There is a far stronger tradition of shoemaking in Warsaw than of tailoring. One manifestation of that tradition is that all the shoemakers – of which there are about five good ones left – make all their shoes by hand. There is no machine work involved, no tradition of benchmade shoes, and therefore both ready-to-wear and bespoke shoes are hand sewn. There is nothing between these are cheap, glued models.
Unlike tailoring, bespoke shoemaking here also means something slightly different. There are no fittings. Measurements are taken and the leather, style and last are selected, and then the shoes are made. Some adjustments can be made after the fact, including adjusting the last and putting them back onto it, or shrinking them slightly, but there is no braced fitting.
I’m sceptical of the system, having gone through English bespoke with two makers and discovered how hard it is to get it right even with a fitting. But I haven’t tried it, and none of the Polish writers I visited had tried both types of bespoke either, so no real judgment can be made.
It does perhaps explain, though, why Kielman – by far the biggest of the remaining shoemakers – is happy to take so many orders over the internet. Although Maciej Kielman, who took me round the shop and rooms, travels extensively to meet clients and take measurements, around 15% of Kielman’s business is conducted online. Customers send in pictures of their bare feet; they take their own measurements; they send long emails detailing everything that is right or wrong with the fit of a delivered shoe. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese are the most obsessive, specifying everything from the width of the welt to the length of the toe cap. It sounds like rather too much to me.
Polish shoemakers also don’t have much of a house style. The traditional shoe is round toed, thickly made and square waisted: in the same vein as the Austro-Hungarian makers readers may be familiar with. But there are also very finely made versions, ‘dress shoes’ in their eyes, with thin welts and bevelled waists. Although I disliked many of the Kielman styles, there were also half a dozen I would gladly have worn.
The range of Kielman black shoes
Kielman has been around since 1883 and at one time occupied almost half a block. Today it is a single store front, and the back room is taken up with a Barbour/Belstaff concession. Behind that is the workroom, where the recent lasts are stacked – number 600 onwards – and the lastmaking and finishing are done. The rest of the lasts and the work are offsite. They charge €625 for a readymade shoe and €700 for bespoke.
Kielman last making
The other shoemaker I visited was Tadeusz Januszkiewicz, an old maker with a reputation for the best fitting shoes in Warsaw. His career was almost cut short by the Communist party after World War Two, when they tried to hunt him down for working with the resistance during the War. Tadeusz and his master decided the only solution was to become the official bootmaker to the Communists. As a Polish saying goes, “sometimes the darkest place is in the spotlight”.
Tadeusz’s reputation for fit comes from several years studying orthopaedics. As with Kielman, there is a big range of styles and some of the shoes – such as those pictured below – are very nicely made. He says that getting good leather is still a problem, even 23 years after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. Back then it was impossible to get anything other than Polish calf, a very small animal with a soft hide. Today he can order more, but it takes a while. He shows me a cordovan hide from Horween, the last of an order that has been used up very quickly. “Then again, only the bloggers or men who read the blogs know what cordovan is,” he says.
For more on the bloggers in Warsaw, and on tailoring in the city, see previous post here.
Thanks in particular to Wojtek and Roman for their help during this trip.