Interview: Steven Taffel, Owner of Leffot in NYC
It has been awhile since I have done an interview and I figured that due to this long absence, that it was time for another. As many of you may know, I have always been a fan of an illustrious shoe shop in downtown Manhattan, known as Leffot. It was one of the first shops in the States to start really carrying niche brands, not just your typical favorites from your typical countries. Leffot’s owner Steven Taffel has always been a man that I admired, as I believe that our goals, albeit different, correlate on a grand scale of providing/educating the men of the world on the finer shoe brands that are out there. I therefore present to you the questions that I have had for him. I hope that you enjoy it.
Justin, “The Shoe Snob”
Q: For those that have not heard your story, can you briefly explain how you came to envision the concept of Leffot shoe store?
A: I was surprised by the men’s shoe offerings in New York. It seemed to me the selection was lacking and service was average. There were several “brand” shoe stores but multi brand was limited and uninspiring. Big stores are over assorted, which can be confusing when, trying to shop, at least it is for me.
Most stores are located uptown or midtown and I live in Chelsea, which is downtown. I like to shop downtown and thought other guys would too.
The concept was to open a select shoe shop that was not traditional by design but was selective and with the key display element a 14-foot dining table with shoes. I felt this simplified approach would make it easier to view the products and highlight the beauty of the shoes.
Q: As you essentially brought in high quality shoemakers that were not previously available in the US, did you find it initially hard to sell these brands as they came with high price tags? Or were people quite receptive to them?
A: I was somewhat surprised by the reception of new brands in the US. Men were well aware of them even though they were hardly seen before in the States. G&G, Corthay for instance were very well received as newcomers, you might say they’re reputation proceeded them.
Q: What are your criteria for bringing in new brands?
A: Firstly we look for shoes that are manufactured by shoemakers. We have found that working directly with the factory that makes the shoes is a more streamlined process and the results are apparent in the quality of the finished products.
Secondly we look for a collection that compliments the others we stock. Since our selection is very select we try not to overlap. Even though we stock several English brands for instance they each have their own identity.
The other factor is the relationship between companies. It is very important that we are comfortable trading together, I think of it as a partnership as we both represent each others brand and wish to do so in the most positive way possible.
Q: In the past, you have stuck to carrying shoes from 4 countries: US, England, Italy & France. Recently you just picked up Saint Crispin’s (whom are made in Romania) and as the world of men’s dress shoes is now changing, where good quality shoes are being recognized from places that many people would not have previously thought of, will you continue to look for brands made in countries outside of the initial 4 stated previously?
A: I don’t necessarily look at the country when choosing a new brand; it is mostly what types and the quality of shoes they produce and if there’s a place for them in our shop.
Q: Do you have a favorite brand? Or maybe a top 3?
A: I get asked this question a lot and it is like asking me to pick a favourite child. Obliviously since I select each shoe and brand I love them all. Current top three would be Edward Green, Alden, Saint Crispin but that being said they are all favourites.
Q: A favorite shoe and/or boot? The one that you wear most….
A: I wear all our brands and it just depends on my mood on any given day. As you might imagine I own a lot of shoes some I have yet to wear. My favorites at the moment are my new G&G bespoke wholecuts, I also love my Alden longwings which I own at least 10 versions, and any wingtip in general.
Q: What’s your favourite thing about owning a shoe shop? Why? (i.e. what gives you satisfaction?)
A: My favorite thing about owning Leffot is the wonderful people I have met and built relationships with. It is very gratifying to me when a customer from far away visits our store and tells me that he follows our blog. I never expected to reach so many people and it is very pleasing to hear how much they enjoy fine shoes.
Q: Any big plans that you can divulge for the future? A new store? A complete RTW ladies range? Or will you just continue doing what you are currently doing?
A: We are currently working on a new version of our website, which we hope to launch in the early part of 2013. We do not have plans to open more stores at the moment or offering a women’s collection. What is important to me is to stay focused on our core business.
Q: What is the most important thing that you have learned about the shoe industry since starting your store? Positives & Negatives?
A: On a positive note I would say it’s how many men around the world are passionate about shoes. I was not expecting that to be honest.
The other thing I learned is how dedicated the shoemakers are in making the finest product they can. I think if every person toured a shoe factory they would walk away with a greater understanding and appreciation for the skill and artisanship that goes into making shoes.
On a negative note there seems to be a sense by consumers that long lead times and certain policies put in place by manufacturers are uncaring. I‘ve read things to suggest that manufacturers don’t appreciate the customers and even “conspiracy theories” of all things.
This kind of discussion is ill informed and could not be further from the truth. The fact is in 2008-2010 when the economy was at its worst orders were hardly rolling in. Now that companies are busy they have had to make adjustments to scale up production. They care nothing more than producing the highest quality footwear for their clients and it saddens me to think that a company’s success is fodder for consumer’s disparagement. Any product of quality takes time and shoes are no exception.
Q: It is my personal belief that if more stores like yours existed in the world, men would appreciate more the idea of owning fine footwear and taking care of their shoes. While I don’t want you to give away any trade secrets here, is there anything that you can say to inspire and/or provide direction to others who may wish to carry out your concept in other major hubs of the world, say London/Berlin/Paris/Sydney/Moscow etc….
A: What works for me may not be true for others however I would say to be true to your sense of style and taste, and try to provide the best quality products you can with the highest level of customer service possible.
Q: Lastly, if there was anything that you could have done differently, would you have? Or did everything go exactly as planned?
A: Nothing in business goes 100% as planned. We’ve made adjustments along the way. We’ve dropped brands and added brands, which is the beauty of operating a small business. All said and done I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It had to be what it was to be what it is today. The future will undoubtedly require further changes and that is what inspires me.
I would like to thank Steven for providing these answers and taking time out of his busy day to do so. I hope that this has inspired anyone that might be looking to do what Steven has done, but in their hometown.
Thanks for reading. –Justin