A highly specialized worker at Corthay’s new factory in France
Most men have a few pairs of good shoes in their closets, sitting alongside some old rejects which remain as a reminder of days gone by.
As a man refines himself, the subject of shoes takes on more of a priority, and the day finally arrives when it’s time to clear out those malformed cheap, shabby shoes and make room for some quality footwear.
How many times have we heard that the first thing that woman looks at is a man’s shoes? That you can judge a man by his shoes? Even the term well-heeled means that you are accomplished and successful.
Learning about what makes good pair of shoes and investing in shoes that have the potential to last decades seems to make sense, since most of us have our shoes on our feet for at least half of our lifetime.
However, there’s such a great diversity of choices with brogues, whole-cuts, spectators, cap toes, desert (chukka), chelsea boots, loafers, oxfords, balmorals, bluchers, opera shoes (pumps) and formal shoes, that buying great footwear can be a little confusing at first.
With more formal clothes, you can choose to wear oxfords, cap toes, balmorals, or even opera shoes. With amped up casual clothes, you may prefer bluchers, loafers, chelsea boots, suede shoes, brogue boots or moccasin style options. Just go with the mood of the occasion for the shoes you like, in order to make your final decision.
Although it takes time and experience to understand the realm of men’s shoes, we’ve provided a primer article for your reference entitled Four Things to Look for in a Good Pair of Shoes.
Before describing the difference between mass-produced, bench made and bespoke shoes, become familiar with these two terms:
1. The Last
To make a shoe, you begin with a last.
A last is a wooden or plastic three-dimensional template, that is designed based on the contours of the foot (and around which the components of the shoe itself is molded).
Plastic lasts are used, and re-used, for bench made shoes—but never for bespoke shoes.
Mass produced shoes also will always use plastic lasts that are obviously reused.
An example of (very high quality) plastic lasts :
With bespoke shoes, a unique last is made for each customer, created with wood—with the name of the client written on the wooden last.
Above : Tony Gaziano (Gaziano and Girling) and Yasuhiro Shiota (Aubercy)
2. The Vamp:
The vamp covers the top of the foot. It’s that simple, and the vamp is the key area of design and distinction for a shoe.
The vamp is often referred to as the part of the shoe that covers the top of your foot.
This generic definition of the vamp is true and untrue at the same time, because if you wish to be technically specific, the vamp is the section between the laces (instep) and the toes (toe cap).
The vamp is really just the part of the shoe that follows the area where the shoe flexes up and down to the side —- although on a shoe with a design like a whole cut, you could really say that the entire top part of the shoe can be called “the vamp”.
Above : Dimitri Gomez and Berluti’s bespoke workshop.
A pair of shoes made completely by hand with no machine intervention and no “standard last” is strictly bespoke.
Bespoke shoes are extremely expensive (running into the thousands of dollars), take months to complete, and may require a moderate “break-in” time.
Above, bespoke wonders by : Pierre Corthay, Berluti, Gaziano and Girling and Dimitri Gomez.
But, bespoke shoes can fit like a second skin and are made with extremely high quality materials–not to mention the esteem of wearing on your feet, a piece of art created by an accomplished artisan.
Next in line after bespoke shoes, are bench made shoes which are made with plastic lasts, typically always reused, with the exception of a very few number bench made makers who offer to customize a last for certain clients with problematic feet (by cork-padding or cutting away areas on the standard last to accommodate uniquely formed feet).
Bench made means that shoes are made by a group of artisans who often work from a bench, using a pre-existing last–although admittedly, this is a definition from the olden times—as modern day bench made shoes are made in a factory by people who can be sitting or standing, and who are acutely skilled in using specific machinery.
Above : The J.M. Weston factory in Limoges France, one of the most impressive quality footwear factories in the world.
To produce high quantities of bench made shoes requires a small team of cobblers working together to make shoes not only by hand, but also with the assistance of very specific manual machines, with each machine being operated manually by a dedicated cobbler focusing on one shoe at a time.
Above : Gaziano & Girling and Corthay cobblers working in their factories.
Bench made shoes are made with leather and the vamp of the shoe has a couture-like design that is highly refined. The heel can be made of all leather or under specific circumstances, of rubber.
Above, marvelous bench made shoes by Corthay, Gaziano and Girling, Saint Crispin’s and J.M. Weston.
A big step down from bench made shoes are mass-produced shoes, formed over plastic lasts.
Mass produced shoes are much less durable and made with cheaper materials—like lower grade, thinner and often times highly sanded and surface-treated leather to hide imperfections.
Mass produced shoes have more glued areas than bench made and bespoke shoes, which can make mass produced shoes almost impossible to re-sole.
The inner lining of mass produced shoes can be made of canvas instead of leather material. The advantages of using leather lining inside bespoke and bench made shoes include better comfort and less moisture from sweating, which breaks down the durability of the shoe. Leather lining also forms better to the foot, which provides more comfort after being on your feet all day long.
To produce high quantities of shoes, mass produced shoes are always made with the help of machinery, with very little handwork required.
Many thanks to Justin Fitzpatrick (http://www.theshoesnobblog.com) for his review and most excellent editing work.