The Shoe Fits: Custom shoe maker Tony Gaziano discusses the past, present and future of fine mens’ shoes.
The most popular styles in the market remain the classic semi conservative styles; full brogues, oxfords, semi brogues, Norwegian derby’s etc…
These are styles that have been popular since the 1940’s and continue to be the foundation shoes of most well dressed men. However, there also exists a need to edit the traditional shoe styles. Even the most conservative men become bored with the same shoes. These slight edits make the shoe look different but maintain the essence of the original style.
Light brown brogues are perfect for summer. They go well with medium to light wool suits and any shade of silk, cotton or linen suit.
Some companies edit shoe styles too much and transform them into a niche item that only a small proportion of the market understand or want. Although this is acceptable because it is good to offer variety in the market, unfortunately, it also creates many varying opinions of what is right and wrong with regard to shoe choices. We live in a world where opinions are black and white but lifestyles are endless shades of grey. No one shoe is suitable for every type of person or occasion
I believe that every style on the market today has its place; the bigger issue is whether these shoes are over priced for the quality they represent. I estimate that only fifty percent of the shoes on the market actually deliver quality equal to the price. In fact, many of the best names on the market are actually the ones who deliver least.
Bottom view of a spectator shoe in progress.
Homemade shot of the author’s cap toe in all its unblemished, custom glory.
You can ask many industry people about the quality and types of leather used in high grade shoes today, and most will reflexively state “It’s not as good as it used to be”. In my opinion, this comment and observation is not founded in fact. Some craftsmen will tell you that, due to intense farming and force feeding of calves, the quality of the leather skins are inferior to what was made twenty or thirty years ago. However, I myself have been working with leather for twenty years and I know the reason that the quality of leather for high-end shoes is actually better now than it has ever been.
Compared to fifty years ago, the number of quality shoe makers in existence is almost none. In the early 1900s, there were well over one hundred quality shoe manufactures in Northampton, now there are less than a half dozen. However, the shoe factories of today have much stricter quality control systems than ever before because the customers and store buyers are more educated in the technical aspects.
Thus although the great mass of shoe leather may not be the quality it once was, it must be pointed out that today only the best-of-the-best is used for top grade shoe construction, and with so few manufacturers, the very best skins are actually more easily obtained today than in the past.
These days, customers are so demanding that the product must be perfect to justify the high prices. Quality drives the market more than style. Many shoe customers are fed up with paying lot of money for overpriced, poor quality products
Crust leathers are very popular these days because customers like the variation in colour tones from light to dark. Crust or “antique” leathers are only a recent development. In actual fact the antique leather idea was developed by observing the way that the sun bleached old aniline leather shoes made many years ago and forgotten in shop windows. The skins used to make antique leathers are “naked” which means they have no finish on them; a bit like wood that hasn’t been painted. Naked skins have to be absolutely perfect because when you antique them, every imperfection is exposed.
In contrast to antique leathers, the aniline leathers (from high shine, consistent coloured skins) are older fashioned and hide most imperfections. Neither antique nor aniline leather is superior. It is simply a matter of customer preference.
Top view of the same pair. Black aniline calf.
For now, decorations, such as toe medallions, on shoes are being kept quite understated. The gold and silver horse-bits (Gucci shoes) and flashy buckles are a thing of the past. That is not to say they will not return because these details tend to go full cycle.
While it is craftsmen who possess the talent and the skill to make shoes, the customer drives the style and the quality forward. This situation is in stark contrast to the shoe business in the 1940’s-1960’s when a company designed shoes in a vacuum and then made and delivered its product with arrogance. Further, if the customer had a complaint he would quite possibly be told to go elsewhere.
Although the customer currently drives the market, good shoemakers use what they learn from customers and combine their ideas with our own innovations to make shoes even more attractive.
Beginnings of a custom shoe. Another pair for the author being made from the bottom up.
Bear in mind that is almost impossible to develop a design that is truly original because everything has been done. And, even if a designer does manage to create something original, it is often so off-the-wall that few customers will buy it.
I like to think that we re-design the classics in a more contemporary way. For example, take the classic cap toe oxford like the Edward Green “Chelsea” or our own Oxford style.
Every traditional manufacturer has one of these exact shoes in their collection, but we have designed ours to look quite different with less detailing and more elegant lines.
Here the shoes are a little bit further along. An interesting view of the leather layering deployed for a cap toe.
Gaziano and Girling believe our interpretation treats this style as the shoe it deserves to be rather than the functional, dowdy, boring style that many people believe it is meant to be. The point is that you don’t need to change the ingredients to make the shoe look better, simply tweak slightly what you already have.
Most businessmen and admirers of clothes actually prefer the classics, something that they can easily use in their wardrobe with their pinstripe, charcoal grey or black suits. It is true that men also get bored of buying the same old styles and although they want to buy something different it cannot veer too far away from the styles they already have.
