Ascot Shoes ‘Kaan’ cordovan shoe: Review

Monday, February 3rd 2020
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Last year Karl Chu offered to make me a pair of shoes under his Ascot Shoes label for review. 

I had known Karl (pictured below) for a while, but mostly through his hosting of bespoke shoemakers in London - such as Masaru Okuyama - in his old space on Savile Row and now in the basement of Mark Powell in Soho. 

I’d never tried the shoes he sold himself, which are both from Hungarian shoemaker Vass (Karl is the European agent for their non-bespoke) and the Kaan model, which is partly made by Vass and partly in Northampton. 

I was interested in Vass because I’d never had any before (always a driver as far as this site is concerned) and because Vass is known for making hand-sewn shoes at slightly more affordable prices.

This kind of hand-sewn construction, with both the welt and the sole stitched by hand, is mostly only available from bespoke makers, and therefore priced in the thousands. Vass costs around £900 from Ascot in the UK and $735 from No Man Walks Alone in the US. 

The reason is historical. Like many smaller economies, most shoemakers in Eastern Europe never industrialised, and therefore have continued to make all their shoes by hand, the old-fashioned way. 

I’ve visited a few of these, including in Warsaw a long time ago

Karl’s main job is running a software consultancy, working for investment banks. But he takes time off to work on his shoe projects. And that time off is getting longer: his current ‘shoebbatical’ has lasted a year. 

Karl started by introducing Vass to the UK, where they weren’t otherwise available, and eventually became the local agent. Other work, such as hosting bespoke makers, is more a passion project and he doesn’t (at least initially) charge a fee.

The bespoke makers he currently works with are Masaru Okuyama, Ginza Clematis and Korbinian Hess Ludwig from Germany. 

Appointments for the various services are available in three London locations: Mark Powell in Soho, English Cut in Marylebone, and Taylor & Son also in Marylebone, where Karl also offers bespoke shoes that he measures and fits. 

And in Paris appointments are possible at Chato Lufsen.

The lion’s share of the business is Vass ready-made and MTO, however, and around 40% of that is the ‘Kaan’ model. (This is also more expensive: £910 for calf, £1295 for cordovan).  

Karl developed this out of a desire for a split-toe derby with a hand-sewn apron, in different leathers and lasts. He originally asked English makers such as Edward Green and John Lobb to make one to order for him, in alligator and on particular lasts, but this wasn’t available.

So he found a maker in Northampton that would do the clicking (cutting) of the leather, and then sew the uppers with the U-shape around the apron the traditional way - by hand, with a pig’s hair bristle (like the Edward Green Dover). 

He then convinced Vass in Budapest to do everything else: hand lasting, hand sewing the welt and sole, and hand finishing. 

With my shoes, I introduced an extra layer of complication, asking for my Kaan to be in cordovan. 

I had admired the Alden split-toe blucher in cordovan for a while, and thought this was a nice way to make a similar shoe at bespoke-level quality. 

Karl’s maker was initially reluctant. Cordovan is about 30% thicker than calf, and harder. Sewing it with a bristle, and punching the holes, would not be easy. 

And so it proved, with a few broken needles. But it was done in the end, and the maker is happy to make them again in the future (I’m told four have been made since).

Wearing the shoes now, I’m not entirely sure the technique is suited to cordovan. 

The way it works, the outer section of the upper is turned upwards at the seam, while the middle part (the apron) is kept flat, meeting the outer section at 90 degrees. 

This means the inside of the cordovan, the raw edge, is exposed. It’s not an issue with most leathers, but with cordovan the inside is paler and stands out a little more.

It’s probably clear from the photos that the cordovan also made stitching around the apron (and internal sewing on the toe) a little tricky, and the edge uneven as a result. 

Cordovan might be more suited to the machine stitching that Alden uses, which doesn’t expose the edge of the leather. ('Leather' used for simplicity, as cordovan is of course not really a leather or a skin, but a membrane.)

