Why have these bespoke shoes aged so well?

Monday, February 22nd 2021
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What shoes do we still find ourselves wearing after 10 years, and why? 

I find this is mostly about making sensible, functional choices; then a little bit about quality and fit; and almost nothing to do with bevelled waists or stitches per inch. 

We’ve covered in the past the glories of good leather shoes, and how they age. The patina that develops on the leather, the comfort of moulded upper and insole, the intense character they have - which makes them like no other. 

That is all true, and bears repeating. Particularly in an era when all you see are trainers, which lose all their fresh-faced appeal within a year, let alone 10. 

However, there’s no point having great well-made leather shoes if you don’t wear them. Most of the patina comes from wear, after all, and pretty much all of the joy. 

So why am I still wearing this pair of Cleverley bespoke shoes, 10 years after I commissioned them? Why do I think I will be for another 20? 

They were a good, versatile choice for a first pair of smart shoes. 

They are very dark brown, which means they can go with even the darkest trousers - such as navy and charcoal - as well as mid-grey and other minor colours. 

Brown was more versatile for me than black, as I always worked in a less formal office. No one would consider it inappropriate to wear this colour with a suit, and it can be worn with a range of jackets and trousers too, even smart trousers and knitwear. 

To keep that versatility, they were also best as an oxford (derby or loafer might be harder with a suit) and as a simple design - a toe cap, with just one line of brogueing. 

Alternatives would have been a whole cut (smarter), monk strap (perhaps smarter, certainly more unusual), derby (too casual for most business suits) or a full brogue (too casual again).

The last shape is quite elongated, but not overly so for a formal shoe, I don’t think. They are a tiny bit shorter than my Masaru Okuyama, for instance, but longer than my Yohei Fukuda

So, I made good choices. I haven’t always. 

My second commission with Cleverley was a black wingtip, which was a good second choice. But the third, a Russian double monk, was a bit of a mismatch: a casual material in a fairly showy style, on a rather formal last.

It took me four years to correct that, with a shoe from Stefano Bemer that was a better style and last for the leather. All three shoes are shown above, in that order.

I did a personal consultancy session recently with a reader, who was looking to build out a collection of good shirts and jackets. Every time on these calls, we end up talking about slowing down - buying less, more slowly, with more thought in between. 

Everyone makes mistakes, most obviously (and publicly) me. The very least you can do is give yourself the chance to learn from them before repeating the process. 

I’ve worn these Cleverley shoes consistently and with pleasure, because they were a good choice. They weren’t always a great fit though. Or at least, not a great fit for bespoke. 

When I wrote a wear report on these shoes, back in 2011, I praised the way they held my ankle, and didn’t bite across my big toe, as most RTW oxfords do. 

But looking back on it, I was really just saying they fitted better than RTW - which they did. Not better than RTW derbys, actually, which have greater range across the instep; but better than RTW oxfords or loafers.

Having had so much bespoke since then, I think I was a little generous. The arch could follow the line of my foot better, and for a long time they pinched my little toe after several hours of wear - or long periods of walking. 

We stretched them in that area last year - which I should have done much earlier - and it made a big difference. Now I feel they justify being described as a good fit. 

If you’re going to have shoes and wear them for a long time, they need to be comfortable. The fit needs to be good. Not just RTW good, but bespoke good.

And that’s why today it’s the first thing I praise - when I have them from Yohei Fukuda or Nicholas Templeman for example - and only talk about aesthetic things like room in the vamp, or between the facings, later on. 

Good style, good fit. How about quality? 

The quality of the leather certainly makes a difference, though more in the aesthetics than the comfort. Very cheap leathers can be uncomfortable, but getting a high-grade leather - as you would expect from a bespoke maker - is more about how it polishes and looks over time. 

I’ve generally found my bespoke shoes to be comparable to top-end RTW in that respect. I see no difference in quality between Edward Green and Masaru Okuyama, for example. 

However, these Cleverley shoes have always been a bit different from my RTW - not worse, just different. 

The leather is noticeably thinner, which makes it supple, and look delicate, in a dressy way. But it also wrinkles more, highlighting any fit issues. And it’s less robust, taking on rain and salt stains easily, for example. 

The other big area of quality is hand stitching. Bespoke shoes like these have their welts and soles hand stitched, which is stronger than normal machine stitching. Other aspects of the construction should make the shoe stronger too. 

But these are very much in the long run. The only thing I can say at this stage - in my still relatively short experience - is that these points have so far made no difference. 

My machine sewn (often called ‘benchmade’) shoes from Edward Green are almost 15 years old, worn as much as these Cleverleys, resoled a couple of times, and look pretty much the same.

The best I can really say is, I’ll report back in another 10 years - and of course, ask readers whether they’ve noticed any difference, if they’ve had comparable shoes for longer. 

Then we get to the very fine making points. The number of stitches the maker has managed per inch. The precise line of the heel pitch. 

I completely understand why people are interested in these things. They have echoes in the finer details of wine vintages, or engine performance. I also understand because they are passions I’ve gone through in my time.

I would only say that, over the years, they become irrelevant if the other things aren’t right. 

I would prefer it if my Stefano Bemer hatchgrain shoes were made of the original Russian leather, rather than a recreation. But that’s irrelevant compared to the style and last of the Cleverleys in that original leather - because I rarely wear them. 

The same goes for the precision of work in the heel or waist of a shoe. The loafers I had made by Daniel Wegan when he was at Gaziano & Girling have the most beautiful waist of any of my shoes. But there were issues with the fit, and they are an unusual style. They’re probably worn a tenth as much as these Cleverleys. 

I started this article asking why I still wear and love these shoes, after a decade (actually, now I check, 11 years). 

What makes them most likely that I’ll still be wearing them in another 20, like Bruce Boyer’s old jacket, or Nicoletta’s? What makes them great things that will actually have a chance to age?

The answers are boring ones, but important. They are a style I like, and a style that works for what I wear. They are comfortable, and they have character. 

As people wear formal shoes less, these things will become even more important. If you’re going to invest in good shoes, they should be ones you’ll get lots of use out of. Even if they’re the only dress shoe you own. 

Photography: Alex Natt @adnatt