Just before the heels and soles go on, we get a last look at the stititching and all the work that goes into it.
Thus, the new style has to fit within the boundaries of their existing, understated wardrobe. This is the opening for the talented style editor; by refreshing the classic shoe styles that suit a semi-conservative wardrobe it is possible to keep men excited about shoes.
Although style editing sounds easy, it is a difficult line to walk. If one is too conservative, the shoe designs will not be enticing enough, however, if the design boundaries are stretched too far, a shoe maker’s brand risks a loss of identity.
Almost done. A quick smoke break before making the owner well heeled.
At the moment there is a pretty good balance between Gaziano & Girling, Edward Green and John Lobb. Edward Green are very classic; John Lobb are slightly more innovative, and Gaziano & Girling fills the void between them. This status quo could go on indefinitely and everybody live in sweet harmony but I have a feeling that another shoe maker will come in and upset the balance. The Market has room for more tasteful, quality shoes and, as far as I am concerned, the more the merrier.
Ready to pair with an aggressively striped suit and begin taking names and kicking…
Gaziano and Girling Approach to shoes:
When we design shoes, we analyze our customer base in terms of the variety of both work and casual lifestyles that they lead; lawyer, trader, doctor, business-owner, Board members of charitable foundations, etc.. And look at how their dress can vary.
Even though these jobs are all quite conservative in terms of how the men dress, the variation in age and location around the world can still create a considerable variety in dress styles. A place like New York City can pose its own complexities because the lifestyle variations in a multicultural city can be quite vast. However, a good shoemaker adapts.
Crocodile isn’t for everyone but if you get a pair, make sure they have the proper bite only a snappy specimen like this can deliver.
We also discuss with our tailoring friends the colour of fabric customers are ordering from Savile Row, then we try to put a range together that will fit into most customers wardrobes. The aim is to develop styles and colours that can easily be worn with all suits, and, additionally, some shoes that are versatile enough to wear both with a business suit and casually with jeans.
I have found over the years that within these areas there are many people that will say a shoe is either too classic or too fashion orientated. Thus, I try to respond to this by producing a shoe that is straight down the middle, a shoe that will appeal to both younger and older lawyer, doctor, business owner etc ..
If I cannot accomplish that in a single shoe, then I will certainly cover it within a range of shoes. If you look at our range of shoes, you will notice that some of the styles are neither old nor new fangled, rather they have the look of a fresh, new shoe but the characteristics of a classic; optimally, this design approach appeals to a broader range of people.
Each pair comes with its own custom shoe tree in stained wood.
I want our business to cover nearly everybody’s taste, and as a result of that we will be introducing a small fashion area, separate from the main range, sometime in the future.
For example – if you walk into a department store you have all ranges or merchandise, I would like that too, so that we could have our classics as the main ranges, then country shoes, slippers, leisurewear and fashion as side lines.
In the near future, we will broaden our range by adding specification slippers, using Loro Piana fabrics to try and combine a Savile Row feature with English footwear. I think you may be seeing a bit more of fabric and leather combinations.
Suede and calf combinations also seem to be more popular for shoes, although they have to be executed perfectly or they look cheap and/or outrageous. For now, we will continue to concentrate on making classic shoe styles with a twist.
We will also produce bespoke bags and belts. Although this is not our field of expertise, we have many contacts and can incorporate some of our hand techniques into those products to give us an original look.
Shoe Wardrobes; Quality vs. Style:
Every man who has any respect for his wardrobe should have at least five pairs of quality shoes; never wear the same pair twice in the same week. This will give the shoe time to recover from wear and promote longevity. Additionally, shoes trees are absolutely essential to keep the shoes looking nice. If you cannot polish a shoe properly, then you should find a local guy who can. One should also know how to remove all the polish off of the leather and then condition it.
It’s always the quality rather than the shoe design that catches my eye. I can look round at the shoes sold in Barney’s, Bergdorf’s, Ralph Lauren, Corthay etc…, and they all look like the same shoes at a glance. However, I can spot a pair of John Lobb Paris, Dmitri Gomez, or any other good bespoke shoe on a customer’s feet. It’s like with suits, sometimes you see a guy on the street that looks really good, and you think, why? The answer is often quality, not style.
When people talk about style, it always creates the most fascinating debate about which style is correct? Is that stylish? Will that style suit me? The truth is that, if the quality and fit of the product is top notch, it is intrinsically stylish.1 Many designers make this mistake, instead of concentrating on both materials and the skill of shoe making, they over load the shoes with detail; believing that this is the way forward. Ironically, this simply makes the shoe decadent which in turn detracts from any sense of style. Style is seldom far from simplicity.
Antique finishes are more popular than ever before. They provide variety for fans of brown shoes. Hopefully, they steer clear of town.
Colour matching also catches my eye. When the gentleman has a sense of how to match leather colour with cloth, especially when it is not colour combinations I would use myself, his talent earns my instant respect, even if he is a casual passerby.