The look and the shape of the Kaan were great. 

One thing that had always put me off Vass was the impression that all the designs and lasts were chunky and round - a little rural, a little old-fashioned. 

But this is probably just because those styles have become most popular. The F and U lasts are actually pretty slim, with a rounded and squared toe respectively. 

I liked the look and shape of mine, on the U last - slimmer than the Alden would have been, and elegant without being too long. 

The length, though, was affected by an issue over sizing. 

At the time, Ascot was based in the Cad & The Dandy rooms on Savile Row. PJ there took me through the process, we tried on various U-last Vass shoes, and settled on a size and design.

There was clearly some miscommunication, because the shoes that came back were a size too big. My feet are almost a half size different, and there did seem to be some lack of understanding about ordering different sizes for each foot (something Karl offers with MTO). But even then, they were too big. 

With two insoles, they were comfortable and wearable, though perhaps a little long for my foot (causing double creasing on the vamp). This is the pair I have now, and are shown in the images. 

Karl says he thinks he knows why the miscommunication happened, and it shouldn’t happen again. But I might look at Alden pair in the future if the size issues bother me too much. 

There was also an issue with the sole, which was meant to be a thin rubber but came as Vibram. 

However, it’s actually one thing I really like about the finished shoe. It makes the look a lot heavier and more rugged, but with denim I think it’s nice - and very practical as a rain shoe, with the cordovan as well. 

That, of course, is more of a personal style point, and it might be a look others dislike.

I should also say that, although I've heard of issues with Vass quality control from others, in every other way the shoes were very well made. Although of course with the Kaans the clicking and closing are not done by Vass but in Northampton.

In the images, the shoes are worn with my Blackhorse Lane jeans (NW1, 18oz), vintage field jacket with fur lining, striped PS Oxford shirt, and lambswool cardigan from Drake’s. 

More images of that outfit on the article about the lining, here

Photography: Jamie Ferguson. MTO Kaan shoes in cordovan cost £1620

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Matt

Interesting that there is a need to have Northampton makers involved bc as far as I know Vass also offers split toe models. It’s a shame about the miscommunication, but from what I’ve heard it’s not at all surprising. Other Hungarian makers are much better both in terms of value and customer service

Matt

I’m actually in the process of having an MTM (first MTM anything for me, so very excited) split toe ankle boot made with one of them, in a similar couloir calfskin.

Anonymous

Why the huge disparity in pricing between GBP and USD?

Matt

I’m not sure it’s hand sewn, but considering the shoes are put together by hand, I would assume so

Paul Boileau

Frustrating and annoying re. the mis-communication with this order. Such are the perils of ordering things “outside the box”. The supply chain appears convoluted which also can add complications…To my eye, these shoes look a little out of place with this casual outfit at the moment: too new and shiny and a little disonance between upper and sole. In time the shoes will take on the distinctive cordovan folds and wear in nicely. I have a pair of Trickers “apron” spilt-toe shoes which serve a similar function though far more agricultural and gun-boat like.

Sam

Interesting to read about Vass here Simon – surprised to hear that one design can account for such a proportion of orders.

Do you know the background for the pricing difference between the US and UK? £950 is about $1250, which is nuts if NMWA can sell them at $735. Wouldn’t it normally be the other way round for a European brand being sold in the US?

Will

Karl charges a substantial premium (for all the shoes he sells, including VASS, TLB Mallorca and some odd stocks of EG, Bonafe, etc.), as simple as that.
I am actually quite surprised that his broker-style business is seemingly sustainable in this day and age.
Regarding the miscommunication, I really think Simon should have the shoes re-lasted and resoled at the cost of Ascot.

