I WILL ALWAYS PREFER
FITTING TO STYLE
Friday, July 11, 2014
This June Andrew Murphy, retail manager of Foster & Son bespoke shoemaker, visited Russia for the first time for a trunk show. We met in Moscow and i did not miss a chance to ask him about bespoke shoes, life of British shoemakers, shoe business and his opinion about men’s wardrobe.
HOW HAS YOUR CARRIER IN SHOE BUSINESS STARTED? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE CLASSIC SHOES MARKET?
Well, it actually started when I was a 16 and leaving school. John Carnera who is a family friend and was a business partner of G. J. Cleverley when they worked for New & Lingwood (before they started business with George Glasgow in the 1990s) sat me down and asked: "What are you going to do? Are you going to university or to an art college? I’m looking for a young guy to become a trainee shoemaker. So, do you want to come and look at what we do?"
So, I went, liked it and decided not to go to university but instead to become an apprentice shoemaker. But at that time, you know, shoemakers didn’t have a great deal of status. Now of course it is different but then, thirty years ago, shoemakers worked in dark, dingy basements on their own. And when I saw that, I told John: "Look, I don’t want to do that. I like the idea, but I don’t want to be stuck in the basement, I want to be on the shop floor, seeing customers, serving them, learning about the business."
So he said: "Okay, that’s fine. We’re also looking for a guy for the shop so we’ll find someone else for the shoemaking". And that was that. So I stayed there with John Carnera, George Glasgow and George Cleverley in New & Lingwood, for 7 years. My next step was when I left New & Lingwood to start the
Edward Green brand of ready to wear for retail. Edward Green was a shoe manufacturer, they’d never run their own store. So in 1991, when John Hlustik was the owner of Edward Green and he decided that he wanted to start a retail business, everybody around said: "Don’t do it, you are manufacturer, you don’t know anything about retail. It will fail, what you are doing is crazy!" Edward Green was the first factory with its own shop in London. Of course, I knew John Hlustik from my time in New & Lingwood and told him that I’d help him to open the store. There were three of us, John Hlustik, the owner, me and another guy, and we opened the first store in 1991, when I was 23. Nobody had heard of Edward Green and customers would ask: "Who are you? Where do you come from?" We explained that we were manufacturers with a Northampton factory that had been in existence for more than 100 years, that we had never had a shop before and that we made lovely and beautiful shoes. And people said: "Well, yes, they are quite nice". And, slowly, slowly, we were educating people about who we were.
In those days there was no Internet, no social media, you couldn’t advertise for free. If you advertised you had to pay lots of money to magazines and other publications and that was not an option for us. So we worked by word of mouth. Customers came in and we talked to them. They might buy shoes, they might not. In those early days we might sell two or three pairs of shoes a week, and every pair of shoes we sold was a true victory for us, we celebrated like we’d won a cup. Like any business, we had to start with tiny steps, from nothing to something. As we started people slowly began to understand the brand and the shoes, they realized it was a high-quality product and we went from there, from strength to strength. So we opened two more stores - one at Jermyn Street, one at the Royal Arcade. Today Edward Green has one store at Jermyn Street and they have great brand and a great product. Edward Green sell their shoes around the world, they came from that humble beginning, as a retail store, and just take a look at where they are now. Now they are very well known in the market place. I stayed until 2000 when I left to work with John Carnera again.
In the 1990s, John Carnera and George Glasgow left New & Lingwood after George Cleverley died and started their own business - G. J. Cleverley. I went back to work with them and spent 13 years with them, till last September.
YOU WAS WORKING FOR G. J. CLEVERLEY LAST 13 YEARS. HOW DID YOU LEAVE CLEVERLEY AND JOIN FOSTER & SON?
