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Devils in Deco

Five years ago Tony Gaziano and Dean Girling were a breath of fresh air in British shoemaking. Now, with the startlingly elegant Deco line, they’re determined to do it all over again

Simon Crompton

You have to feel it’s a good time for shoes. In the past year we have seen the launch of Anthony Cleverley, Top Drawer from Edward Green and now Deco from Gaziano & Girling. All superlative ranges of shoes, sold on their craft and priced over £1000. The market is in accord: men now value the handcraft that goes into a pair of English shoes so much that they are willing to pay twice the previous standard for high-end footwear. Around half the price of bespoke, and they aren’t even made bespoke – made to order, for sure, but without the fitting and individual last that stands bespoke clothing apart.

These aspects of aesthetics are now considered extremely important: a bevelled waist, with the upper cut very close to the sole, by hand, to create a rounded, enveloping effect on the arch; heels that are pitched forward in line with the heel cup, or narrowed, so that they continue the line of that slim waist; and extra hand finishing on the upper, to echo the look of an old, bespoke pair of favourites.

This trend is great news for the industry, for the continuation of craft and for us, the consumers. It also proves wrong one long-held theory of mine regarding the difference between bespoke shoes and bespoke suits. For while both excel in their long-term value and level of craft, I always felt a bespoke suit made much more of a difference to the way a man looked. No one goes back to ready made suits once they’ve had bespoke; most men continue to buy both bespoke and ready made shoes.

The waist and heel treatment of bespoke shoes seemed too minor to be important – something valued only by the obsessives. It seems I was wrong: men are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for those details alone.

Pushing the envelope

For many, Tony Gaziano and Dean Girling kickstarted this renaissance in men’s footwear when they set up together five years ago. Their bespoke shoes and bench-made styles were a breath of fresh air in an industry that had produced the same lace-ups in black, brown and tan for decades. Not that Tony and Dean changed the colour of the shoes – it was the style that really stood out.

Gaziano & Girling shoes were sculpted, with a more angular look than anything else on the market at the time. They featured a sharp, squared toe, a distinctive pointed toe cap and an angled finish to the waist that was instantly identifiable. The response among shoe fans, particularly on the various internet fora, was rapturous – in part because of Tony and Dean’s individual engagement with these customers. Although they are now stocked everywhere from Johannesburg to Tokyo, San Francisco to Geneva, the pair seem to have managed to retain this personal touch.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Tony and Dean have been highly praised. But having changed the lens on footwear five years ago, they are determined to do so again. Deco, which launched in January 2011 at Pitti Uomo in Florence, takes their aesthetic one step further.

As the photography here hopefully demonstrates, the waist treatment is akin to that of a bespoke shoe – indeed, sharper than a lot of bespoke. The waist is cut close by hand, curving naturally with the shape of the upper to accentuate the sweep right round the shoe. The heel narrows noticeably as it approaches the waist and is pitched ever so slightly, both operations requiring the heel stack to be cut by hand.

Running forward, the waist hits a sharp corner before joining the forepart of the sole. This corner, together with the slim waist, creates a ‘spade’ effect that apparently used to be quite widespread on bespoke shoes. It certainly highlights the contrast with the waist.

The uppers do their best to compete. More elongated than earlier Gaziano & Girling styles, they somehow manage to make even those angular models look blobby. Black suede and grey alligator mix with the black Deco leather, which is dyed more shallowly than previous skins to produce a luminescent effect. And topping off the look, a slight bleaching to toes here and there to give a grey, antique appearance. Very 1920s.

Which is the period that inspired Tony and Dean. “The 1920s was such a great time for men’s clothing. The gentry as a whole was very consistent in its style back then, in the sharp silhouettes and exuberant fashion. We rather took to the look, and tried to resurrect its elegance in the shapes of the Deco line,” says Dean.

The shapes and the finish too, were inspired by vintage. “We were looking through old bespoke models and were inspired by the clean lines of the shoes, the elegant waists and slim toes. And the bleaching finish is something that often develops on an old shoe over time. You can see it in the old models in shoemakers’ windows,” says Dean.

This effect on the upper is achieved using an alcohol-based cleaner – the same you would use to strip back the surface of an old pair of crust-leather shoes in order to refurbish them. A little of that across the leather bleaches it as the dye in the skin is stripped away.

A joint history

Tony and Dean met at GJ Cleverley, where Tony was designing and selling and Dean was a freelance maker, also working for Foster and Son and John Lobb (where he trained). When Tony went to Edward Green to set up a bespoke business there in 2003, Dean started making shoes for them as well. Tony had worked at Edward Green before joining Cleverley.

They worked together and slowly began to come up with their own design ideas, with a particular concentration on the fiddle waist – something John Lobb had never done while Dean was there. After three years, Dean convinced Tony to leave and set up together. So in September 2006 they began selling bespoke together, with Dean doing the making and Tony the design (he had originally trained as an architect, where Dean came from a family of shoemakers).

The pair did their first show in New York that October. In 2009 they set up their own factory in Kettering, just outside Northampton, to expand ready-to-wear and give them a permanent base. In the past year RTW has really taken off, with some big private label clients, new stockists around the world and new staff joining every few months. It’s not the kind of thing that was meant to happen any more in British manufacturing.

Tony and Dean’s shoes are not hard to like. Their joint passion for the design and construction of fine men’s shoes has produced some startling models and spurred an entire industry. But it’s really on a personal level that they inspire, which explains the lasting popularity of their bespoke. Owning a pair of these shoes is one thing, having one made for you quite another.

Photography: Andy Barnham