I’VE GOT SOLE BUT I’M NOT A SOLDIER
Bespoke shoemaking is not for the faint of heart. It requires patience, commitment and no little love — from artisan and client alike. But, as The Rake’s Editor-in-Chief discovered when he collaborated with G.J. Cleverley, the journey is worth it — and the piece of art you hold in your hands will become a bridge between generations.
A love affair with shoes is not just for women — let’s get that out of the way. And men, not women, are to blame for the existence of the stereotype. For decades we have poked fun at our partners’ fascination with footwear, refusing to employ any nuance in understanding the dynamic between practicality and art. This relationship — that of practicality versus art; not of men being rude to women — is, as far as I am concerned, the beating heart of luxury. I know that, to some, luxury can be the pleasure of peace and quiet amid a household of hormonal children. It can be the privilege of a flat bed on an airplane, replete with a shower that won’t admit ‘more than two people at a time’, ahem. While there is a subjective argument that luxury can be any one thing to any person, I stand by the theory that, in it’s truest form, luxury — through craftsmanship — bridges the gap between our everyday needs and art that reaches the same monumental heights of Bacon or Bach. This can be expressed in furniture, in tailoring, in watches and other accessories, in cigars and in various intoxicating beverages. Others have their own opinions on the matter, but if pressed lightly to make a choice, I’d say that the most profound expression of luxury in this sense is bespoke shoemaking. In a previous Editor’s letter (Issue 60), I wrote of how my father’s collection of bespoke shoes is what effectively lies behind my path to The Rake. Wearing beautiful shoes wasn’t exactly supercharged with any social currency for me when I was young — indeed, highly polished full brogues or tassel loafers with jeans and a T-shirt didn’t bring the ladies a-flocking — but they did make me feel like the smartest person in the room, which henceforth became an objective wherever I went. I loved the idea that something so universal could be elevated to an upper echelon, a higher plane that stood out. Bear in mind that the environment in which I hung around (namely Finch’s pub on the Fulham Road in south-west London) had a bus that went past the window that was dubbed the ‘Loafer Express’, so I was in good company, just a more fantastical version. The imposter syndrome did dwell on me, though: these were, after all, not my shoes, so in my mid-to-late teens I drifted into the muscularly aspirational demographic. And the desire was themed with a single name: Cleverley.
G.J. Cleverley, in the Royal Arcade, the tributary of shops between Old Bond Street and Albemarle Street in Mayfair, looks like it has been there for centuries. Like all the best British heritage shops, there is not much room but there is loads of character. There is a small showroom heavily laden with assorted styles of shoes, and a helical staircase in one corner that leads to the workshop, storage room and last room (depending on whether you go up or down). The discretion is part of the appeal. A cursory look at the last room will demonstrate how Cleverley has attended to the feet of cultural icons such as Ralph Lauren, Tom Hanks, Graydon Carter and Noël Coward. This is not meant to be a ‘scene’, though the popularity of the shoes around the world has made it something of a pilgrimage. And I was next. The process of having a pair of bespoke shoes made is complex, exacting and, frankly, long. Whereas a suit will take approximately three months to make, a bespoke shoe might take a year the first time round (and some brands are reported to take 18 months to two years). Now, credit to Cleverley, much of this is to do with the high volume of shoes they make bespoke, but nevertheless, there is a long wait, especially for someone with my levels of impatience and excitement. The maker of the lasts at Cleverley is a legend in the shoemaking world. John Carnera has been making shoes for half a century, and, on a personal note, also made my father’s lasts more than 40 years ago. His son Dario has inherited his father’s artisanal talent: he works around the corner as the head cutter of Huntsman. To take my foot measurements, John did exactly as he would have done with my father all those years ago. He knelt down by my feet and placed them on a sheet of paper, tracing around my foot and arch, and measured certain points of the foot: the joint measurement over the front of the foot, which is also the widest two points; the bottom instep, where the bottom lace would hit; the top of the instep; and the heel measurement. From these dimensions a block of wood in the vague shape of a foot would be produced until a sculpture of my foot’s outline had been formed. The last must not only be the shape of the foot but also, to some extent, the design of the shoe. The signature Cleverley toe — not square, not round, but sculpted — is distinguishable on the last, and the proportions of a size 13 foot (which I apparently have despite wearing a size 11 or 12 all these years) must be accounted for alongside some semblance of elegance.
