Thursday, April 17, 2008

The elegant language of bespoke shoes

Sophisticated gentlemen know quality when they see it, and custom-made goods represent the ultimate expression of style.

When it comes to footwear, British shoemakers are famous for their craftsmanship. On a recent visit to London, I admired the shoes in window displays of esteemed bespoke boutiques John Lobb and W.S. Foster and Son. There is also an impressive French shoemaker that has a London store, Berluti, which offers classic designs in a variety of colors.

A few days after returning to the States, I met a representative of U.K.-based G.J. Cleverley & Co. Ltd., who with a colleague was taking orders at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. The bespectacled gentleman was impeccably dressed, befitting of one whose business is handmade shoes.

I'm talking about George Glasgow, Cleverley's managing director and a legend in the business. This year is his 30th with the company, and Mr. Glasgow is a pro's pro.

"We make seven to 10 pair a week," Mr. Glasgow informed me not long after entering his suite, where his colleague, Dominic Casey, is working with a client who felt so at home that he sat on the floor while considering his options. It is clear that in the world of bespoke, a comfortable atmosphere is something that Cleverley footwear clients come to expect.

The process of a typical bespoke shoe purchase from Cleverley is straightforward. The customer selects the style, the color and the type of leather desired. Foot measurements take only a few minutes. Then, if necessary, a second fitting is taken about five months later. The finished product, which involves at least five craftspeople, takes approximately eight months to complete.

Initially, my heart was set on purchasing a pair of Lobb bespoke shoes (its Web site mentions Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington as past clients), but I was soon won over by Mr. Glasgow's advice on making an significant investment on handmade footwear.

"I'd start out with a pair of calfskin shoes," he said, even though he saw my eyes gazing at the swatches of crocodile and ostrich skins among his samples. Calfskin shoes start at about $3,000, while crocodile is double the price, according to Mr. Glasgow.

Having seen numerous styles of shoes and swatches on all the tables in the suite, I've come to the conclusion that I'd need more time (and money) before settling on a pair to purchase at this time. But I did, however, have my eye on a croc wingtip that was striking.

"That shoe was made for Fred Astaire," Mr. Glasgow said, to my amazement.

I left the Four Seasons suite with a high regard for Mr. Glasgow's knowledge and consummate salesmanship ... and suddenly light on my feet.

When I resumed command of my senses, I recognize the price tag is steep for the average working professional, but not insurmountable. Investing in bespoke shoes is not exclusively for, pardon the pun, the "well-heeled" customer.

However, for those who are in the middle class of the economic spectrum, heed these Style Points:

  • Make sure your budget can handle the purchase without throwing your cash flow out of whack. Plan how much you'll need to save within a time frame that puts you in a position to choose your shoes with confidence when it comes time to buy.
  • Also, do some advance homework so that you can maximize your visit with the shoe representative. Bespoke means having it your way, so write down any details you'd like to see reflected in your shoe.
  • Let the shoes do the talking. No need to discuss the process of obtaining them, though you might not be able to say enough about how comfortable they are.

    Just ask Mr. Glasgow.
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