Grades Of Shoe Craftsmanship
As I have stated before, there seems to be a whole lot of confusion as to how a shoe is made (whether by hand, machine or a bit of both), particularly due to the lack of knowledge from salesmen at retail stores, as well as the misrepresentation of words (such as ‘handmade’) printed on a shoe itself and/or the marketing of most brands. These two things, coupled with the gullibility and naivety of many male consumers, leave a lot of people to believe that their shoes are of a higher quality/grade than they actually are. Normally I wouldn’t care about such things, as it’s hard to try and correct every lie that people are told each and every day in order to buy such and such product, but as a person who truly cares about the reputation of shoes and the fact that I also have my own brand, I feel that this issue must be acknowledged, thoroughly and constantly until people start to become more aware. Now some of these terms were created many years ago, and have been modified/altered in terms of their defining features, so I will give the account that I believe to be correct, which just might be up for debate…
While I have never actually seen this done (as in never been to one of these factories), mass-produced shoes would be the kind that are pumped out thousands by the day, as common sense would tell you. These would be the shoes that are predominantly created by machines, conveyor belts, and chemical products. Think glued shoes, the ones that are selling by the millions-a-year. There is simply no way that people can be there to pump each and every one of them through. Sure you have people who will work the grand automated machines and handle the shoes, as in maintain them electronically or however, so that there are no hiccups in production, but there are definitely not any skilled individuals guiding the shoes along, making sure that every detail is sorted out (like a goodyear welted shoe is made). These will be the shoes that will retail under $200 (£125). They will be shapeless, use low-grade leather, most likely not be that comfortable and won’t last a long amount of time. This is not always the case though, as some brands (whose pockets are deep) have found a way to produce the shoes cheaply, but give you something that can rival a decent shoe (think Ecco shoes – decent leather, long-lasting but mass produced).
For me, a bench grade shoe denotes the presence of a skilled worker at each machine within the factory, who is actively taking part in the production process by guiding the shoes through each stage of manufacturing. This takes people with years of experience and knowledge. Not any ‘ol Joe off of the street could just start doing this…. Now, this next bit is where myself and others might differ, but I don’t believe that a bench grade level of craftsmanship strictly refers to goodyear welted shoes. Santoni, for example, who predominantly makes blake stitched shoes, has skilled workers positioned at every machine, guiding the shoes along, in order to produce them. This for me, also indicates a bench grade shoe. Now bench grade shoes, are going to be your entry point into quality footwear. They will use medium grade leathers, have a slightly more shaped last than a mass produced shoe, and will be of better quality overall. However, within the bench grade category of shoe, there will be some makes that are better than others, say C&J versus Loake.
A hand grade shoe, will start off like a bench grade one, only that there will be more handwork involved, mainly in the finishing part of production. Things like the waist of the shoe, will be finished with a tool that rounds off the edges (bevelled), fudge wheels being used by hand to create those ridge-like indentations on the welt in order to pronounce the stitching, and the sole will have a channel stitch (closed and clean) as opposed to an open stitch that you can see. Everything will just look a bit cleaner, a bit more artisan. The shoes will be more shapely (more skilled workers on the lasting machine and some with hand-lasted waists), as they will leave the last inside of it longer (to gain a strong mold), as well as just have a more shaped last i.e. less bulbous and not trying to fit everyone in the world. The leathers all around the shoe will be better, from sole, to upper to lining. But, just because the shoe says hand grade, does not mean that it was made by hand.
I had never really believed in using the term ‘semi-bespoke,’ because I always felt like there was no such way to half create something for someone. As in, being that bespoke is defined as ‘spoken for’ meaning that something was created specifically (to their measurements when referring to articles of clothing) for someone, then how could it be semi-specific? But, that was until I learned that through Saint Crispins MTO/semi-bespoke program, not only do you get a nearly completely handmade shoe, but they also allow you to alter a preexisting last. This means that it is like the idea of MTM suits, whereby you take a standard block and alter it to someones measurements (not perfect, but close) but then created by hand, instead of machine. This to me, would define semi-bespoke, where as a ‘handmade’ would be like a Laszlo Vass who does not change the last like SC but makes the shoe entirely by hand. Now on the other hand, there is also semi-handmade, like the Deco range by Gaziano & Girling. It is considered so due to the fact that certain parts of the shoe (i.e. the waist), were not only finished by hand, but also lasted and stitched too. Therefore certain parts of the ‘making’ process were completely done by hand and not by machine.
Bespoke shoes are shoes that are completely customized and made entirely (with the exception of the stitching of the upper leather) by hand. This invokes a long process, whereby the customer must get measured by the last maker, talk through design ideas, choose toe shapes and await for his trial fit. After the shoe company has made his last and a mock-up of the shoe for the customer to try for fit, can the shoe then be completed. It usually takes anywhere from 4-12 months, depending on whether or not the customer is new (i.e. has never had a trial fit) and how busy the company is. Be wary of anything that takes a shorter amount of time or does not involve this process. With a bespoke shoe, there should be no size on the inside, you should then have your own last (but they don’t give them to you) and it should (in theory) look like a work of art, and not something that you can pluck off of the shelf…