It wasn’t what I expected. Immediately upon entering, there was this huge presentation case full of antique wristwatches, tie bars, and double-sided cufflinks. These were the accoutrement of the eighties Wall Street renaissance, and I loved them. But something at the back of the store was calling my name, loudly. I had to find out what it was.
The shoes were displayed on the back wall, but only one model stood out—shouted, actually--the fabled Peals Alan Flusser always wrote so reverently about.
The London custom shoe firm of Peal & Co. was founded in Durham, England, in 1565. It moved to Derby in 1765, then found its way to London in 1791. The firm closed its doors in 1965—get this: not because of falling demand, but for lack of skilled craftsmen (I believe family succession was also a problem). Had they continued, Peal would have been the oldest shoemaking firm in London, if not the world (Foster & Son, founded in 1840, is now London’s oldest firm; Lobb was founded in 1856). Their customers included Fred Astaire, Adolphe Menjou, the Duke of Windsor, his brother George VI, and legendary Esquire men’s fashion editor George Frazier (btw, does it not madden you when established firms boast customer lists of famous people who CAN’T dress? Not exactly what you’d call a ‘ringing endorsement,’ eh what?).
In 1953, Peal sold Brooks Brothers the right to produce & sell ready-to-wear shoes under the Peal name; when the firm closed in 1965 Brooks bought the remaining rights, along with the famous Peal lasts. Since that time, Brook’s Peals have been made by several shoemakers of note: Alfred Sargent, Alden, Edward Green, Crockett & Jones, etc. When I purchased my shoes in 1991, I had neither the knowledge nor sophistication to inquire as to their pedigree; all I cared about at the time was that I’d gotten my hands on a pair of drop-dead gorgeous kicks. In the years since I became curious, and was told by no less than an actual Edward Green cobbler that my shoes did indeed come out of their workshop.
The Peals at Brooks today are made by Crockett & Jones. It is a decent enough shoe; alas, it simply isn’t what it once was—a shoe that could easily pass for bespoke. Mind you, this is no bad reflection on Crockett & Jones; the fact that the shoe has a $585 price tag tells me that Brooks gave C & J certain price constraints to work with. To help you appreciate what kind of corners need to be cut, consider that Brooks Peals in 1991 were 500 bucks a pair (I was in the store just after the recession of 1990 hit; sales of the shoe were so low that at the time Brooks contemplated discontinuing Peals altogether. Thus, I was able to get my pair for the “closeout” price of $385).
To get the quality of ready-to-wear shoe I got, you now have to pay three times what I paid. And believe it or not it’ll be worth it, because in fifteen or twenty years you’ll be telling a story like I’m telling now. I know it’s difficult for some to imagine paying more than a thousand dollars for a single pair of r-t-w shoes, but let me assure you of one thing: the imaginations of the people at places like Cleverly, Lobb, Gatto, Edward Green, etc., have no such limitations. If the price of apples goes up, so will the price of good shoes. So don’t stand still. Consider that when I got off the train back in New Haven on that Saturday 21 years ago, I said to myself, “Did I really just spend $385 on one pair of shoes?” An amount that today might or might not pay the taxes on a pair of bespoke. My Peals weren’t a bargain to me then; at the time I thought I was royalty for wearing $225 Ferragamos. The idea that I’d outspent my Ferragamos by $150—for a pair of shoes that were on SALE—blew my mind at the time. I begged my shopping mates not to tell anyone back home what I’d spent. Seriously, I didn’t want to be committed.
Gives you a little bit of perspective, doesn’t it? At the moment of transaction, you will ALWAYS feel like you’re overpaying. You have to get over that moment—and wait. Like the purchase of stock, the dividends come later. The first year I owned the shoes, the ‘rental’ was the full purchase price--$385. Then it began to drop, to its present yearly rental of a mere eighteen bucks. And still falling. The catch, of course, is buying a pair of shoes that will last that long, and managing not to pass out when you first pay for them.
Incidentally, the above photo was taken just a few days ago. Yes, that really is a pair of twenty-one year old ready-made shoes (Twice a year they get an undercoating of navy shoe cream, over which I regularly use Saphir black wax-- creating my own ‘midnight blue’ effect, or at least trying to. I probably don’t clean them as often as I should, which is my way of saying I don’t remember the last time I cleaned them. In my own defense, I know plenty of guys who just pile layer after layer of wax on their shoes decade after decade, with nothing more than a light dusting after wearing, and their shoes look fantastic. One fellow, who acquired his skills in the military, calls it “shining the shine.” FYI, a problem you will have with shoes that last this long is dealing with that marvelous ‘foot spread’ that hits most of us around our fortieth birthday. There were times I thought I’d have to give my shoes away for tightness. Having shoes stretched by a local cobbler is a solution, but also a nuisance: it is a temporary measure, and I cringe when turning over my shoes to someone who might, to use the vernacular, ‘hump them up.’ As an alternative, an expert cobbler can resole the shoe, widening the uppers a bit as he does so. This tends to be very expensive. The perfect solution? Find a pair of trees just slightly wider than the shoes. My Peals now fit perfectly, every time).
Here I was going to say, “Imagine what kind of longevity you get when you buy bespoke.” But diligent fashion writer that I am, I will point out that while my shoes are turning 21, another pair, made for Prince Charles by you-know-who, is turning 41. And just as I’m still wearing my Peals, the prince is still wearing his Lobbs.
This, gentlemen, is another side of the ongoing argument about quality.