OK19

Second this – I used to have a side line in buying up slow moving stock from Vass directly at wholesale prices and selling them on and Ascot’s markup is astronomical

Will

Simon,
I just double checked on ascotshoes.co.uk, normal calf/suede oxford/derby shoes are priced at 900 GBP incl. VAT (750 ex) while Kaans are 1095 GBP (912.5 ex).
They do have few odd pairs on sale from 350 GBP though.

Diego

Hi Simon – I think that those prices are not right. Vass ready to wear is closer to £550 than £350. The £350 likely to be a sale. Even at £550, I still think that they are great value compared with UK makers.

Cameron Leppo

I’m not sure that Simon’s price discrepancy (later edited to the correct numbers) is too misleading. I second the large gap in pricing between the UK and US prices.

I have loved Vass shoes but have yet to purchase myself because of all the various differences in cost for a US customer. Initially, I contacted Vass Directly to place a MTO order but was denied by their offices and pointed toward Ascot Shoes as they are considered the US dealer. Ascot has MTO prices listed on their webpage so I knew what to expect. The price listed on the Ascot site vs. Vass communication was nearly double the latter pricing. I thought it strange that they would point me toward Ascot and refused to sell directly to me. It’s also a shame that one of the only accessible dealers in the US is NMWA as the models they carry are not very attractive, IMO. They certainly fit with the aesthetic of that brand but it has been difficult to find other last shapes for sale online outside of eBay.

Generally, I am sure this reinforces the point that many eastern European businesses have failed to modernize in more ways than manufacturing. Overall, Vas’s prices are all over the place with no clarity among the various dealers/distributors including Vass, themselves.

Batman

Cameron try shopmehra instead.

Triskel

Can Matt tell us the name of the Hungarian maker he is using?

On Vass my comments are as follows. I visited their shop in Budapest a couple of years ago intending, if I saw anything I liked, to buy. The customer service is non-existent; I was in the shop for twenty minutes and no-one approached me (and I am a conventional- looking fifty year old, so not evidently a time-waster). However, I would still have bought if I had seen something I liked.

1. I hadn’t heard about the quality issues but the quality was variable – some of the stitching was great, some most irregular and wonky. Some leathers just didn’t match – and this wasn’t a case of (subtle) two tone.
2. The last shapes are not, in my view, “rural” but just not very good. I know that you warn us, Simon, about not drawing conclusions from photographs but what I see in the photographs is what I saw in the leather in Budapest – a very deep toe box and too much depth across the vamp.

You may want not just to avoid some of their leathers (vibrant blue, green, alligator skin finish) but, more fundamentally to consider whether you would be happy wearing their shoes. I concluded, with some regret, that I wouldn’t but I realise there are questions of taste/preference here. For me, simply to know that the vamp has been sown using a badger hair is not enough if I don’t like the result!

Matt

I’m not sure I should name the maker before receiving the final product. Would be happy to once it’s finished and I’m satisfied with it

Anonymous

Interesting that the Vibram sole was a mistake as, to my eyes, with the cordovan and the slightly rough look to the stitching caused by the hand-sewing, the overall appearance seems to favour a chunkier shoe. Can’t picture it with a thinner sole myself – I imagine it would be closer to the look of the Alden style. They do seem to go very well with jeans.

Ajbjasus

Yes, the exposed eyelets also seem more suited to the rustic vibrant look than a thin rubber sole

Rui Lima

Hello Simon,
One inital remark regarding the Parisian store; its correct name should be Chato Lufsen.
Best regards,
Rui

Ben

Ho boy is this an ugly shoe.

Cordovan already looks more crinkly than, say, calfskin. With the raw edges, huge eyelets and vibram sole (which mostly works only for boots), the shoe just looks crude. I wouldn’t pay $100 for the pair.

Despite the popularity of the combination, new cordovan also looks terrible with jeans. It’s too shiny and monochromatic, resistant as it is to patina.

Adam

If somebody made me a pair of shoes, which were too big, because of a “miscommunication”, and made them with a sole that differed from that which I had asked for, I would have asked for a refund.