The shoemaker’s art is to manipulate silhouette and line-of-sight to make feet, a conventionally unsightly body part, look graceful, which understandably becomes harder as feet get bigger. It was easier to get away with it when, in around the mid 20th century, shoes were made as an extension of military wear, and rounded toes with plenty of leather in which to clump about was admissible. The design I chose was purposefully the polar opposite, a Baron de Rede design known at Cleverley as the Kensington. It is a slip-on with no major bells or whistles save for a strap along the top of the instep. George Glasgow Jr., the proprietor along with his father, George Sr., demonstrated how the design has previously been realised in plain leather and lizard leather. My customary indecisiveness when it comes to pushing the boat out was overcome by George Jr.’s legendary powers of persuasion, and I opted for the lizard band. On reflection I am delighted I did, as it breaks up the shoes and adds texture that isn’t as jarring as alligator but is more characterful than plain leather. With the last made and the design agreed, the process of making could begin. With a paper pattern cut, the leather — a regular black calf’s leather — could be clicked (named for the clicking noise the blade makes) and tacked around the last, so the leather takes shape, a process known as blocking. What has not been considered at this point, especially with a whole cut of leather, is how stretchy the piece of leather is. When you lay a hide out flat, you can see the way in which the stretch marks form from arm to arm. To allow for the most natural give, it has to be cut ‘tight to toe’, which means the leather is cut without any visible line of stretch. So when you put your cold feet in the shoe in the morning, and they expand during the day, the foreparts of the shoe have the requisite give to not lose shape but to stay comfortable and, most importantly, keep the correct shape for the band. The next stage is the lining being put in. In a more conventional Oxford or brogue, there will be two separate linings inserted (a quarter lining at the sides and a vamp lining at the forepart), but because of the sleeker design of the shoe that comprises just one piece of leather, the lining follows suit. The thickness of the lining depends on the customer. You have to consider how big the customer is and what sole they have on the shoe — you can’t have a fine-kid upper on a double leather sole, for example, because they don’t work in harmony. With a dressy shoe such as this, with a fairly fine sole, the lining is 1.2mm; you don’t want a lining to be more robust than the upper because it will put up too much resistance against the upper. Once the shoe is blocked with the lining, the closing phase begins: the insole and hand welt are added, and a first fitting can be undertaken. A bit like a basted jacket, a suspension of disbelief is required to a certain extent: you can’t look at it and take it for what it is, because at this stage it won’t be attractive. But this isn’t problematic: the wheels are in motion to achieve the refined finish, so have faith — it’s easier the second time around.
The operational aspects of this can be seen in the finished product along the sole. You may have noticed with many shoes that there is what looks like a train track running along the top — this is what is referred to as fudging. The fudging wheel marks out the stitching points, which, in the case of Cleverley, run at a rate of 11 stitches per inch. Here is where the magical powers of the artisan come to fruition. Before this point, mistakes can be corrected readily enough (though best not to make mistakes if you’re using exotic skins), but once the welt and sole have been added, the work that would need to be done to rectify any issues involves minuscule margins of error. In his great modesty and typically British self-deprecation, John Carnera played this down, though it doesn’t take a genius to see that, as in shirt making, precision is key. On with the sole and the heel, which for the sake of pleasing aesthetics is ‘pitched’ and ‘flushed’ at the same angle as the heel of the upper so it all follows one gentle, graceful, sloping line, and the ridge of the welt doesn’t kink out. This is just one of a few examples of pulchritudinous geometry on the shoe, which also include the fiddleback waist (where a triangular wedge of leather is slotted into the felt that lies between the sole and the insole), the aforementioned Cleverley toe, and the disappearing sole underneath the waist. Extra details, like the black soles, are optional, and the steel toe plates included here are to accommodate my walking style, which is brutal on the toes and can leave my shoes subject to rapid wear and tear. Bespoke shoemaking has a problem, in that there are plenty of brands that put similar care and attention into ready-to- wear, or at least made-to-order shoes. The personalisation across the whole shoe may not be as strong, but the shoe designers are creating so many options that often people can find what they like and are happy enough with the fit not to go the whole hog. This is not a problem that tailors have against the lower end of the market, for tailors have a lot more real estate on the body to cover and potentially get wrong. To take the leap to full bespoke shoemaking is a big ask, then, as it is time consuming and more expensive. However, to bring it back to where I was at the beginning of this piece, shoes are about a love affair. If you love them and respect them and treat them well, they will last for ever, and will remain a companion and provider of pleasure over the decades. Though my father has released some of his in my direction, he did so knowing that I was a worthy carer, mature and responsible enough to act as the custodian of works of art such as these. Now I am fortunate enough to have one of my own, and I couldn’t be happier. At home they are tucked away in their leather shoe box, kept in shape by the lasted and initialled shoe trees, and brought out weekly for a polish and a wear if there is a special occasion (read: an opportunity to show off and be the smartest person in the room; old habits, etc... ). The artisans at Cleverley, ensconced in their Royal Arcade workshop, have built a following in the bespoke world that is the envy of other houses. It reflects a vision of hope to an industry constantly soundtracked by doom and gloom. And it is worth noting that in a future the bespoke arts can look forward to, the key ingredient — fully on show with these shoes — is love. This article originally appeared in Issue 67 of The Rake.