After 13 years of being there I realized that I was running out of incentives and needed a new challenge. So this is where my Foster & Son activity started. Last summer I decided that I needed a change, I was unhappy with my job and was bored, I wasn’t sure what I needed to do next but I knew I needed a change. So I decided to try another job to make something happen and looked at the London bespoke shoemakers market that consists of John Lobb, G. J. Cleverley and Foster & Son. I have lots of friends in the tailoring business and there over 20 bespoke tailors in London but only 3 bespoke shoemakers. My friends have so many different options, a freedom to choose their next job, but I had only two - John Lobb or Foster & Son. I walked down to Foster & Son, because John Lobb is a long way away (laughing) and it was quicker to visit Foster & Son first. I walked in, introduced myself, told them my story and explained what I could do, said that I’d like to come and start working for them and that was it. They said: "Yes, that would be lovely", so I started. And I never even got to John Lobb.
AND WHAT ABOUT GAZIANO & GIRLING? DID YOU THINK ABOUT THEM AS A COMPANY TO WORK FOR?
At that time Gaziano & Girling had no store in London, i knew they were going to open but Foster & Son was on my doorstep and i liked them, they liked me, i met the owner, Richard Edgecliffe, i liked the brand, i explained them why i want to join the team and what i want to do - move the brand on, change styles of shoes, bring new designs, new ideas and to do more traveling to meet people around the globe personally. Last years Foster & Son traveled to America and Japan. This year i had only 2 months without traveling, i visited America, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and, finally, Russia.
TELL ME ABOUT FOSTER & SON TEAM. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? THEIR AGE?
The bespoke team works upstairs at 83 Jermyn Street, in the workshop. There are 4 people: Jon, who is the last maker, Emiko, who is also a last maker, pattern cutter and shoemaker (she is quite unique, because most people just specialize in one area), Emma who is a pattern cutter and almost also a shoemaker, Lucy, who is the youngest, she is been in team for 2 years and she is a closer. We also have some people who work from home. All of them started as apprentices and they were all trained by Terry Moore who is the master shoemaker at Foster & Son. He started with Foster & Son in 1964 and is now officially retired, he is 79, he has bad health and he can’t do physical work. So he comes in twice in a month as a consultant to see the guys in the workshop and customers for a chat. The whole team were trained by Terry, Jon has worked here for 4 years, Emiko for 14 years, Emma for 7 years and Lucy for 2 years.
DO YOUNG PEOPLE TRY TO JOIN THE COMPANY AS EMPLOYEES OR APPRENTICIES?
They do. Every week we have two or three people who come in and say: "I want to be a shoemaker or I want to understand luxury brands, not so much in the making, but to help in the store, do marketing" We explain to people who want to become a shoemaker what actually goes on in the workshop, that it is dirty and messy space, it is a hard work and we introduce them to our team. So we tell them that if they really want to do it, they need to be prepared for really hard work, long, long hours in the workshop and if they are happy to do that, we will maybe give them a trial.
But they need to understand the downside. The training process consists of four parts - apprentice, teacher, space and money. It is very hard to put all the four parts together. We can get apprentices to teach, but now Terry can’t train new people and we’ve lost the teacher. For example, if we take one of our craftspeople from the team off production to teach, we lose production. We also need a space for apprentice and funding. That is why we take only the most talented and passionate people.
SO, NOW FOSTER & SON BESPOKE TEAM IS FULLY COMPLETED WITH IN-HOUSE TEAM AND PEOPLE WHO WORK FROM HOME, RIGHT? DOES THIS NUMBER OF PEOPLE COVER THE INCOMING BUSINESS AND AMOUNT OF CONSUMPTION?
Of course we’re always looking for more. If, for example, a highly skilled shoemaker from John Lobb or G. J. Cleverley came to us and said: "I’ve fallen out with them, can I work for you?" We would say yes. If we find a talented shoemaker, we would take them on straight away.
LET'S TALK ABOUT FOSTER & SON LASTS. HOW MANY DO YOU HAVE? WHICH OF THEM ARE MOST POPULAR AND WHICH WOULD YOU CALL MOST UNIVERSAL?
In our store we have around 300 bespoke lasts for existing customers. We adapt some of them to use in our ready to wear range. Today we regularly use from 15 to 30 different lasts in production. We also change them, from time to time, to develop our styles.