What prompted you to keep them Simon?

Adam

I did reply to this but it doesn’t seem to have made it through to you.

It was the case that you didn’t accept free products which you then wrote up on your site. Has this philosophy changed?

Sam

I think it’s implicit in saying “someone offered to make a pair” that the product would be free. You’d have to be a good salesman to offer to make a pair for any blogger then expect them to pay for the thing… they didn’t actually ask for in the first place?

Simon – if you want to go for full transparency it would be good to have a standard approach to disclosing costs of “Maker’s RRP / Price paid by yourself (or free if applicable)” on every review. It’s a topic most blogs tip-toe around (for lots of good reasons) but that kind of radical transparency would be a good way of going above and beyond and I think reinforce reader trust. Just my two cents.

Sam

Sure, I know there’s a lot of factors at play. I guess as a reader it’s something I’d always appreciate seeing, and it would pre-empt a lot of the same questions that come up with every review. I’d think the popularity of PS would give a bit more leverage in the discussions with brands, and like I say, it would put you in a pretty unusual position of transparency.

Might be a chance to lean into the discussion rather than essentially bypass it, but obviously winding brands up for the sake of satisfying readers mostly academic curiosity is no use in long run either.

Nick

Obviously I can’t comment on the particular miscommunication that you’re speaking about, but I’ve found that miscommunication with Vass is not uncommon. After all, they’re Hungarian, and English is not their first language. I think if some one ordered something from me in Hungarian, I might struggle to give them precisely what they ordered. Having said that, Vass shoes are in my opinion, wonderful. Yes, the classic Budapestwe is clunky and some might find the P2 last a little bit rustic for their taste, but the Roberto Ugolini- designed U and F lasts are sleek enough.

I reckon that the problem with the shoes here is that they are just a bit too FU – even for a casual outfit. The stitching, the Vibram soul, and the what looks like number eight Cordovan, are just all too much. Particularly for someone who, no offence, has sizeable feet. I have a pair in a dark brown suede with a black Vibram sole in Vass’ classic split toe style on the P2 last They go with pretty much anything but a suit.
I also think that in larger sizes, Cordovan leather in lighter colours is always going to be problematic because of the beef rolls that will develop on the vamp.

Oliver

Interesting review Simon. How would you say the service/final product compares to Saint Crispin? Similar pricing points (slightly cheaper)!

Anonymous

Sorry, I’m no sure I understand your answer, Simon. Is it that Vass is superior to St. Crispin’s or the other way around? Thanks.

Charlie

I have a pair of bespoke walking shoes with similar vibram soles. They were made for me by James Taylor and Son in Marylebone (who offer a greater range of bespoke footwear than most shoemakers, making climbing boots, walking and running shoes, as well as dress shoes). When I placed the order, I was thinking of having normal rubber soles, but the owner recommended vibram soles with aggressive tread. He explained that one of their customers, a vicar, always insisted on such soles, as he had once been wearing shoes with flat soles while presiding at an interment, when the gravedigger ( who was drunk) began to totter, then grabbed the vicar to steady himself, causing both of them to fall into the grave, breaking the lid of the casket open. I thought it was a good sales pitch for vibram soles and went with them. They have proven to be a good choice, in that they are much better than flat soles on ice and on rugged terrain.

TT

Possible suggestion for a future article, it would be helpful to cover the derbys you have in a bit more detail and how they are useful (or not). How do these compare with your dovers, windermeres or your santonis. As many of your bespoke shoes have been oxford in make it would be helpful to cover a ‘filling of the gaps’ for more casual shoes (that are not boots or loafers).

hugh

Simon,

Which color of cordovan did you use? Is this Vass’ “burgundy”?

-hugh

Hugh

Thanks. I just pulled the trigger on my first pair of shell shoes. I’m excited, as I live near to the Horween factory. I’ve had good experiences with Vas’s’ oxfords, which fit my smaller ankle and high instep comfortably (a rare experience for me). For this shoe, I’m doing the Budapest derby in number 8 with a double sole in front tapering to a beveled single.

