In the days when women weren’t in control of the family purse, bespoke shoes were accessible only to the affluent among them. In the modern era, women are able to earn their own wealth and make their own financial decisions, however the ever-changing seasonal trends and readily-available fast fashion dictate to women what they should have. While there are certainly many high-end brands that produce quality, accessible work, few women are aware of the quality of craftsmanship and level of individualised service to be found in bespoke shoes.
The sheer variety and complexity of women’s shoe styles, toe shapes and heel heights - each combination requiring a different last - demands a lot of the craftsman. Men’s shoes have far fewer variations. Higher heels alter the dynamics of the construction - balance, centre of gravity, the natural gait of the wearer must all be considered. This is why so many traditional makers shy away from women’s work. There are in fact few left who successfully attempt hand-welted high heels.
An important aspect of bespoke making, often overlooked, is the development of the relationship and trust between maker and client throughout the commissioning process. The late, great Salvatore Ferragamo describes feeling an instant reaction, like a small electric shock, upon placing a client’s feet in his hands. He said of Greta Garbo: “Her temperament is truly aristocratic. I have never seen her in a bad temper, and never expect to. I can tell from the reaction in her feet. There is none at all: the sure sign of an equable, assured personality.” (1)
In a world where the privileged can have anything their hearts desire, it must be understood that any type of bespoke commission is also an investment of time. When embarking on such a journey it is imperative to choose a partner wisely - a carefully selected craftsman with similar tastes who shares your aesthetic can be trusted to translate your requirements into a successful outcome. The craftsman in turn should be able to trust that the client will be clear and open in communication and receptive to the expert’s guidance.
Pierre Yantorny, known in his time as “the most expensive shoemaker in the world” lived to stretch the boundaries. “My only aim is to leave something to a museum of the shoe that future generations could admire, not a financial legacy, but the artistry found in shoes.” (2)
And so you see that “trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle”. These words, first published in a shoemaking textbook in 1935, remain true today. It isn’t easy to get right, but when it is right, the result is a true work of art.
The word "bespoke" originates from the verb “bespeak”, (ca. 1583) meaning “to speak for, to arrange for, engage beforehand: to ‘order’ (goods)”. The adjective “bespoken” (ca. 1607) means “ordered, commissioned, arranged for”.
The term bespoke is British. Americans tend to use the word "custom".
A "last" is the wooden (or plastic) form, or mould, on which a shoe is made. Bespoke last-making is a specialist craft in itself, translating the carefully taken measurements into a carved form that precisely represents the client’s unique foot shape combined with the nuances of the style and function of the particular shoe.
The work of Yantorny was praised by "Le Panthéon de l’industrie" - “Incidentally, it should be noted that we find in Mr. Yantorny, a great advantage that other shoemakers don’t have. Mr. Yantorny is, indeed, a last-maker and he is more able to make shoes adapting perfectly to the customer's foot.” (2)
If a shoe is "made-to-order" it would not be ready to buy off-the-shelf, instead only produced when the order is placed, in a standard size and style, on a standard last. For hand-crafted slow fashion, made-to-order is a key feature.
"Custom" means changing certain characteristics to suit individual preferences. The core design of the shoe is the same, but easily modifiable features such as colour, material, decoration or adornments are altered, or customised.
"Personalised" shoes have a client’s unique initials or monogram placed strategically in or on the shoe.
Bespoke is all of the above…and more. The discerning feature of bespoke work is the application of the shoemaker’s experience and expertise in guiding the client to make choices that carefully consider her personality, lifestyle and functional needs. This, as well as the aesthetic and technical aspects, all make up the little “trifles” that lead to perfection.
(1) Salvatore Ferragamo: The Art of the Shoe
(2) The Art of the Shoe, Marie-Jospehe Bossan