I’ve just spent the last few moments meditatively polishing an object lesson in considerations of value and bespoke. And polishing these shoes.
First things first. These are an ancient pair of bespoke shoes by the London bootmaker and spurrier Henry Maxwell. They are probably older than I am. I bought them used years ago when I got carried away by the romance of owning something bespoke, even if it was made for someone else. Because they are bespoke, there was no written size to compare with my own, but the approximate measurements across and along the sole seemed promising. Once I got them, I had a good local cobbler resole them and wore them a few times, but it was clear they’d lived a long life. It felt like the guts of the shoes themselves had been treaded down over that lifetime. I didn’t really want to wear them much in that condition. However, I eventually confided them to the down-to-earth but talented bespoke shoemaker Anthony Delos. At his old shop in Montmartre, which was literally a scene out of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, he carried out repairs in addition to making bespoke shoes and boots. He lasted these old Maxwells on my bespoke last, carefully re-welted and resoled them by hand, adding a beveled, fiddled waist and a steel toe plate, restored the insole and the footbed, and reconditioned their uppers. The result looks rather like one of the century-old bespoke samples in the windows of Jermyn Street or rue Boissy d’Anglas. They glow with that deep glow that comes with age and care. And they fit and feel excellent. However, this experience illustrated a few points to make about the longevity of quality items and the occasional related justifications we let ourselves believe about them.
There is a clothing aphorism, repeated by various sources and thus received as wisdom, that you should buy the best, as it will last for a lifetime and, due to that, will be cheaper over time than the mediocre alternative. (In the world of classic clothing, “best” gets conflated with bespoke and handmade, which are all different characteristics; for the purposes of this piece, I intend to refer to handmade good-quality bespoke as an approximation of the “best” these aphorists allude to.) The amortized price-quality rationalization is a potent nostrum – a comforting but ultimately unsuccessful justification. The best is not the cheapest by a long shot. Additionally, for an item of clothing to last a lifetime requires a set of redundancies as extensive as the failsafes in a nuclear power plant (at least, one hopes), and relies on the premise that your tastes and dimensions won’t change significantly over, well, that lifetime.
The binary contrast between some enduring best and the short-lived rest is seductively romantic. We all would like to believe that the test of time reveals true quality – we’d like to believe that about ourselves too. Certain people seek out quality old clothes in order to see if they’ll last for a second lifetime: the secondary markets carry plenty of dead people’s Savile Row suits, bespoke shoes and handmade umbrellas. This petty necromancy (life, but not as the original owners knew it) must have come as a huge surprise to the few remaining quality makers offering repair or refurbishment services. In recent years I suspect they have seen an explosion of requests from youthful gentlemen of the internets to re-cover a century-old Brigg umbrella, patch a Barbour older than the Quorn hunt, or resole a pair of Edward Greens made on a last and for a retailer forgotten for thirty years. But to make the best last often depends on giving it the best care. While the playboys who made their model girlfriends’ eyes roll sending their shirts back to their London or Paris makers for laundering are gone (for the most part), the uncompromising lover of quality clothing will find that repairs to an item by the original makers or by someone who knows what he or she is doing can carry prices as shocking as the item itself. Resoling and rewelting by hand a pair of bespoke shoes as Delos did, while better for their longevity, can cost as much as a new pair of good ready-to-wear shoes. And it requires finding someone with the skill to do that painstaking work, as opposed to someone who’ll lie and rob you blind. A good normal cobbler could resole the shoes by machine a couple of times, but couldn’t carry out the work on the welt that my shoes needed. And, supposedly, resoling hand-welted shoes by machine would mean they couldn’t be resoled as often as by hand. There are, of course, folks who confide their fine clothing to a cheap cleaner who reuses solvent and presses everything flat, or who have the chop shop in the mall resole their handmade shoes, without another thought, which leads me to my next point.
Many of the pieces of quality clothing that lasted a lifetime did so because their owners, no matter how they treated them, had plenty of other clothes. The Maxwells that I purchased were just one of a number of pairs that turned up for sale, indicating that their owner had been a prolific consumer of bespoke clothing. As Will has pointed out in earlier pieces on Anthony Drexel Biddle, even if the number of lounge suits (that is, business suits in today’s parlance) in some historical clotheshorse’s wardrobe doesn’t seem particularly large, bear in mind that the people who ordered quality clothing several generations ago owned many different types of clothing for different occasions and levels of formality and changed often depending on their activity. They had a lot of clothes and by and large took them for granted – no effusive blog posts about them, no writing and collecting books about lastmakers, buttonsewers or hatters for them. Still, even then some refrained from wearing their most expensive or nicest items apart from special occasions, as was the case with the 19th-century prime minister who announced upon seeing a price list that he would have to save his bespoke John Lobb shoes for “best.” You can make just about any pair of shoes last ten years if you wear them once a month. However, clothing is never an investment, with apologies to all the persuasive ad copy and internet enablers out there.
Sure, getting to a critical mass of clothing that permitted that sort of rotation took a large outlay of cash back in the day, but labor costs were a lot lower – and for much of the history of modern clothing, bespoke didn’t cost more than good ready-to-wear. Today, however, that hortatory “best” lies far up a dizzying hyperbola of cost where prices can be not just twice, but ten, fifty or a hundred times what most people consider a reasonable price for an article of clothing – let alone enough of such clothing to last a lifetime. So don’t use supposed savings as a justification for seeking out someone’s idea of the best.
And, of course, supposing your handmade shoes last decades, that your feet themselves don’t irreversibly change (a development which forced Terence Stamp out of his beloved Cleverleys post Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), there’s the chance that you’ll look at them and realize that round toes/chiseled toes/square waists/beveled waists/heavy antiquing/sober solid colors/laceups/slip-ons/button boots/longwings/wholecuts are so tired nowadays. Many of us think we’re safe with a classic design, but what we think of as classic evolves too. When I acquired these shoes, the vogue for pointy, chiseled toes was just taking hold of the shoe crowd, but these shoes, round-toed and almost fetishistically conservative, did not ride that wave. Still, following their recraft, their rounded proportions contrast pleasantly , even sensually, with the contours of their sole.
Why do it, then, when pursuing this ideal is fundamentally unjustifiable?
Why did I do it? I guess I have trouble throwing things away. Why pursue the best, the bespoke? In this day and age, and judging from my friends and e-friends who are bespoke customers, I’m tempted to say we’re all as dysfunctional as a Robyn Hitchcock song. But it’s a labor of love, and like the moral to a bad Star Trek episode, that’s a variable that doesn’t fit into a cost-benefit equation. I got the satisfaction of remaking these in my own three-dimensional image, my own last, and reclaiming them from whatever limbo ownerless bespoke shoes go to.
Besides, look at them now – they glow. Delos once told me that as a finishing touch, a quick rub (of the shoes) with a woman’s nylon stocking brings out an incredible shine. As my Texas Chainsaw Mascara days are over, I’ve found that an old polyester or silk tie does an equally good job – as the burnished gleam of these, deep with truly antique patina, shows.
Who says you can’t buy character?
-Text and photos by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans