The psychology of the shoe is a fascinating field of study. In the female pantheon, the shoe's quasi-magical ability to empower and embolden is well rehearsed. For women, just hearing the name Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik can cause a quickening of the heart and awaken the sort of devotion that most men experience only in the context of football teams or Scotch.
The relationship a man has with his shoes is utterly different. But it shouldn't be. Men's shoes are certainly capable of leaving just as lasting an impression as women's. "You can get away with a pair of worn jeans or the most rough-and-tumble suit, and if the shoes are well fitting and well cared for, the whole outfit passes," explains Hilary Freeman, who runs British shoemaker Edward Green. "But even if you are wearing the best Savile Row suit and the shoes are not up to the mark, well …" Her voice trails off ominously.
The pinnacle of men's footwear, of course, is the handmade shoe. Having brogues and Oxfords made to order is not a quick business; it is the essence of deferred gratification. The construction of a bespoke shoe begins with the creation of the last, a wooden model of the wearer's foot. I have been fortunate enough to see the last makers at John Lobb in Paris at work, chopping the first rough forms out of hunks of wood using a tool that looked like a cavalry saber attached to a breadboard. Apparently this tool has altered little in the past three centuries: a few deft slices and the recognizable shape of a foot emerges from a formless piece of timber. This requires a hard, close-grained wood that does not distort with time, such as beech, hornbeam or maple.
Next, just like a suit, a card or paper pattern is made and fitted to the last. Then the leather pattern is cut and sent to the closer, who stitches the upper together. This shape is nailed to the last, onto which an insole has been placed, and it is during this infuriating procedure that my own shoemaker, Eric Cook-—who has in his time made shoes for Cary Grant, Paul Newman, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and the Shah of Iran—assures me that they are "looking good on the last." Then the welt—an interstitial layer between the hard-wearing sole and the beautiful upper-—is attached. Even the sole can be a thing of beauty; Cook is fond of shaping that portion between the front sole and heel into a fiddleback waist, a beautifully beveled section of almost museum quality.
It is this sort of result that offers a different order of satisfaction to that experienced by women. The essence of a proper handmade men's shoe is that it does not command attention like a pair of 15--centimeter stilettos. The effect is subtle. Indeed, there are a few touches that identify the work of individual houses, making telling them apart as easy as distinguishing a Watteau from a Warhol (who, incidentally, got more than his 15 minutes with the Berluti shoe that bears his name).
In London there is the Tuczek toe, a chisel toe that imparts a rakish elegance to even the most Bruegel-like of feet. In Florence, Stefano Bremer follows the unusual practice of branding his customers' initials or crests into the front of velvet slippers, usually with embroidery. From Paris comes the lambent color palette and idiosyncratic designs of Olga Berluti, who heads a cult of esoteric male elegance and likes to expose the shoes she makes to the light of the moon to enhance the patina (it is less harsh than sunlight). I once visited Berluti's studio, where she was surrounded by the lasts of her favorite dead customers. Sinatra, Mastroianni, Kubrick, Visconti, even the Duke of Windsor, were there, the duke's last having been transformed using feathers and tartan into a unique object expressive of his dandified nature. As far as Berluti is concerned, "a man's feet never lie." Another mythical figure in the world of men's shoes, the late George Cleverley, could also tell a lot from a man's feet. He used to operate out of a basement on Savile Row and was able to identify his "gentlemen" and greet them by name just by seeing them from the ankle down as they descended the steps.
Just what fanatical lengths men who care about their shoes will go to was made clear when I last visited the Edward Green factory. Green is not, strictly speaking, a bespoke shoemaker, but the company's best shoes, produced under the name Top Drawer, are very nearly of bespoke quality. Apparently, a group of Belgian visitors had recently gotten all worked up about the excessive noise made by shoelaces as they were pulled through the eyelets. Following detailed aural examination, they even had a few recommendations as to how to improve it. I doubt very much if even that great shoe lover Imelda Marcos could claim such a forensic interest.