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Daring soles

Bespoke shoemaking for men is more than a business - it's an art that offers customers the very best and the most exclusive, writes Vivian Chen

 

Looking for a pair of Oxfords to match the colour of your Ferrari, or perhaps boots with details inspired by the dashboard of your private jet? Consider it done. Luxury artisanal shoemakers are amping up their game in the bespoke department to satisfy your wildest demands. In light of the promising global sales in menswear, luxury fashion brands have been jumping on the bandwagon of personalisation from suits to accessories, either through exclusive VIP programmes or innovative retail concepts - cue Tod's, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. The trend has also extended the spotlight to artisanal shoemakers that are otherwise best-kept-secrets of modern dappers in the know.

The history of such artisanal shoemakers can be traced back to almost a century ago - some are still family-owned and many of their craftsmen have worked for more than two decades in the trade. French shoemaker J.M Weston, which counts former French president Nicolas Sarkozy as a fan, for example, started its operation in 1891, while its British counterpart Edward Green was founded in 1890. Both Spanish shoemaker Magnanni and Italian shoemaker Bontoni - based in the Marche region - are still operated by the third generation of their founding families.

Their know-how, nurtured and passed on through time, has continued the legacy of classic shoemaking, especially showcased in the bespoke and made-to-measure department.

When we met Magnanni's co-owner Miguel Blanco earlier this year during his customised trunk show at Lane Crawford at IFC Mall, the apron-clad man looked more of an artisan than an entrepreneur.

Although Blanco oversees the company's design and operation with his brothers, he is still hands-on with production and quality control. Blanco's expertise is the colour paint finish - a delicate craft that can take four hours just to get the right shade.

The technique, Blanco says, isn't the most difficult part. "[Trainee artisans] have to work on the same bench with the veterans and only through time, [do] they get the house aesthetics. The differences are so subtle that they are only visible to a trained eye."

These artisans practise near-extinct manual skills that can only be learned through experience and time. Among the 400 artisans working at Magnanni's atelier in Spain, only about 25 of them work on hand colouring finish.

Newcomers including Italian cobbler A. Testoni, launched in the 1930s, and French label Corthay, which started its bespoke workshop at Paris' Place Vendôme in 1990, also have dedicated artisans who have been working for more than 20 years.

"There are people who have been working for us for more than 25 years. It takes about 15 to 20 years to train an artisan to perfectly carry out all the steps in constructing an A. Testoni shoe," says CEO Bruno Fantechi.

Pierre Corthay, too, joined the trade as a shoemaker in 1979 when he was only 16 years old. After honing his skills at famous shoemakers, including John Lobb, he started his own label, Corthay.

Even for experienced artisans, true luxury takes time. The handmade process alone takes about 60 hours. A bespoke order can easily take half a year to complete, from the first fitting to delivery. The labour-intensive orders are thus produced in limited quantities, fuelling the interest of a crowd of opulent clientele searching for the one-and-only ones.

"Bespoke service is an extremely personal experience and requires many fittings," says Richard Benettello, Lane Crawford's menswear tailoring manager. "This luxurious experience helps create a strong bond between tailors and customers which lasts for years."

The surge in demand is also evident in sales records.

"The number of orders has increased by about 30 per cent every year for the past four years, and the trend is prevalent in Hong Kong," Corthay says. "The growth would be higher if we had more craftsmen."

Brands including A. Testoni and local multibrand boutiques, including Tassels and The Armoury, are also benefiting from the growing trend. Business has been so good that Tassels closed its original upstairs store to move to a bigger store at the Landmark mall, and it will also open in Beijing this month.

Some argue that the nod to made-to-measure and bespoke menswear is a pushback from the world of mass luxury.

"With globalisation, brands are accessible to everyone," says Michel Perry, J.M Weston's designer in chief since 2001. "The high visibility has forced demanding customers to look for exclusivity."

Quite so, says Ethan Newton, co-owner of The Armoury - the local luxury menswear and accessories boutique which exclusively offers bespoke shoes from makers including Saint Crispin's from the Carpathian Mountains and Japanese label Spigola by Koji Suziki. "There's a pushback against things that are overly marketed," he says. "People are looking for quality again. Customers are more educated now than any other time in our history." Sartorial connoisseurs are not only attracted by the long history of artisanal shoemakers, but also the craftsmanship, creative process, comfort to wear and, above all, the entire experience.

"The difference between a bespoke pair [of shoes] and a pair sold off-the-rack is the same when you compare flying first class with flying private," Corthay says.

Instead of a shoe crafted from a generic last, with bespoke service, you get a personalised wooden last that essentially is a replication of your foot.

For bespoke services, at Corthay and The Armoury, an artisan will be flown into town to meet the customer and get the measurements for the personalised last to be made in their atelier. Measuring sheets may vary for different foot shapes, such as high or low arch or flat feet.

"Unlike women who can get away with drapes, colours and designs, it can be hard for us to look good, so we need a shoemaker who understands it," Newton says. "Say my feet are big and wide, the shoemaker would build up the heel a little bit for a more elegant look. With the customised last, the shoe can precisely fit each foot shape and offer the right support."

Others offer made-to-measure services where the customer is matched with the best fit from a batch of already-made lasts.

Apart from the exact fit, customers are looking more at a design that can showcase their unique personal tastes.

Victor Kwan, co-owner of multibrand shoe boutique Tassels, has observed the particular trend over the past seasons. "I've noticed more customers coming in for a specifically personalised colour," he says. "It takes a few turns of back and forth as everything is handmade."

Colours aside, with customisation, the sky is the limit, really. A customer is given the choice of a variety of leathers, including hand-painted calf leather, alligator, crocodile, ostrich and even the more unconventional cordovan and camel hide. The shoes can also be hand-painted in a rainbow of colours, with duo-tone, three-tone and gradient effects all available.

Although the process might take even longer than the already lengthy wait, customers are still devoted to such pieces. "I think it might have something to do with how men shop," Kwan says. "They are less impulsive and they wouldn't mind the wait."

Newton agrees. "Women are more dictated by what's happening, season in and season out. For us, what suited us last year is still going to suit us this year. We are not being led by what designers are telling us what to do. We are led by what we know would work for us."

With an increasingly sophisticated clientele in Asia, the prospects seem bright for artisanal shoemakers.

The Armoury's co-owner, Alan See, says: "When customers come here, there's always a sense of discovery. We try to fit them with what is most appropriate and they appreciate it - the consultation, the whole process." Newton adds: "It first starts as an education when customers come in and, slowly, it becomes a conversation."

 

SHOE CARE

Rumour has it that some of Prince Charles' beloved bespoke shoes last for some 30 years. While such a lifespan might be stretching it a bit, a handmade, bespoke or made-to-measure pair can endure a good decade or so, with proper care and maintenance. And here's what you do.

First, invest in at least two pairs of everyday working shoes, but it's better if you set the bare minimum at three pairs.

You will need a few pairs for rotation. If you continue to wear the same pair, the sole strips away and eventually gets ripped through.

Invest in good tools too. Shoe trees help to keep the original shape of your precious pair.

For a shoeshine, it's always safer to get a professional to do it. If you don't want to be stripped of the fun of caring for your own shoes, you can get a shoeshine kit that includes a combination of brushes.

Follow the three-step ritual of brush, cream and wax. First brush off the dirt, then apply a cream that is slightly lighter than the colour of your shoes and finish off with bee's wax for the shine to your liking.

Re-sole your shoes every three or four years. A good pair can be re-soled up to four times.

 

 

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