Recent changes I have seen that are of interest tend to be technical innovations. For example, boot loops. We changed ours to elastic placed inside the boot instead of fabric on top of the boot; outside loops interfere with trouser hems.
And, we are always looking out for better polishing techniques, as well as different styles of broguing and new hand sewing techniques.
We make shoes for writers, actors, journalists, sultans, lords but what a lot of people do not realize is that we make for orthopedic customers too, guys with no toes, guys with calipers, even guys who have a prosthetic, and we make it round their plastic leg etc…2
Medallion punching close up on a toe cap. Courtesy of Hong Kong based shoe connoisseur, Luk-Cha.
Problem Leathers and shoes:
Cordovan! It’s big in the USA but used for all the wrong reasons. It has a treatment on top of it which in my mind makes it look like rubber, and it cannot breathe that well either. Cordovan is 3 to 4 mm thick which causes countless headaches to shoemakers. Cordovan also looks too rustic for everyday shoes. But customers keep ordering it in oxfords and full brogues. If it is suitable for anything, it would be a chukka boot or plain derby with a rubber sole, and that’s it.
Snakes skins are also a bit of a pain, they are normally so thin that you have to re-enforce them with stronger leather.
Moaccasins are hard to make, it’s a completely different style of shoe making, and I’m quite happy to leave that to the Italians and the Spanish.
Sexy side view of the arch and waist. Custom made shoes are designed with the idea in mind to make the foot more pleasant to look at.
Some rubber soles are also problematic, even the famous dainite is a royal pain; especially in bespoke when the last or foot is narrow, to avoid stitching in the tread on the bottom, we have to stitch the sole incredibly wide around the edge of the shoe
Because we value quality above all else, our goal is to reintroduce uniform quality to English shoemaking For example:-
We only want to make 100 pairs of bespoke each year, cleverly makes 400-500 pairs and John Lobb near 1,000 ( well they were before the credit crunch anyway) the result of this is that both their quality and service are taxed. What we want to do is create a G&G bespoke club. Once this level is achieved we can then concentrate solely on the development of the RTW side of the business, and again we have an end production quantity in mind that will be easily achievable so that quality can be maintained
Appendix A. Trends to look out for from all shoe makers:
Softer shaped lasts rather than aggressive pointed toes, chisel toes etc.
Sole detailing will be more concentrated upon.
Boots, with wool linings and Norwegian welts for next winter seasons.
Shrunken cow hides which give shoes a heavy, natural grain effect.
Tailored fabrics used in slippers.
Lighter weight calf skins to produce increasingly more refined shoes.
Re-introductions of some old style leathers, like Kudu suede, shrunken grains, and willow calf prints.
The Algonquin is a prennial shoe style. Some men wear it to work, other with jeans, yet others split the difference and wear them with a sports jacket. This pair, again courtesy of Hong Kong based shoe connoisseur, Luk-Cha.
Appendix B. Styles for occasions:
Plain toe oxford, cap toed oxford, Albert slip-on shoes – used for formal evening wear, weddings, funerals, dinner parties etc…
Full brogue, semi brogue, any shoe with half broguing – perfect business shoe
Derby shoe of any kind – weekend shoes
The above suitability is a traditional English way to wear shoes, but these days with the colour variations all styles can be more flexible.
Another black calf shoe picture. Some men never tire of this style and color.
Tan, navy, green leather – Jeans
Chestnut, mid brown, dark brown, Burgundy leather- grey, brown suit trouser or jeans
Black leather – navy and black suit trousers
This is what would suit English taste, obviously in Italy this would change, and because the U.S. market flits between these two markets, theirs is a hybrid dress code.
However, although I like to experiment with clothes and shoes, I personally would never break the above colour rules.
First spin on a sunny day; this pair are headed for the office. Brand new custom shoes will give you good posture, balance and traction. The soles perfectly grip the asphalt.
Tony and Dean make beautiful, comfortable custom made shoes and can be contacted at: www.gazianogirling.com
1 Ed. Note: When a man shops for shoes, he makes comparisons between different makes and models. However, once he selects a pair and wears them, these comparisons are lost on those who observe his outfit. Unless the style, color or leather is remarkable; the only observations that will be made are the quality of the leather and construction. Mens’ shoe styles are quite limited, at least within circles considered genteel.
Small deviations which make a shoe unique are often more important to the wearer than the viewer. After quality and fit, the largest concern is the effect on the viewer. A person should rarely notice your shoes (unless you are a dancer) and when they do notice, they should be pleasantly lulled by what they see.
In a world where some men exercise a lot of concern over toning down shirts, suits and ties, his real act of restraint should lie in picking rather plain shoes.
2 Ed. Note: To the best of my knowledge, Tony has not yet made a pair of shoes for anyone’s pet dog.