Five Against One

International tragedies have a way of making me sympathetic to the works of Hugo Jacomet. Perhaps his works somehow anticipate the direction the world moves. Recently, as the world sinks further into darkness and chaos, he has come out with Souliers d’Exception, a tome even more luxurious and humongous than his previous The Parisian Gentleman, as if his books have undergone some sort of abyssal gigantism (sorry, I have a small child who loves nature shows). Its astonishing, bookshelf-defying dimensions contain an enormous number of lovingly photographed, nearly life-size, portraits of individual shoes, and tellingly contrast with the new shoe book by one of the past generation’s most established #menswear writers, Bernhard Roetzel’s Herrenschuhe nach Maß (Bespoke Shoes for Men). Your friendly neighborhood RJman is happy to draw on his language powers in anticipation of the forthcoming English translations of these two books.

Before Internet #menswear enthusiasts came out of their #steez-stuffed closets and joined online discussion boards, and long before social media apps were gleams in sociopaths’ eyes, Roetzel and his Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion were one of the few resources available to those of us not to the manner born. With stereotypically German precision and reasoned dryness, he catalogued tailors on Savile Row, shirt shops on Jermyn Street, and shoemakers in Northampton, along with the virtues of wet shaves, heavy English breakfasts, and other aspects of an Anglophilia almost too charming to be cliché. It was all we had, a pedagogical wish book to flip through over morning coffee. In the intervening 25 years, Roetzel’s updated that book, and come out with a few others with slightly broader horizons (ie not stopping at the cliffs of Dover). But Herrenschuhe nach Maß continues Gentleman’s promise of accessibility, a how-to if one only has the opportunity, even as it interestingly focuses on German (and other Central European) shoemakers, in particular Korbinian Ludwig Heß, who is not a Star Wars character but rather the Berlin cordwainer making Roetzel a pair of custom shoes.

The book painstakingly follows Heß’s shoemaking process. Before Roetzel studiously walks the reader through each and every carefully photographed step of that process (from the initial meeting with the shoemaker to discuss what the customer would like to the maintenance steps the shoemaker recommends for his finished creation), he takes the reader through the prologue to that sequence: the rationalizations any man who decides to order custom shoes today must make to himself. For Roetzel, the old rationalizations, the ones we used to tell ourselves before the internet, and before labor costs, rents, and the disappearance of knowledge and talent went into overdrive, still hold. They are a timeless investment, and furthermore not so expensive when compared to other male discretionary purchases like a riding lawn mower (!) or an electric guitar.

The problem with that comparison is that both mowers and axes are the sorts of purchases men have little shame admitting. A riding lawn mower is useful (and if it chopped off a foot, I suppose it could lower one’s bespoke costs by half); it suggests an interest in one’s house rather than one’s wardrobe, avoiding the charges of self-indulgent, if not downright perverted, frivolity that we would face if we admitted the costs of good custom clothing to those around us. An electric guitar, similarly, is an accepted (if somewhat #dadcore) hobby. Most of us who partake of custom clothing have to recognize it, too, is a hobby, in that it is an indulgence to which we devote the fraction of cash that we would otherwise be devoting to more socially acceptable diversions.

Roetzel attempts to make this shadowy pursuit seem accessible, literally: he explains that there are numbers of talented local craftsman around Central Europe and that their prices, while far from cheap, represent the sort of affordable indulgence those other items are. (In contrast, for the price of good bespoke shoes from France or Britain, one could buy several riding mowers or professional-quality electric guitars.) To prove his point, Herrenschuhe nach Maß features at intervals profiles with various Mitteleuropaische burghers of different ages and profession who patronize the different custom shoemakers of Central Europe, such as Leonard Kahlcke of Frankfurt or Benjamin Klemann. Herrenschuhe nach Maß gives those shoemakers’ coordinates, alongside those of more famous makers from other parts of the world, in a directory at the end of the book.

Reading Herrenschuhe nach Maß reminded me of the dictum of another pre-Internet writer, Umberto Eco, that one could tell one was watching pornography if every non-pornographic action took far too dutifully, laboriously long. Hugo Jacomet’s book, instead, shows us what the Internet has done to porn. Gone are the rationalizations, narrative, and buildup, gone the persuasive lead-ins that attempt to convince us things are happening in some sort of reality. Instead is the immediate, unreal satisfaction of oversize, lasciviously contoured examples of human creation… and, I confess, I love his book for it, the more so as in six months of confinement I have worn a non-sneaker shoe once.

Souliers d’Exception is a set of photographs of mostly bespoke shoes grouped by their makers, although the makers themselves receive only an exiguous page of text and a few lines on their putative house styles each. Knowing that today’s reader wishes to instantly passer à l’acte, that silken prose is the flimsiest of pretexts for beautiful images of each maker’s finest custom samples, all taken especially for the book and thus not available online. Lobb Paris, Aubercy and Berluti all feature here only with their bespoke creations, far more interesting than their ready-to-wear, as well as what are other household names of custom shoemaking, such as Cleverley, along with many others that are less well known. Neither the photos nor their textual lingerie hint at the troubling issues customers who are not celebrities may encounter with certain of the makers featured, nor can the reader expect a comparison of how well a particular shoemaker may actually be able to fit a customer, no matter how beautiful his samples. We have a pure escapism of surfaces, items that, though rendered in such excruciating detail we can see all the stitches if not pores, our own appendages will never actually encounter and thus will never risk disappointment or the pain of long, disillusioning wear. I confess that out of the two, this is the book I’ve turned to again, less out of my prurient analogy than simply because, today, it is perhaps more illusory to believe that a lover of custom shoes wishes to see how they are made, or to believe that they are accessible, and that a world in which they are worn for any reason is accessible. We, or I, simply want to see something beautiful, even if currently irrelevant, for taking out of ourselves. Hugo, thank you.

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