Book Review: Master Shoemakers

There are no prizes for pointing out that the flood of #menswear books of the last few years has drizzled us with a few monographs dedicated to custom tailors, but none on bespoke shoemakers. By monograph I mean, of course, picture book – lavishly photographed spank banks for aficionados of our particular perversion (I almost wrote “bent,” NTTAWT) accompanied by a few pages of desultory prose. And by “none,” I of course implied, until now. Gary Tok, a prolific member of certain style forums, has come out with Master Shoemakers, a beautiful tome featuring eleven true custom shoemakers.

I had mixed feelings beginning this book. Almost always books of this nature – pornographic – are like most pornography: intelligence-insulting, playing to not just our most deep instincts but our most crass, clichéd and stereotyped ideas. In #menswear porn, this can mean ill-informed half-truths and repeated received wisdom adorned in the tawdry lingerie of overwriting, never, for instance, saying “shoemaker” when “cordwainer” will do, and always executing a “commission” instead of placing an order. An early essay in this book by a trendy clothier and friend of the author deepened my misgivings, going on as he did about how recognizable regional differences in French, Italian and English clothing immediately reflect (in their most caricatured form) national characters, comparing fine shoemaking to Swiss watchmaking, and in all setting off the yellow alert for the worst sort of bourgeois ego-massaging.

I needn’t have worried. Tok may only have actually been a customer at four of the custom shoemakers he profiles (as have I, although not all the same ones). However, his own writing, even if limited to several pages per maker, shows insight and reflects the experience of someone who knows what matters in the custom ordering process. I say “custom ordering” since none of us, unless we have trained extensively, knows the custom making process – despite the wealth of secondhand information on the internet. More than that, Tok’s able to provide through anecdote or observation hints and keys to each different maker’s approach or philosophy. The brevity of his texts requires this, but most books attempting a similar format fail badly. Here, at least from my overlapping experience, I can personally say things ring true. And it is a pleasure to see so recognizable a portrait in prose of Anthony Delos, whose last-carving blade was almost as close an appendage as Bruce Campbell’s chainsaw hand in Army of Darkness. Or of Dimitri Gomez, the amiably gruff commensal at Crockett & Jones Paris, or Tony Gaziano, my first bespoke shoemaker. Tok’s essays on certain other, more established, shoemakers like George Cleverley, John Lobb of Saint James’s, or Foster & Son are all interesting even if sometimes a bit less revelatory since these makers are already famous in the circles that pay attention to such things. (But his writeup on Foster’s is downright touching.)

Tok’s profiles of other shoemakers like Saskia Wittmer, Roberto Ugolini. Benjamin Klemann, Hidetaka Fukaya (the name connoisseurs whisper to each other in hushed voices) or Stefano Bemer round out Master Shoemakers with a host of makers who may be known by name, if at all, to a few aficionados but very rarely discussed at any length, even though they all deserve it. (I must rectify one tiny omission: Tok fails to point out that the name of Fukaya’s shop, Il Micio, translates loosely to “The Kitty” and that his mascot or logo is a cat.) They set out a constellation of true custom shoemakers, trained specialists who design and create shoes made to fit the exact proportions of an individual customer using the most painstaking traditional methods, with interesting concentrations of stars: London, Paris, Florence, with a winking outlier in Germany. Is there no observable universe of bespoke cordwainers (sorry, custom shoemakers) outside Western Europe? Well, there may be one or two still working in the United States, and Japan has what seems to be a growing number of them. In truth, though, certain other cities even in Europe astound by their absences. For one, Vienna still has what today can pass for a flourishing custom shoe scene, as I was reminded a few weeks ago on a visit to Materna. But we can’t expect the author to have included all custom shoemakers in a single swoop – then he couldn’t say his selection was “curated,” as I understand the kids do nowadays. So I grant this the highest of praise imaginable for pornography: worth reading even just for the articles, the gorgeous photography aside. More seriously, I welcome a second, or third, installment visiting those other icons that are left, if the writing and photography can remain as interesting and entertaining as this first foot forward.

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