specific project. So I met Tomoé and immediately connected in our approaches, and we loved each other—at first professionally and later personally. We got married a little later. Tomoé is the same as me except she may be even more demanding, which I didn’t believe existed.

Working with my wife is a great blessing. She’s extremely involved in all the models we create and we constantly discuss the lasts and the details. We share the same extreme passion for our craft.

PG : Speak about the favorite subject of many shoe lovers: leather quality, and also tell us how a customer may feel confident about the leather quality of shoes crafted by Stephane Jimenez .

SJ : Up to now, we work with small quantities of skins and are probably among the most uncompromising artisans on leather.For example if I consider that we need to « declassify » a color (i.e.; to remove it from our leather samples), we will do so without hesitation.

Declassification happens with tanneries that slip in quality; for example, colors become more and more covered with chemical treatments, making it almost impossible to apply a patina. Corthay had this problem recently with a previously successful color. The leather was so covered that even glazing proved difficult. Corthay had no choice but to continue ordering the leather because the color was selling so well. We want to remain strict about our own stand on declassification, though. If quality is suffering from heavy chemical treatments, we intend to remove it from our collections and locate something similar, which can be even more beautiful. It’s not a problem for us to be uncompromising because it is in our core personality to behave this way.

The main problem with many shoemakers is that they become slack in regard to searching for near-perfect skins. Many shoemakers work with tanneries by habit and by routine and most of them order leather by phone.

We go to the tanneries to choose the leather—by firsthand observation and technical and qualitative evaluation only. The way you choose a skin is specific : first you choose it visually; The skin has to be pristine with almost no marks or scratches. And then, it’s all about the hand and the sensation you feel when you touch the skin : not too soft, not too dry, and a good elasticity, but not too much. We have the luck to have access to exceptional skins, through my rich experience and contacts in the industry, despite our small volumes to date.The crucial problem today for a lot a shoemakers is a lot of the tanneries have been purchased by luxury groups. The result has destroyed much of the competition from fine artisans since these tanneries require minimum volumes (that are enormous for artisans like us) to work with them. Some tanneries require that you order 100 meters by color, which is insane! Eventually, this unfair practice has to change. I know a lot of talented leather good makers and shoemakers who have tremendous problems of leather supply because of the nasty strategy of some luxury groups who want to keep the best skins for themselves. It’s a shame and I feel fortunate to have the contacts in the business to avoid this very-present problem.


PG : A lot of people are using the word “bespoke” even though what they are purchasing is not actually true bespoke, can you clearly define what makes a shoe a true bespoke one ?

SJ : That’s easy : it’s a unique shoe made for a unique client, which requires multiple fittings.  Each facet for each individual is unique and cannot be replicated for others: including the last, the pattern, the proportions, the skin. The bespoke shoe will last your entire lifetime, if you follow a few maintenance guidelines. The beautiful thing about owning bespoke shoes is that as the years pass and your forget all about the shoes you are wearing, others will continue to remind you of how stunning they are—for the patina of time enriches the beauty of the shoe.

Whenever we deliver a pair of Stephane Jimenez shoes, we deliver a part of ourselves. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to let a pair go after so many hours of work, sweat and love. Giving up the shoes we craft can feel like giving up “our babies” for adoption—and we really hope the buyer feels a true emotion for the shoes. My vision for the future of my atelier is to protect our uncompromising beliefs and to recruit only shoemakers who share the same level of passion and love for our craft.

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Contact: stephanejimenezbottier@yahoo.comStephane Jimenez Instagram

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