“Good afternoon, sir, can I help you?”
“I hope so. You see I’m trying to find a last that fits the shape of my feet and I have to say I haven’t had much luck so far.
“They’re quite wide across the ball of my feet, and also quite shallow – I have rather fallen arches. As a result I end up getting shoes that are a little too long to compensate for the width, and my heels move around in them because they are all too deep.”
My conversation with the assistant in Berluti and in John Lobb began in exactly the same way. But it couldn’t have finished more differently.
The man from Berluti pulled out a bright-green cushion, sat his knee upon it and took off my shoes with a flourish. He lined my feet up, side by side, and stroked the outside of them. Hmm, he said, scratching his chin.
A moment later he returned with a pair of black lace-ups (I had already mentioned that I was after the last rather than anything else, so colour and design were irrelevant). They were a little pointier than I would have picked, but looked lovely nonetheless. After another flourish with the shoe horn, and a rapid Berluti knot, he sat back to survey his work.
Unfortunately, when I stood up, they were too long. You could see the shoe breaking at the end of my toes.
Over at John Lobb, things had progressed in a slightly different way. The staff were rather manic, with one customer rushing in and asking for another pair of shoes before he left for the airport. When an assistant was finally free, he was very apologetic and sat me down, taking my measurements with an old beaten-up metre rule and listening closely to my description of previous problems.
The last he picked out, the 3000, fit only slightly better than the first offering at Berluti. A low-slung monk-strap shoe, it fit well around the width of my foot but had to be set on the tightest hope in the strap to keep my heel in place. Not really ideal, given that the shoe will expand over time with my foot.
The biggest difference between the two leading (perhaps even best) shoe retailers was what happened next. The Berluti assistant, frustrated with his first attempt, came back with a smaller shoe on a different last – this had the opposite problem, fitting well on the heel but pinching in my little toe on the width. And with that, he was done.
He swore the shoe would expand over time to take care of the width. I was sceptical. He shrugged his shoulders. What could he do? How could he deal with someone that disagreed with him?
My assistant in John Lobb tried the 4000 last. Then he tried the 3000 as a lace-up. Then he tried the shoe a size down. Then his colleague came over and (after a short discussion about the history of Peal & Co – those were the shoes I was wearing at the time) he began to offer his own suggestions.
What I needed was a narrower shoe that would hold the heel in place. Or a full leather insole. I tried the latter – better, but still not right. A tongue pad would work. They could take apart the tongue and slip a pad in for £15. But then you would have to buy the shoes. Perhaps it would be better for sir to try with a stick-on tongue pad first, on another pair of shoes? That way you’ll know if it helps. I believe the cobbler across the road stocks them.
There followed five more minutes of pleasant discussion on shoemaking and English brands, and why a pair of Lobbs with a hand-bevelled waist costs £200 more. When I left I did not have a certain solution to my problem. But it was a damned interesting and pleasant 20 minutes.
Over at Berluti, the assistant was putting on my own shoes for me with evident disgust. “Look, these shoes are far too big. They’ve given you at least three sizes too big. You can see them collapsing at the end.” I thought I had explained why I often had shoes that were too big, but he seemed to have forgotten. With the same flourish, my own shoes were tied and he wiped his hands, looking at me rather expectantly.
I left, feeling like the shoes I was wearing were the biggest, ugliest things I had seen. And I certainly didn’t want to replace them with Berluti.
In both cases, there was only one other customer in the shop; the assistants had time to give me if they wanted to. None of them had met me before. My query to both was the same. Yet the way their attitude to me could not have been more different.
I’d like to say I have a sweeping conclusion about the reasons for this disparity, but I don’t. There have been complaints from several quarters about Berluti since it was set on an expansion kick by its owners. But then Lobb is owned by Hermes – hardly a small, parochial company. I think, rather, that the experience reflects something about the attitude each presses upon its staff, and the impression it wishes to portray.