Bespoke Shoes At Cleverley: Part 1

“The time has come, the walrus said,
To talk of many things.
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
Of cabbages and kings.”

No plans yet to write about cabbages. But it is certainly time to talk about bespoke shoes. I set an appointment last week to go see George Glasgow at GJ Cleverley to be measured for my first pair. Rather as I did previously with suiting, expect a series of posts here on every stage of the process.

There’s something rather charming about being measured for shoes. At Cleverley the first stage is to stand on two facing pages of a book, so that your feet can be traced onto the paper. It feels rather odd standing on a book to begin with, but doing so in your socks in The Royal Arcade, while a man such as Mr Glasgow runs a pencil around your toes, is even more peculiar. Still, here stood stars of stage and screen alike – not to mention royalty.

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When the shoemaker is tracing your foot the key is to keep the pencil upright. The smallest change in angle will mean a millimetre difference on the last, which can be the difference between comfort and pain.

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He will also sweep around your instep, with the pencil at 45 degrees, in order to indicate the height of your arches. Looking back through the Cleverley measuring book, there is a substantial difference here between men. Some, like myself, have almost an inch in difference between the outline and the inside of the arch. (“Healthy and strong,” Mr Glasgow called it. He’s such a tease.) Others have merely a few millimetres. They will require greater support inside the shoe, and the waist will not be able to cut in quite as far underneath.

The length of your foot is also measured. At Cleverley this is done with a wooden rule dating back to 1928. It still looks in pretty good shape – no doubt due to the substantial brass fittings at the joint. While this length is a good guide for the shape of your last, it will always be made 1½ sizes longer than the measurement, to allow for your big toe rolling forward as you put your weight on the ball of your foot.

(As an aside, this difference is only one size on a slip-on shoe. It has no natural mechanism to tighten onto your foot, unless the model includes elastic at the sides, so the fit has to be tighter.)

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Next the circumference of various points is measured. First your joints – between the base of your big and little toe. Then just behind the joints, to give an indication of how quickly the foot narrows. Next around your instep – roughly where the top of the laces would be. And finally from that same point on the top of the foot to the back of your heel.

The thing that struck me as these measurements were being taken was their consistentcy. At each point my right foot was 10-and-something inches, while my left was usually 9-and-something. Height just replaces width as you move towards the back of the foot.

It also put into numbers what I already knew, that my right foot is almost a half size smaller than my left, but significantly wider. While the first is very common, the latter together with a narrow heel makes me a good candidate for bespoke.

Finally, Mr Glasgow ran his hands over my ashamedly hot (not to say sweaty) feet. He was looking for any bumps or peculiarities, such as hammer toes, swollen joints (most common on the big and little toes) and spur bones around the heel.

Many of these are caused by men wearing ill-fitting shoes for much of their lives – or shoes that have not properly been worn in or maintained. Mr Glasgow found no such oddities, most likely because I am too young for my feet to have distorted much.

As a final point, some shoemakers insist on measuring a man’s feet at a particular point in the day. Your feet grow in size notably as you walk on them and keep them encased. Cleverly does not consider this significant, not even noting the time the measurements were taken. For Mr Glasgow the natural give of the leather is sufficient to cope with the daily fluctuation.

Next: styles and designs

Segun Adelaja: A Tailor In An Emporium

Segun Adelaja knows the industry. The day we met we ended up talking for a long time about the expansion of small brands like Berluti, their raw materials and supply chains. About what happens when a small company is bought out and how you manage quality in the midst of rapid expansion. His shoes are made by an ex-Berluti maker, so perhaps there is some bias there, but he freely admits to owning pairs himself – indeed to owning almost every brand of shoes.

It’s hard to stop talking to Segun (She-gun), actually.

And I suppose that theme runs though his shop and his products. He’s tucked away at the back of the Quadrant Arcade (off Regent Street), his shop is unpretentious – not to say sparse – and his website hasn’t been updated in quite a while. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the press articles are from 2002 and still reflect the time when he was more of a visiting tailor and shirtmaker. The Collections section has been “coming soon” for a long time.

