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The Sole of Discretion

Few articles of clothing can cause injury and incapacitation should you have the misfortune to buy the wrong size. Shoes, however, can make or break the wearer.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that even in this day and age, being a dictator for just over 20 years would entitle you to a reasonably prominent place in the history books. Yet look at what happened to President Ferdinand Marcos who, after two decades and two months in Philippine power, was relegated to the status of a footnote. Even the most corrupt, repressive, murderous, foreign-aid-hoarding autocrat cannot take posterity for granted.

The late 10th President tends to be overlooked in favour of his wife ‘ or, more precisely, her extravagances, in particular her world-beating collection of designer shoes. Much of the collection ‘ rumoured to reach 3,000 pairs but which she insists comprised only 1,060 ‘ went on display at Manila’s Marikina City Footwear Museum.

Mind you, perhaps the shoes aren’t really such minor players in the story. When you think about it, many women secretly envy Imelda’s freedom to indulge. And some men, too, seem to have more footwear than they can ever find time to slip into, particularly when you consider that ‘ for chaps at least ‘ it’s well known that a good pair of proper, stout brogues will simply never date, nor wear out if you take care of them.

Pick and Choos
But then there’s something about shoes, isn’t there’ Whether your tastes run to bespoke John Lobb or designer Jimmy Choo, ready-made Berluti or Manolo Blahnik, it’s probably true to say that anyone who cares about their appearance also pays attention to their footwear. More to the point, the men do as much as the women, even the most fashion-unconscious ones. Perhaps it’s because ‘ whether they’re tall or a bit short, a little too firmly upholstered or too scrawny for their own good ‘ anyone can enjoy footwear which is at once beautiful and well made, sexy or stylish, hilariously if a little absurdly up-to-the-minute, or merely practical and downright perfect for the job.

And other people notice what you wear at ground level, too. Not only the girls, either, most of whom admit to checking a man’s watch and shoes; other men discreetly assess each other’s Oliver Sweeney’s or Grenson’s as they walk along the way or stand around by the bar. Even discussing them can arouse as much interest as the weekend’s sporting activities.

Of course, that could be because men’s shoes are more about engineering than fashion. Just think about that for a moment. No other item of clothing has to be built to withstand what shoes must face: on the move all day, pounding pavements in all temperatures and whatever the weather, encasing a complex and tender mechanism which changes shape constantly and which ‘ sorry to bring this up ‘ exudes a surprising volume of fluid every day.

Little wonder, then, that it takes such a material as leather and a formidable team of highly specialised artisans to bring it all together: fitters, last-makers, clickers and closers, makers
and polishers.

Aston Martin may still enjoy the conceit that each of its engines is the painstaking work of just one man, but then cars are only machines.

Made to last
By contrast, at John Lobb in St James’s Street they know after more than a century and a half in the business that the creation of a perfect shoe requires not just one man, but teamwork of the highest and most painstaking quality.

Not just to measure, weigh and assess the foot itself either, but once the data is obtained and carefully filed, to create a fine last of well grained maple, beech or hornbeam, and from that to fashion, cut, skive and stitch a pair of shoes as unique as your own foot and in its own way no less remarkable. A fascinating, highly complex process which from the selection of up to 16 pieces of leather to the finished article takes weeks in an age when a factory shoe is routinely and endlessly reproduced in just a few minutes.

Of course you pay dearly for such a service. That first pair of brogues, for example, collected from the wood-panelled premises which Esquire magazine once described as ‘the most beautiful shop in the4 world’ will typically set you back something to the order of ’2,400. That’s for your basic pair in leather, you understand, as you can more than double the estimate for a bit of quality crocodile or something similar. Then of course you’ll need a pair of shoe trees at ’393 (plus VAT).

But then compare that with a traditional bespoke suit from one of the big names on Savile Row, and by the time you’ve stepped out on to the pavement of St James’s Street and flagged down a cab, it doesn’t sound half as bad.

The suit, after all ‘ certainly as well made, individual and idiosyncratic ‘ should be good for 20 years of hard wear, which is probably twice what one could reasonably expect from, say, a decent BMW or Mercedes costing 20 times as much. But even so, two decades is but a sigh compared with the longevity of a good pair of bespoke brogues.

Not, of course, that everyone wants to clunk around the place in a pair of oxblood Oxfords, nor indeed walk along the path taken by such luminaries as Caruso, Andrew Carnegie, Marconi or Macmillan ‘ or, for that matter, so many more of London’s most illustrious bootmakers’ clients.

On the other foot
Instead, few shoe lovers can resist the lure of fashion ‘ and while one might disagree, who is to blame them’ That is why such a vast industry has grown to feet this mounting passion. For example, 200,000 or so people work in the footwear industry in the Philippines alone. You might recall that as a protest against cheap Chinese imports two years ago, the Manila shoe lobby commissioned the world’s largest motorised stiletto to drive around the city. Pink and more than 10ft high, it was based on a 1,000cc motorcycle which had been grafted on to a Volkswagen front end.

Elsewhere, well-established shoe manufacturers face competition from traditionally more clothing and accessories-orientated names such as Ferragamo, Givenchy, Chanel and Christian Dior, all of whom found a buyer in Imelda. All of it a tacit recognition, perhaps, that unlike belts and buckles, a pair of shoes is never an accessory but a possession by which the owner is judged.

Heel or no deal
And isn’t that true’ Wear a cheap pair of shoes under a good suit and you look like a schmuck. But do it the other way around, and you just might get away with it. Buying wisely, in other words, can save you money. Not just in the long run ‘ since good shoes which don’t date will last a lifetime ‘ but in the short term too, by setting the scene and suggesting that everything else you’re wearing is of a similar, unimpeachable quality. And sadly, you simply can’t say the same about anything else that’s haute couture. With the exception of a versatile little black number for women or a penguin suit for men, this year’s designer dress will never be anything but next year’s last year’s thing, because big-name clothes age quickly. It’s their job.

All of that explains why many who dress well look first to their feet when they’re styling themselves to a budget. Knowing quality when they see it, they’re acutely aware that a single, polished pair of Church’s or Jimmy Choo’s, John Lobb’s or Manolo’s will be recognised at once by the cognoscenti.

Such a choice broadcasts far and wide the message that this person knows what’s what, while at the same time providing the perfect hi-vis focus for whatever else you choose to wear. That’s the case whether it’s designer, classic or budget. Of course, those same shoes should feel good, too ‘ and make you feel good while you’re wearing them which, ultimately, is what all this is about.

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