Bespoke shoes are wonderful pieces of art. But they are expensive. Of all the men that I know who buy nothing but bespoke suits, none of them can convince themselves to buy only bespoke shoes. The difference in fit is just not great enough, compared to suiting and considering the price tag.
There are halfway points in terms of construction – several of the big shoemakers now offer Handgrade or Top Drawer versions that bridge to gap in handwork and in price. But any attempts at a similar compromise on fit seem to be doomed to failure – I tried the scanning system at Rivolta in Milan, which was the result of an EU-wide project on automating the shoe industry, with results that are best described as poor.
Shoemaker Saint Crispin’s thinks it has the answer. It’s Pret Customised system, starting at €1350, has been undergoing particularly heavy testing at the Armoury shop in Hong Kong (not least by the Armoury staff, example below) with apparently good results.
The system involves customers first trying on the Saint Crispin’s shoes at one of its stockists around the world (Leffot and Leather Soul in the US, some in Asia, UK and a lot in central Europe). They pick the last, size and width that they think fits them best. They then have a choice: they can either order a complete shoe, suggesting a few tweaks to the last based on their trying-on, or they can order a trial shoe, suggesting the same tweaks, which will be made with cheaper leather and only cost €200.
If they have a trial shoe, they can wear it for a few weeks, feel more accurately where the fit could be improved, and communicate this to the Saint Crispin’s team; they will then make the final shoe, incorporating those changes. With either route, it is likely the customer will want to make further tiny changes with a second pair. (Who among us wouldn’t change anything about any of their shoes?) But changes can also be made to the existing pair, in the manner of bespoke, by putting them back on the last.
Most shoe brands do a made-to-order service. The difference with the Pret Customised system is that the last itself is being changed, by adding cork pieces to it in much the same way a bespoke last is altered over time. If the fit has to be changed substantially and the last has to be cut or filed down, then a personal last has to be created for a one-off charge of €500. Not a small amount, but less than a last would cost at many bespoke shoemakers.
The quality of work is also very high, more than any non-bespoke English shoemaker. All the clicking, closing and lasting is done by hand but – the key differentiator – the welt and sole are also sewn by hand. A surprising number of readymade Italian brands sew by hand here as well, though without the same handwork elsewhere. But the English makers, with their Northampton factory tradition, use old welting machines.
The fitting system obviously relies on either close contact with Saint Crispin’s staff, or a sophisticated clientele that can communicate aspects of fit with great accuracy. “Most of the people we work with in this system know shoes very well. They’ve had ready-to-wear for a long time and they know they have a low arch, or a small ankle. It doesn’t take long to establish what has to be changed,” says Phillip Car of Saint Crispin’s.
With its sales office in Vienna but workshop in Romania, Saint Crispin’s is a small operation working entirely on an individual order system, which of course makes it easier to tweak each pair that goes through. Yours truly hopes to try the system when Saint Crispin’s visits London in September with the Armoury trunk show. Expect a report here.