Segun is more about word of mouth. Not that he’s understated in person, but such is the community of Nigerian (his native land), English and other customers from across Europe that he has never really explored marketing or the internet.

Although his origins are as a visiting tailor, today Segun is more of a host to an severely edited emporium. He is the only outlet for Lorenzo Villoresi (of Florence) fragrances in the UK. He is one of very few places that stock Gallo socks (Edward Green sometimes carries a couple of pairs). And he commissions his own designs in large holdalls from Swaine Adeney & Brigg.

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Shirts, trousers and jackets, on the other hand, are made to his own designs in Italy. And I have to say it was the made-to-order nature of the trousers that grabbed my attention. They are beautifully made, with hand-sewn trouser curtain and notched waistband, as well as nice design touches like side straps in a variety of colours, widths and materials.

But most importantly, they are all adjusted free of charge. You can have the seat smaller or bigger, change the rise, alter the waist or the hips, as well as adjusting either the length or width of the legs. The legs are made deliberately wide so they can be taken in – I had mine adjusted from 28cm to 22cm across the bottom.

Segun has the eye of the tailor still, explaining to me how he thinks it necessary to lower the rise if a man has a large belly, or raise it if he has a large bum. And with the mind of a tailor it just seems unacceptable that someone would walk out with trousers that don’t fit him. The price, around £180, doesn’t change no matter what you want. Even ordering an entirely custom pair isn’t much more.

I was never sure where to get trousers before. It seems extravagant to have my tailor make them – the figuration is not difficult. But ready-to-wear trousers are too far the other way, never really fitting. This seems like a nice compromise.

Book Review: Bespoke, Savile Row Ripped And Smoothed

bespoke-richard-andersonRichard Anderson can write. This quickly becomes apparent as the reader embarks on the story of his time on Savile Row – from dishevelled apprentice to Huntsman’s youngest-ever head cutter. The realisation that a book is to be chronological, and start at the very beginning, is normally accompanied by a long intake of breath. Fortunately, even the description of Anderson’s father taking his 17-year old to the job interview is entertaining.

It helps that the story of Huntsman’s takeover reads like a genuine thriller, with high stakes, espionage and betrayal. And throughout the 20-odd years described, characters such as Colin Hammick, Brian Hall and Dick Lakey necessarily breed amusing anecdotes. Such as the time Lakey tried to rescue 10 pairs of white trousers by washing them at home, only for the zips to stain the crotch; then adding lemon, only for it to add its own mark; and then successfully washing them clean, only for foxes to tear them off the washing line and eat them.

But Anderson’s writing has its own rhythm and pathos. A liking for short, one-sentence paragraphs and chapter-ending cliff hangers means the story tumbles along.

The latter sections on Richard Anderson Ltd, after the fall of Huntsman, are nowhere near as self-serving as I had been led to believe. The style switches from chronology to analysis, enabling short sections on women in the industry, a day in the life and ready-to-wear clothing in Japan. The second of these three chapters is particularly interesting for an insight into the running of a bespoke firm, and the challenges in figuration, for example, that come up every day. Such as the wadding, canvas, styrofoam and even plasticine used to try and deal with James Fox’s tricky shoulders.

And while some will bemoan the fact that suits under Savile Row names are made in Japanese factories for local clients, the description of how this functions is fascinating.

For tailoring enthusiasts there are several insightful sections on the practice of cutting. The description of how Anderson learned to cut trousers for the first time, for example, and then later how to take measurements ahead of his first trip to the US. Indeed, for those not enthused by technical detail the passages where Hall describes the chalking of back and foreparts could even be too much.