Matt H

I’m not a fan of Cordovan and I think I prefer the pair that Karl is wearing. I don’t dislike yours, though, and I think the sole works for them.

Will the exposed pale areas darken with polish?

O.K

Unfortunately, I had a bad quality experience myself, when it comes to Vass shoes. When I received my pair of Vass shoes, I noticed that there was a gap between the soles and the heel on one of the shoes. In other words, the double soles, were cut open to the inside. I contacted the store, who sold them to me and after some discussions,they agreed to remake the soles and to finish them properly. Luckily, the shop has an excellent repair service and the shoe came back, much better looking. However, the way the store originally reacted, when I confronted them with the issue made it quiet apparent to me, that this is not considered a production fault by the shop, when it comes to Vass shoes. Even though, this was a big issue and I have never seen such a problem, even remotely on any other shoe. I was even told by the shop, that if they would confront Vass with problems like this, they would laugh at them and would not consider them a serious business partner. Whether or not this is true I can’t say. But what I can say is, that the issue was so visible that no one could have overseen it. At any company with descent quality standards in place, these shoes would have never left the workshop.

Colin

I’d often wondered about the Ascot shoes service and also price point, for which their advertised shoes are way in excess of the mentioned £340. Irrespective of the fact you didn’t pay for the shoe it seems a strange decision by Karl not to insist on a remake to address both the sizing and sole mistake, given the review and perhaps suggest a different material now that you know that cordovan isn’t ideal for this style. Given Ascot push the Kaan so hard and I assume make more of a profit on this line, that would seem a given to me! Until then I’ll stick with getting my Vass shoes from my occasional trip to the wonderful Budapest!

Paul Boileau

I think the ascotshoes website needs some work.
1. I don’t think I saw any RTW Vass shoes for £350 so I think the price given in the article is misleading. Most seem to be north of £500 (and these were on sale). I didn’t check the MTO shoes.
2. The “Vass ready to wear” tab also includes other shoes eg. Bally, Barker etc shoes?
3. There are 2 prices given: a lower Non EU and EU higher price. Now that the UK has left the EU, I assume I can pay the non EU price? 🙂

PS

Wanted to correct you regarding the comment that Alden uses machine stitching with cordovan. They have hand stitched models as well as machine stitched models, and the look is also entirely different for those two. Look at Alden 2210 model in cordovan

Tom

I have a pair of Vass oxfords, F last in museum brown MTO. I had seen something similar at a trunk show in London and tried on different lasts. I emailed Vass after the show and started the process. 6 week lead time and cost 550 euros. Cheaper than going through Ascot shoes and had no problems with communication.

Ken C.

Whoa I actually ordered a pair of Alden Norwegian Split toes just to resolve them with vibram lug soles. Thanks for letting see a preview of the finished product. Ahaha.

Anonymous

Simon, by making the article sound “fair” doesn’t that dilute the message that the process was frustrating? It’s about conveying that frustrating message to readers who, (like myself) might’ve accidentally overlooked the flaws and read the review positively due to article’s tone?

Joshua

Simon:
Any recommendations for a waterproof dress boot that maintains the shape/aesthetics of a dress boot, but is also waterproof and has a durable sole?

I’ve been looking for something that could work well with tailored pieces/flannel trousers but could also work in icy/rainy weather.

RSG

Not likely a brand that will win over too many PS readers, but Aquatalia.

Luca

Hi Simon! When it comes to Alden, where would you get them from? I am a UK 11,5 and have a narrow foot. I had the chance to try them on once at Trunk and felt I might need a narrower last. Do you know where I could find them in Europe? Thanks!

