When holidaying in Ravello six or seven years ago, I remember overhearing a conversation between a lacemaker and an American tourist in a little cobbled street between the town square and the Villa Cimbrone.
The beautiful Amalfi setting-sun, gorgeously orange, was floating lazily on the horizon and the tourists and residents of the cliff-hugging town were just beginning to fill the streets with their laughter, perfume and the echoes of clattering heels.
“The English men” the lacemaker began “they are not elegant, not stylish.” The American sat there listening attentively as her experienced hands gesticulated, an eager student. “You see the English at weddings here; they wear bad clothes and bad shoes.” “But I thought” the American began, as I paused to eavesdrop and admire the view down into the bay “that the British made the best shoes in the world?” “No” the lacemaker scoffed “they do not. The best shoes in the world are Italian.”
It was, of course, a predictable remark. She is probably right about the majority of the English people she has seen, even those who get married in a place as rarefied as Ravello. Elegance and style is not innate in Englishmen. However, it is a mistake to believe it is innate in Italians. Italians generally happen to be more interested in style, but they do not possess some deific gift for dressing. Rather, it is something that develops from their lifestyle, upbringing and surroundings.
Her second point, that the best shoes in the world are Italian, I regarded with scorn, as any pompous Englishman would. ‘Best’ in shoe language normally relates to quality of material and construction; in this, many English shoes are among – but do not exclusively dominate – the best in the world. However, considering her remarks about elegance and style, I doubt that she was necessarily thinking about the quality of the sole stitching or the excellence of the leather. I think she was simply talking about the way they look; in simple terms, the shape of the shoe.
I had recently purchased some high quality English-made formal shoes in dark brown. However, even when selecting a medium-narrow fitting, they appeared as rather large and unattractive bulks on my feet. I tried them on in the mirror and could not get past the fact that they looked ungainly, poorly shaped and – despite being of high quality construction – of inelegant form. I got rid of them, disappointed that I could not find – for a reasonable price – a pair of narrow, elegantly shaped and formed dark brown shoes. Foster & Son lured me with their well-out-of-budget beauties, as did Cleverley and I even flirted with the idea of whacking some savings on Crockett & Jones.
Enter Doucal’s. Found through scouring Yoox one evening, I decided to invest the reasonable sum of £90 (sale price) in a pair of calf leather dark brown lace-ups, having decided against a more expensive pair from Magnanni.
Waiting for the shoes, I must admit I had low expectations – my English prejudice shining through – but when they arrived I was overwhelmed with satisfaction and admiration. Despite a few niggles such as not possessing a leather sole, I was thrilled with my purchase and smiled as I realised they had passed the first test of shoe-love: I could not stop looking at them. The leather is of good quality and they are supremely comfortable, which is more than I could say for the English pair I had bought.
I had never heard of Doucal’s before purchasing and before I punched in my card details, I decided to do some research; Yoox has a tendency to mix the sublime with the ridiculous in their brand inventory.
Founded in 1973 by Mario Giannini, the brand was initially known as ‘Duca’ (Duke) “to identify a product which was developed for an elite clientele.” Almost straight away, Giannini set off for Northampton, the mecca of English shoes, to intern with Goodyear. After several months of training, and cherry-picking – at which the Italians are so adept – Giannini made his way back to Italy.
After anglicising the brand to Doucal’s in honour of his training, he began to develop shoes “that endured through time, but that were also comfortable to wear in comparison to the rigidity of English shoes.” This is something that even I, as a traditionally-minded Englishman, can relate to.
According to Doucal’s they are “conceived to look like the English whilst incorporating the comfort of an Italian [shoe].” I can see this, but there is something rather un-English about the shape of my shoe, something continental. More to the point, they represented a combination of shoemaking expertise from two worlds. I wonder what the lacemaker would make of the Goodyear-trained Giannini.