While the term sang de boeuf translates more or less literally to “oxblood”, in leathergoods that translation evokes a sort of flat burgundy color popular in the 1980s. In ceramics, sang de boeuf is the term for a lustrous, deeply contrasted and highlighted blood red patina derived originally from Chinese firing techniques, later becoming the province of a few specialists. That’s what the Antiques Roadshow said, anyway, all those years ago when I first noticed the jewellike gorgeousness of sang de boeuf patina and mentally filed it away with other daydreams (we all do that, don’t we? Don’t tell me I’m the only one.). It came back to me some time later in perusing one of Berluti’s catalogs. At that time, that French brand offered to color and patinate new shoes in any imaginable hue, from brilliant turquoise to sober black, gratis with purchase. (I suspect Berluti’s subsequent expansion may have undermined its ability to provide this level of service.) I was less taken, however, with the models of shoes in the catalog and with what well-worn versions of such shoes looked like, courtesy of the Japanese shoe aficionado websites which were at the time the only sources for real “shoe porn” as we obsessives called it.
No, my sang de boeuf daydream came true along with another minor whimsy, the offset tassel design inspired by another French house, granted by English shoemaker Edward Green. Green’s erstwhile Top Drawer program allowed customers to order shoes from Green’s vast present and past catalog of models and to specify certain pattern changes. The model I adapted was an offset tassel loafer called the Paington, specifying that the tassel detail be added to a longer-vamped model with skin-stitched apron and toe seam, the Sloane, on Green’s chiseled 101 last. Allegedly mothballed currently, the Top Drawer program also supposedly drew on an even higher level of care and attention to detail than Green uses in its regular shoes, about which I’ve been quite boosterish in previous posts, so no need to revisit that now. Certainly plenty of Green customers have caviled online about Green’s English bloodymindedness and miscommunication on their shoe orders, but I’ve been lucky for the last few years and on this order, the fineness of the toe stitching (done, like the piecrust apron front, by hand with a boar’s bristle) and the closeness of the welt is the best I’ve seen short of bespoke.
Like patination, skin-stitching has spread from being the specialty of one ready-to-wear maker (Green) to being offered by a few (among them Gaziano & Girling, Crockett & Jones and Lobb Paris ready-to-wear), but Green still does it the best. More surprising was the perfection of the sang de boeuf patina, antiqued and burnished by hand to a lambent depth. Berluti, which helped popularize heavily patinated shoes, ascribed its shoes’ ability to take patina to their so-called Venezia leather, a supple but thin leather which could crease easily. As the sang de boeuf patina of my Greens shows, it’s possible to achieve a beautiful depth of color on the more substantial leather of quality English shoes. In recent years a sort of pre-antiqued line of leathers made the rounds of a few shoemakers, mottled and streaked through a process of sponging the leather at the tannery. It ended up on some of the shoes from Lobb Paris’ RTW line, and was, like many of their recent designs, a bit of a misfire. It’s more fascinating to wear shoes whose patina still has an organic aspect, in the sense of having had different layers of polish applied and accrete over time, even if that time was prior to our acquiring the shoes in question.
The sleekness of this shoe is a further reminder that a Goodyear-welted shoe can have the same lightness and fineness as a Blake-stitched shoe. For a clearer explanation of the contrasts between these two construction methods, I’d suggest reviewing Vass & Molnar’s Handmade Shoes for Men, Helga Sternke’s Alles über Herrenschuhe, or L’art de se bien chausser, but in brief, certain makers, including Berluti and a few other French and Italian labels, attach the soles of their shoes using a Blake machine which (gross oversimplification) stitches through the inside of the shoe directly through to the sole. This supposedly allows for a lighter shoe but (unless one’s cobbler has a Blake machine) makes it more difficult to resole the shoes properly and, allegedly, makes the shoes more prone to soaking through in the rain (although if you’re in a bad rain in leather-soled shoes of any construction, it’s really not your day). The English ready-to-wear makers prefer to welt their shoes with a Goodyear machine, invented over a century ago to approximate handstitched soling techniques, where (again, gross oversimplification) a leather welt attaches to the body and to the sole, providing, supposedly, greater durability and longevity. Green usually cuts the welt close to the sole for an elegant profile, but here it trimmed it even more finely and (a self-indulgence I allowed) beveled and fiddled the waist of the shoe. The Blake-Goodyear false dichotomy is pervasive – a recent vanity history of the tailor-designer Francesco Smalto mentions a customer who ordered different styles of suits depending on whether he wanted to wear them with his Blake-stitched or his Goodyear-welted shoes. As both methods are machine-stitched, I wondered why someone who could afford Smalto bespoke didn’t just have his shoes handmade.
Which leads, finally, to a broader reflection about what really is a handmade shoe. Suffice it to say that none of the shoes mentioned in this piece are really handmade, as in welted by hand the way that a good bespoke maker does. But it’s better to find a pair of shoes that fits than to chase down a shoe for the sheer idea of it being handmade. I’ve been lucky to realize the daydream of my Greens, which are lasted by hand and made with a great deal of care, more, in fact, than those of a well-intentioned, reasonably priced handmade shoemaker I tried some years ago. But I’ve also tried very hard to nail down my fit (both size and width) in a given last and style (loafer, laceup or boot) before ordering. So don’t buy a pair of shoes online without checking the fit no matter how much you’ve dreamt of owning a pair by a certain label. For if ill-fitting suits affected one’s health the same way ill-fitting shoes do, most men would be cripples.