There is no universal sizing system for ready to wear lasts, every factory has its own system. All the lasts from the factories are different. For example, two lasts under the same number 314 can be absolutely different at Crockett & Jones and Joseph Cheaney factories and one similar looking shoe, let’s say a Wholecut Oxford, may be done on three different lasts from three different manufacturers. Lasts are always adapted to the specific styles of brands.
Two main things about last styles are toes and fittings. There are two basic shapes of toe - square and round. On the square toe you may have some variations like a chiselled toe, or a softer toe, where edges are rolled off, or a classic squared toe. There are also some variations in rounded toe style. Foster & Son is known for its soft chisel toe style and the very accurate shaping of the shoe.
The key thing when you make the last is the fitting. In our ready to wear range we have E, F and G fittings. Made to order we can make C, D or H fittings. Our main fittings are E, about 70 percent of shoes, F, 25 percent, and G, 5 percent.
WHAT ARE THE BASIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN FOSTER & SON READY TO WEAR AND BESPOKE SHOES?
Bespoke shoes are made completely by hand. Every single detail of a shoe is done by hand, every hole is punched by hand, each piece of leather is cut by hand to the exact pattern for that last, all the stitching is done by hand – including the sole and welt stitching. So it is a very time consuming process. The shoemaker who stitches the sole will maybe only do two or three pairs a week. With ready to wear shoes we use the same method as bespoke but everything is done by machine, for example holes punched by machine that can punch ten toe caps at once. All the processes are done by different machines with a human at them - punching machines, lasting machines, etc. The method of construction is the same, but the bespoke shoe is fully made by hand and ready to wear shoe by machine.
Of course, fully bespoke shoes are made entirely to the customer’s measurements and patterns are made for to work with the individual last, so it is much better fitting and longer lasting shoe. For bespoke shoes we use the very best sole leather, which is not used for ready to wear, and the very best upper leathers. For example we may have 20 skins to choose from and we select only the finest of them for our bespoke shoes. We examine the grain, softness of the skins and so on, and then use only the best parts. The rest of each skin is waste. On a factory made shoe you get the skin and you might just look at its average quality, but all skin will go to the production. Sometimes you might find growth marks on the leather of ready to wear shoes, nothing really wrong with it, but it does not look so nice. You will never have that in a bespoke shoe.
The quality of ready to wear is getting higher and higher all the time. Factories are starting to pay more attention to the details. Every person who works on a factory gets paid for a certain activity and this activity, from clicking and cutting to closing and burnishing, is done from end to end, but without the passion of an artisan. With a handmade shoe the shoemaker might look at the pattern and find that the cut is not quite right, so he will go to the pattern cutter, discuss it and work out a solution. But at the factory this process is different. Quality is the responsibility of the production manager and not the workforce in quite the same way. In bespoke you check every little detail, it is much slower process, you always talk with the team, you help each other. The differences you get are not all about design, there are also about fitting, lasting, materials and quality. If the customer says that something is wrong, we have to start again.
WHICH FACTORIES DO YOU USE FOR READY TO WEAR SHOES PRODUCTION?
Today we use Crockett & Jones, Alfred Sargent and Joseph Cheaney, 20 years ago we worked with Grenson too. All of those companies make shoes to our specification, so these are not just rebranded shoes from Crockett & Jones with our name on it. They produce shoes on our own unique lasts, with our patterns and to our standard, so this is our product. These are shoes that we designed, they produced them for us, but they are made on Foster & Son lasts, patterns, designs and, what is really important, to our quality standard.
We have a manager at every factory who takes care of quality and standards. But the main thing about our relationships with the factories is loyalty. Years ago, when factories didn’t have their own stores, they relied on us for their work based on our orders. Now they have stores and they do not need us as much as they used to, but they still work with us, because of our mutual history and relationships built by our predecessors. And these relationships continue.
IF YOUR CUSTOMER LOCATED OUTSIDE OF ENGLAND, HOW DO YOU TAKE BESPOKE ORDERS AND MAKE FITTINGS?