There is, finally, a surprisingly in-depth glossary. I can now identify a bar tack, describe the nap on various cloths and relate the origins of Silesia (named after a region of Poland because of the inventor’s wife’s sympathies for a country being partitioned between Germany, Austria and Russia. The descriptions only suffer from the inevitable difficulty in describing the look and feel of different cloths without imagery.

Highly recommended.

Reader Question: The Differences In Bespoke Tailors

CS, Los Angeles: I have been reading PS for the last few months in an effort to educate myself on various matters of style. First and foremost, I want to thank you for the time and effort you put into your work in this area. I suspect that you have a day job (and I believe you mentioned having at least one daughter in a post), so, from the perspective of another young father-professional, your work is all the more impressive.

 

Please forgive the bluntness, but I was hoping to get your views on why it is you chose the tailors you did for your first few British bespoke items.  Is it simply the price range of the larger names that caused you not to try them out or is it a value calculation?  Did you feel that you had the same options with Graham Browne that you might have had with a ‘bigger name’ shop?

difference-bespoke

Dear CS, thank you for your question. I cannot afford Savile Row at this point in my life, so that limited my decision. But I have also over time learnt the various ways in which bespoke tailors – all of whom deserve the name – differ from each other. And that informs the value calculation.

The first point to note is that the materials are all the same. Unless you want the exclusivity of Huntsman Opus or some such record cloth, you can find the same wools and linings at any bespoke house. Everyone uses Lesser, Minnis, W Bill etc and the same lining books.

Second, the process is the same. Both GB and one of the more famous Savile Row names will take an equal number of measurements, create a unique paper pattern and cut the cloth by hand, creating a basted suit that will be ripped apart and re-cut, and remade for a forward fitting. Then the final suit will be made, which can be altered again. In this way they are both entirely different to made-to-measure.

Assuming some minor changes are made at the final stage, this means visiting the tailor five times. Many Savile Row tailors will insist on more than this. That’s more expensive as it means more staff, more cutting and more time. But whether that is worth it depends on fit, which will be discussed later.

Third, the style and design options are unrelated to price. Some tailors, such as Anderson & Sheppard or Huntsman, and more known for a particular style and are more likely to stay with it. Others have no particular house style, but dislike experimentation or anything out of the ordinary, as it takes longer.

This is a question of personality rather than price. Russell and Dan at Graham Browne are always surprisingly excited about experiments – as demonstrated by both my and Guy Hills’ (of Dashing Tweeds) commissions. Some Savile Row tailors are equally impressive in that regard.

So those are the similarities. What are the differences? Well, Graham Browne does a few things with a sewing machine rather than by hand. For example, it attaches the layers of chest canvas together by sewing machine. These are still not tight stitches, and the canvas as a whole is secured to the jacket by hand, to ensure movement, but that construction of the canvas would be done by hand at most good Savile Row houses. It takes ages. And so it is expensive.

Personally, I love the way that my Graham Browne suits have adapted to my chest and feel personal. Far better than any expensive off-the-peg suit that had a floating canvas (Ralph Lauren Purple Label, for example). But a Savile Row suit might adapt better there – I don’t know, I’ve never owned one.

Another difference is that Graham Browne does not make its own shoulder pads. They are pre-constructed. Unless you have unusual shoulders, though, I don’t think this makes a substantial difference.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for the price, Graham Browne offers little after-sales service. They cannot sponge and press suits onsite. With good Savile Row houses, this is included in the price and can be done for years to come. And while GB would be happy to carry out minor alterations after the fact, it will not substantially alter and refurbish a suit several years down the line without some cost. Good Savile Row houses will – it’s part of the service.

These last three points are all part of a value calculation, as you put it. They are all things that GB has opted to do without in order to charge less. And I’m perfectly happy with that – the construction is great and the fit fantastic, which are the priorities with bespoke.

Then there is definitely a premium for a big name (however small) and it costs a lot more to have large premises on or around Savile Row. That’s obvious if you look at the prices of Savile Row-trained cutters that now work somewhere else in the country (like Thomas Mahon) or in smaller premises (like Steven Hitchcock).