Jason

Simon,
When I look at this process, you endure a lot on our behalf and if it means you finish up with a freebie in the wrong size then surely nobody can begrudge you that.
That said, this is a hell of a lot to go through just to finish up with a really ugly pair of shoes.
Jason

Gus

When buying RTW shoes such as EG or Alden, how do you accommodate for the half size different in your feet? Is it simply a matter of using insoles?

Gus

Thanks for the clarification and insight. Another reason to go MTO or bespoke!

Richard

Simon, am I in a club of one to think those Kaan shoes are unappealing?

After careful thought and direction, I purchased a pair of Oxford high boots direct from Vass about a year ago. The cost to me was £625 (their full price) and very reasonable compared to bespoke; which can be ill fitting on a first pair.

Similar boots via Ascot with toe caps, shoe trees and military shine would have cost £1,400. Your experience sounds frustrating and not my experience.

The process took 10-weeks and I have been generally happy. The only issues I encountered were a delay of 2-weeks and a different (darker brown) colour than I expected. In the end, I quite liked the colour as its more versatile. If I were to buy another pair, I would size up a half size using the K Last.

Sidebar- Vass RTW at £350 on Ascot is completely news to me. If this is the case its atypical. Can you produce some examples?

Peter Martin

Dear Simon, I think this went wrong. Cordovan is a very special leather and I would use it with more dignity. Not cut it in pieces and sew it together and combine it with a prefabricated sole with a yellow emblem down there. But maybe it was not all overlooked at the time of ordering. It happend to me too that a project turned out quite different from what I was original planning. So I got very carefully when using the wonderful materials and the labour involved. Anyhow. Thank you for sharing with us.

Scott

Simon, are you familiar with Bontoni shoes? It’s a really fantastic small company with 8 or 9 employees producing maybe 10 pairs of shoes per day, both rtw and custom.

Stephen

Well you definitely received the full Vass treatment.

Vass makes a quality shoe but Ascot is way, way overpriced on them. I just can’t justify their prices when the last Vass shoes I purchased new were under $500 USD from a shop in Europe just 2-3 years ago. Anyway, unless you must have a Kaan, Mehra out of Vancouver is a better option for those in the US/Canada.

Andy

If you want Vass directly from their site. Save about 400€ doing that. Idk how Karl charges such high up charge when anyone can buy from the vass site.

Robert F

Hi Simon,

Interesting article as usual. I am surprised to have read about your issue with Vass.

I am writing this comment from Budapest, Hungary and the Vass pieces I have seen insofar were rather nice in general, if somewhat “oldish” to my taste. I therefore have come to map out other traditional (manufactural) Hungarian bespoke shoe makers.

Rozsnyai made a pair of MTO black oxfords for me some years ago and they are an absolute delight today. Recently, I am thinking to procure a fully bespoke pair of double monk shoes from Fabula. They look great, quality is top notch, price is decent and master Fabula replies to emails swiftly. He works quite a bit with German and Austrian clients as I heard.

I can only recommend Hungarian shoemakers, they are competing for clients not with Loake, Barker or Cheaney as far as my minuscule knowledge goes, service could surely improve in cases though.

Ps. Please carry on with the youtube content, such a pleasure to watch.

Kindly,

R.

Dmitri

Receiving your MTO order from VASS and finding that it is 1 size too big is part of VASS tradition. It is sort of like hazing by VASS, everyone has to go through it to receive a proper shoe in the end.

Alexander

Just to give another perspective after the negative leaning comments from my fellow-readers: I bought my first Vass shoes (classic black cap toe adelaide oxfords, with a V-cap, in U-last) some months ago directly from them at sale (just under € 400) and I am very satisfied with their overall product, although I believe the stories about their costumer-support. The U-last on their oxfords strongly reminds me of the TG73-last from G&G. Just a perfect balance between a chiseled and still elegant almond-like shape. This price point for a hand welted shoe with quality leather (as far as I can tell) and Rendenbach-sole etc. was enough reason for me to take the risk with their online-service.