We have two ways actually. First, we can ask a customer to visit us in London and, second, we travel around the world. For example, for the last 50 years Foster & Son regularly travels with trunk shows to America and for the last 20 years to Japan. To expand the business and to meet new customers we have to travel and meet people personally, show them who we are and what we do.
WHERE DO YOU BUY LEATHER? DO YOU USE RUSSIAN LEATHER?
All the upper leather we buy comes from British agents, not directly from the tanneries. We have network of 6 agents, who source the leather right from the tanneries. When I started, years ago, before Europe was a single market, we had different calfs from France, Germany and Poland, but now it is just classed as European calf. The sole leather is an oak bark tanned English leather from J & FJ Baker tannery in Colyton which has been there for 2000 years.
Russian leather, reindeer and calf, has been used in the past and was considered the finest in the world. It was produced in the northern part of Russia, around the Saint Petersburg area. But all the industry died at the time of the Russian revolution. It was a peasants working environment, so during the revolution lots of people were killed, tanneries were ruined and nobody was able to go back and reproduce that leather, because the people who knew all the secrets and the whole process died or disappeared.
WHAT, AT YOUR OPINION, IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF REALLY FINE PAIR OF SHOES?
Well, in a handmade shoe the most important thing is the last, because if the last is wrong - everything else is wrong.
On a ready to wear shoe the main element is fit. I’m very traditional and I will always prefer fitting to style. Today factories have so many different lasts and sometimes customers might want to buy a shoe which does not fit them well, but has a great design. Or, a shoe that fits but isn’t in a style the customer wants to buy. So you may have a difficult choice to make - to buy a beautiful shoe which will not be comfortable or to buy a shoe that fits well but isn’t the style that you want. My first point is to find you a comfortable shoe.
NOW LET'S JUMP TO PRACTICAL THINGS. MANY OF MY READERS AND FRIENDS OFTEN ASK ME ABOUT QUALITY, DIFFERENT STYLES AND NUMBER OF PAIRS, WHICH EVERY MAN SHOULD HAVE IN HIS WARDROBE.
WHICH TRICKS SHOEMAKERS DO OFTEN USE TO CREATE A FALSE IMPRESSION OF QUALITY? WHERE DO YOU NEED TO LOOK TO NEVER MISS CHEATING?
On our shoes you can see the stitching and know that these are welted high-quality shoes. It is quite common nowadays for factories to make a false stitch emulating the welted shoe but using glue to attach the sole instead which can easily fall off after 3 or 4 weeks. The only way to avoid bad shoes is to ask the salesman about stitching and welt. Sure, salesmen can lie, but time will show you the truth and you can go back to ask for a refund. One thing I can tell you for sure is that most British shoemakers do welted shoes. In the fashion world many brands make shoes that look nice, but the quality is often missing.
WHAT WOULD YOU ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE WHO ARE AT THE EARLY BEGINNING AND JUST STARTED TO BUILD UP THEIR WARDROBE?
Well, the first shoe that every man should have is an Oxford shoe. If you start to build a wardrobe with fine shoes, Oxford is the smart and very universal style, timeless staple, which you can use for a job interview, to the office, or a wedding. It goes well with formal and office suits, chinos, blazers and even jeans. The Oxford style is the first style you should have.
WHICH PAIRS, AT YOUR OPINION, ARE WARDROBE STAPLES AND EVERY MAN MUST HAVE?
You should not ask me because I have around 50 pairs of shoes (laughing). If you are a working man, you have to wear black shoes, as most men do for business. The best way is to have 3 pairs of formal black shoes and rotate them around, do not wear one pair every day, let shoes breathe and keep them in wooden shoe trees. I would say that once you buy a classic Oxford, you can buy some different styles like Wholecuts or Full Brogues. For summer you should have Loafers. For weekend I prefer brown shoes. So, 5 pairs of shoes is a nice collection and will cover everything a man might need.
90 percent of my customers have really huge collections of shoes. They have a shoe buying habit, they develop their collections, add styles and colours, and care for their shoes, which become more and more beautiful with age.
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