Brogue traders break cover
It may have escaped your notice, but a barely perceptible revolution in men's shoes is taking place in Hong Kong. Where once the flashy and fleeting Italian and French designs held sway, there now appears to be a shift towards the more genteel way of doing things. American and British brands - along with a contingent that includes the Austrians and the Spanish - are starting to chip away at the long-time dominance of big luxury fashion houses. Their shoemakers are providing quality craftsmanship and value for money.
'I see glued-together fashion shoes selling for well over HK$10,000 and I don't see any handiwork in them. You need a craftsman to make good shoes,' says Wallace Chan, store manager at exclusive men's shoe shop Tassels.
Chan is so passionate about shoes that even an avowed sneaker wearer would find his enthusiasm infectious. He has helped to proselytise the virtues of handcrafted shoes to Hongkongers and it appears to be working. An increasing number of men are agonising over footwear as much as they would over the right watch.
Men are realising what women have always known: that the right shoes can make or break an outfit.
Ethan Newton, business development manager of The Armoury men's boutique in Central, is another missionary preaching the sartorial gospel. Newton sees that men are eschewing the more obvious luxury brands because 'the world has been overexposed to the notion of designer as celebrity'.
Newton believes men are looking for shoes where the value comes from form and function and not just logos. 'This idea of style by association - that something has style only because of the name written on it - means that men have been sold sub-par products at high prices for too long,' he says.
Education has provided an epiphany. 'As guys get savvier about what makes something better, they realise they've been taken for a ride. Handmade shoes seem justifiably priced when you see the work that has gone into the construction and finishing,' says Newton.
The 'sole searching' has led many men to the sleepy English town of Northampton. Just as Savile Row is synonymous with bespoke tailoring and Jermyn Street with fitted shirts, a genuine English gentleman goes to Northampton for his shoes. Its shoemaking history stretches as far back as the 13th century and over the years the town has provided shoes for clients including the British Army, prime ministers and James Bond. Shoemaking is so ingrained in the city's identity that even the local football team was nicknamed 'The Cobblers'.
The glory days of Northampton shoemaking on a mass scale are sadly no more. That's because globalisation and the almost pathological aversion to manufacturing that successive British governments have exhibited have put paid to a proud industry. But the surviving 'rump' of the shoe industry in Northampton has carved itself a niche at the high end of men's fashion. These craftsmen have become some of the most celebrated shoemakers in the world.
Storied names such as Edward Green, Crockett & Jones, Tricker's, Church & Co, Barker, John Lobb and Grenson have an almost cult-like following in places such as Japan and Germany. They count a number of proudly obsessive followers in Hong Kong, too. Victor Kwan, partner and manager at Tassels, believes that the internet and blogging, in particular, has helped to spread the word about quality handmade footwear.
'People are learning and sharing ideas. It's more internationalised because of the blogging. Japan is the leader - no doubt about it - China, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan all look to Japan. Here in Tassels we buy the Japanese magazines even though we don't read Japanese because the images are so good,' says Kwan.
This enthusiastic community of shoe lovers isn't just pursuing English brands. American companies Quoddy and Alden have built up a steady following in Hong Kong through trunk shows and extremely effective online coverage. The Armoury has given prominence to Austrian brand Saint Crispin's and Carmina of Spain, which uses the same methods as the more vaunted English brands. There are still some Italian brands pushing substance over style, such as Magnanni.
Sheung Wan-based interior designer and Tassels customer Jason Schlabach typifies the determined man who is looking for something more than a brand; he says the process of buying handcrafted shoes is an entirely different experience.
'When you're taken through everything to consider when picking out your shoes, and someone is there for all subsequent inquiries, it makes you aware of what is meant by heritage, personal attention, pride, craft and quality.'
Chan admits that shoe fittings have been known to go on for two hours as the Tassels staff focus on pairing the right shoe with the right customer. If the perfect fit or colour can't be found, then they can be made to order in Northampton, although it takes several months for them to be delivered to Hong Kong.
Chan says the customer relationship is deepened at events put on by stores such as Tassels and The Armoury.
'I go to trunk shows to meet the reps or designers. I go to any events that I can. Yes, a handshake and a personal face to the brand go a long way towards making an emotional connection,' says Schlabach.
The smaller, independent and more niche brands can afford this personal touch. But the product has to live up to its billing.
'Handmade is much more than about hands; it's about eyes studying the leather; about time and the whole relationship between the maker and the shoe,' says Euan Denholm, branding adviser at Edward Green. 'A process slowed down to allow the craftsman to know the material under his hands and control the making by each cut and stitch.'
Denholm adds that the quality of the materials Edward Green uses - the leather and wood - is fundamental to the shoemaking process. But these materials demand care and attention which an automated process can't match. 'A shoe made of corrected grain can be punched from anywhere on the skin because it's been made uniform. Not so with calfskin that reveals its blemishes along with its grain. That demands the care that only a human eye can provide.'
Quality, a sense of community and attention to detail are all attractive selling points for handmade shoes. But the trump card for Hong Kong might be longevity. The big French and Italian fashion houses have lucrative men's shoe businesses but often these expensive products have an aesthetic that will last, at best, a few seasons and, at worst, will fall apart rather quickly - especially those glued together rather than stitched.
With the economy still not out of the woods, enthusiasts argue that spending HK$5,000 to HK$10,000 on a handmade shoe that should last for years is a sound investment.
'Good shoes are like a good wine - they get better with age,' says Denholm of Edward Green. 'If you buy a suit you don't want to wear it in - the day you walk out of the tailor is the best it's going to be. But with good shoes the leather develops character as it ages, as the shoe moulds to your foot and as you polish and nurture its look.'
All manufacturers and retailers of handmade shoes cultivate the idea of a personal relationship between the shoe and its owner.
As Denholm puts it: 'Imagine if they were the shoes you wore on your wedding day. You could have them sent back to us in Northampton and remade, and remade again. You could still be wearing them 20 years later.'
The trend for brogue shoes with stitched wooden soles has gone mainstream, with Zara and H&M releasing much cheaper and inferior versions of handmade shoes. This suggests that the trend for such shoes is here to stay. Newton is bullish: 'I think the Hong Kong consumer is educated, and there will always be a place for handmade shoes.'
Kwan adds: 'It's not just what's 'in' now. Once people feel the comfort of a properly made pair of shoes, they don't want to go back. They can really feel the difference.
'We're all so busy here in Hong Kong. Men like being able to trust a shop to sort out their shoes, so they know that they will be taken care of, and will stand out from the crowd in our competitive city.'
Shoe and tell
Stow - a heavy duty take on the classic brogue. This Derby ankle boot features leather uppers and leather linings, double leather stitched sole.
Price HK$5,100 at Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, Central
Brogues with recycled compound Vibram Carrarmato sole.
Price HK$4,570 at Church's Pacific Place, Admiralty
Wide-soled leather brogue with intricate detailing.
Price HK$3,900 at Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, Central
Grizzly Boot, classic Americana, a hand-stitched moccasin construction ankle boot. Made of deerskin with a Vibram sole designed expressly for Quoddy.
Price HK$3,800 at Lane Crawford, IFC Mall, Central
Malvern Chameleon, leather brogue. Made-to-order shoe with a three- to four-month waiting time.
Price HK$9,500 at Tassels, The Landmark, Central