An investment in self-expression

On the jaw-dropping beauty and creativity of bespoke shoes


Florentine master Roberto Ugolini. Photo: Gary Tok
Florentine master Roberto Ugolini. Photo: Gary Tok

I never thought I would drool at men’s shoes, but that’s what I have been doing for the past 2 hours, leafing through the newly-launched—and sumptuously photographed—book, Master Shoemakers: The Art And Soul Of Bespoke Shoes, by Gary Tok, which traces the work of 11 masters practising their craft in France, Italy, the UK and Germany. I struggle to put my finger on what exactly it is about these shoes that makes me gasp—there is nothing that shouts “look at me”, rather it is a clandestine kind of beauty that softly emanates outwards. There is a sense of perfection, a sense of completeness where there is no extra flourish, a sense of innocence, even purity. I am aware of how ridiculous I must sound saying such things about mere shoes, but hey, it is true.

So I called up Gary, who owns shoes from several of these masters, to ask what makes him so passionate about bespoke shoes. As luck would have it, I catch him on the Hong Kong Metro making his way to a 5pm shoe-fitting appointment with Japanese shoemaker Yohei Fukuda, and among other things, Gary has been debating in his mind (for the last two days) whether he should order a chisel toe shoe (flat in the front), which is Fukud’s preference, or a round toe.

It is precisely these sort of details that is the draw of bespoke. “I have full control over every aspect of the shoe, from design to details,” says Gary. What does such control feel like? “It is like working with an artist to create something unique,” he says. Should he go for an oxford or a derby? What about ornamentation? Should the brogueing (the perforated dotted pattern) be wing-tipped or cap-toed? What leather? What colour? Within the confined, at least to my mind, playbook of men’s shoes, it seems the variations can be infinite. A simple question of leather colour can be complicated—for example, Fukuda has a penchant for “antiquing” leather, so instead of a solid, say, brown, you have several shades of brown, very subtle, of course, the purpose being to make the shoe look older than it is.

Crossing over into bespoke shoes is “something very luxurious for someone to do”. How so? There is not only the high cost (more on that later) but also a considerable investment of time—typically, you fly off to Europe to get your feet measured and place the order (or the shoemaker flies in to your city), there may be two-three more visits for fittings, and then you wait anything from 9-12 months for the final shoe. Some shoemakers—the French master Anthony Delos, for example, who is one of Gary’s favourites—have an extra step in the process: they make a trial shoe which they split open to study how your feet are sitting in there.

With all this care and customizing, bespoke shoes are known for comfort. But here’s the twist—not everyone finds them comfortable, at least at first brush. If your feet are accustomed to “normal” shoes, you may be used to having empty spaces within the shoe—but the bespoke shoe is cut closer to the feet, and that might feel uncomfortable. Has he ever been in that situation? It did happen with one of his shoes, but they fixed it. Of course, getting it right requires going back and forth, and that can be expensive.

Bespoke, it seems, is a journey, where you typically start with shirts, move to suits, and then some men take the logical next step to shoes. “It is the final expression of the overall style and look that I am trying to create for myself,” explains Gary. I am curious, what exactly is his look? His style is more Italian than English, he says. An English dresser is easy to spot— for example, they tend to wear colourful and patterned shirts, say, a checked pattern in pink, a navy suit and a polka dot tie. But the Italians keep the shirt very simple—whites or blues, solid or striped—but things flare up with the suit, its fabric, its cut, its shoulder, etc. “For the Italians, the shirt is like a canvas on which the tie and suit become the painting,” he explains. “But for the English, the canvas itself is something they play with.”

Aren’t Italian suits sharper and sexier, I ask? “An English suit can have that too,” Gary clarifies. But the Italians have done clever things that give the suit a more masculine look—for example, Giorgio Armani dropped the button of the suit to a lower point, and that creates an elongation of the body. The English buttoning point is at the waist, roughly around the belly button. The Italian buttoning point is lower and that makes the suit look leaner and slimmer.

His favourite shoemakers? Anthony Delos seems to top the list, and the reason why is revealing: Delos makes his “last” (the wooden shoe that represents the client’s foot) from a fresh block of wood, which he sculpts with a long blade known as a paroir, whereas other masters start with a pre-fabricated blank which they shape into a last. Does it make any difference to the final shoe? None whatsoever, but Gary likes Delos’ “purity”, the extra effort he makes to uphold the traditional ways of the craft. He also likes Hidetaka Fukaya (he is Japanese, but works in Florence ) for the shape of his shoes, especially the chisel toe. And Roberto Ugolini, another Florentine master, whose shoes are more “utilitarian”—incidentally Fukaya apprenticed under Ugolini.

The cost? Independent shoemakers charge from €2,000-3,500 (around Rs1.7-3 lakh)—for example, a pair from Anthony Delos was €3,000 five years ago. Japanese shoemakers charge somewhat less, from €2,000-2,500. But if you go to a big brand, costs multiply rapidly—Berluti, for example, charges €7,000. In a twist of fate, Delos has moved to Berluti as head of Bespoke Shoes, so you’d have to pay a lot more for his work now.

I suppose one could think of it as an investment—in creativity, in self-expression, in jaw-dropping beauty—and then the notion of expense evaporates.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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