But, I think the most important thing you get, or should get with a Savile Row tailor, is consistency and quality of fit. Savile Row head cutters are at the top of their game. It is a prestigious position, and they are very good. You can have confidence that they will make you a very well-fitting suit, where you couldn’t with a smaller less-known name. It’s less risky. Not that the biggest names don’t sometimes get it wrong – but you’re on safer ground.

You can also justifiably be more demanding on Savile Row (back to the idea of service), changing things or requesting more fittings. The tailor is likely to be more demanding on that score as well.

There is a chance that there are tiny points of fit on a Graham Browne suit that would be improved on Savile Row. But I can’t see them and I’ve had suits made for a while now. I think Russell is a good cutter and others think so too.

Would I have a Savile Row suit made if I could afford it? Yes, I would. But given that it would cost three times one from Graham Browne, I would have to be earning at least three times what I do now.

Hand Sewing At Edward Green

I was fortunate enough to be able to tour the Edward Green factory in Northampton last week. A new building (as they’ve moved around a few times since leaving what is now the John Lobb factory in the centre of town) it nonetheless has a lot of atmosphere and personality. This is due in no small part to the personality of the staff, who delighted in teasing each other about which job best showed off their talents, or indeed which angle was best to photograph them from.

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One aspect that particularly caught my eye was the hand sewing of the apron on a Norwegian split-toe. This is the Sandhurst, a pattern revived from the 1930s archives that was the precursor to Edward Green’s famous Dover. It has been updated in two different styles to celebrate EG’s 120-year anniversary: a grain leather version in tan, with a round toe and external welt to give it a country feel (202 last), and a dark-brown calf version with a severely squared toe that would look well in the city (888 last). Two very different looks with the same model.

The apron has to be sewn by hand because the two parts of the upper are at right angles to each other. A machine can stitch two parallel pieces of leather in any arrangement, but it can’t do angles.

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The sewing is done by pig’s bristle that is bound to the thread, which it draws through a small cut made by an awl. The bristle is narrower than a metal needle and can move through the leather at angles a needle cannot.

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The hand sewer prepares the pig’s bristle by cutting off its root, sanding the broken end to ensure it’s sharp and then splitting the other end to allow it to be bound with the thread. Several strands of yarn are then twisted together with the split bristle and rubbed down with beeswax. The thread is then rubbed hard with leather to melt the wax, ensuring that thread and bristle are bound together. The beeswax also helps seal the stitching on the shoe.

Doing the operation here is Gary Finedon, who joined Edward Green when it split from Lobb and has been hand sewing for 20 years. He makes around 20 such uppers a week, as does Green’s other hand sewer, Andrew Peach.

It’s important to develop a rhythm and not stop halfway, as that usually ensures the stitches are evenly spaced. So of course I interrupted Gary with about four stitches to go. He tactfully finished the last few while listening to my questions, then put the apron down to give me his full attention.

I never realised that the reason the split-toe seam has that distinctive finish is that this same hand sewing technique is used on the inside of the toe, to join the front two pieces of the upper. It’s that hand sewing underneath that creates the dimpled effect on top, which is so often highlighted by the polish.

I was also fascinated by the refurbishment process at Edward Green. There seemed to be a lot of old shoes around waiting for this treatment, and the picture here shows the sock of one pair that had been worn away pretty badly inside.

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The two main reasons shoes are brought in is that the sock has worn away or the collar on the top of the heel has split. The latter is usually due to men not using shoe horns, stamping down on the collar and gradually destroying its structure. The thread that runs around the inside of the collar will often split as well.

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Edward Green replaces the sock and insole, resoles the shoe and repairs anything like the broken collar. Everything but the upper, which retains its personalised contours, looks just like new. Not bad for £180.

My thanks to Euan, John, Hilary and everyone at Edward Green for making me feel so welcome.