The oldest known shoe, found in an Armenian cave in 2010, is estimated to be 5,500 years old. Protecting and decorating the feet is an ancient and venerable art. It is also one that attracts passionate exponents. In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a cobbler, or repairer of footwear, declares: “Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl,” referring to the sharp tool used to this day to pierce leather.
The term 'cordwainer' appeared as early as 1100 in England to describe a shoemaker who made luxurious shoes and boots from the finest leathers. Since the mechanised era of the late 19th century, factory-made boots and shoes have come to dominate the market, but a select few still prefer to have their footwear made expressly for them by a now-rare group of craftsmen and women who maintain the arcane skills of the cordwainer.
Bespoke shoemaker, of 83 Jermyn Street, London, traces its heritage back to 1840. Most of its techniques have changed little since then. There is a pleasing simplicity to the measuring process. The client stands on a large open note book in stockinged feet and the shape of his or her lower extremities are outlined in pencil. Seven measurements are taken to establish the contours of each foot. Any peculiarities or problems are noted. From this simple two-dimensional 'map', the form that gives the footwear its shape — the last — is created. “You can’t make a good shoe with a bad last,” declares Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, Fosters’ owner. “Each last is sculpted out of wood, by hand, by our last maker, whose skill is similar to that of the car body designer. It gives the shoe its personality.”
Around the last is stretched the leather of the upper. The longer the leather is left on the last, the better for the finished shoe. Underneath come parts seen and unseen, including the foot bed, toe puff, welt, sole and heel unit. The securing of the various elements is achieved by strong stitches introduced by hand. Strength, flexibility, comfort and visual neatness all are joined in the final result.
Looking after a foot to this level requires an awful lot of handwork and it cannot be hurried. The process of making a first pair of bespoke shoes for a customer at Foster takes seven-and-a-half months and includes at least one fitting. In all that time, the only operation that involves a mechanical sewing machine is the 'closing', when the pieces of leather forming the upper part of the shoe are secured together with small, precise stitches. Otherwise, every stage and every stitch is completed by a combination of hand, eye, touch and experience.
Bespoke shoemaking is, simultaneously, an incredibly detailed process and one that literally is shaped in different ways by different artisans. Edgecliffe-Johnson explains: “I have had pairs made by four of our shoemakers and the personality of each person comes through. We have an elegant house style at Foster, but within that the craftsmen and women bring their own interpretation to what we do. One of the great skills we have as a team is to understand how the other people work.”
The team is not large. Above the Foster & Son shop at 83 Jermyn Street (where it also sells fine Northampton-made ready-to-wear footwear, leather accessories and cases), four women and one man occupy one of the last artisanal workshops in central London. Jon Spencer makes the lasts, while the principal shoemaker is Emiko Matsuda, who has an enthusiastic following in her native Japan. Emma Lakin, Kasia Szafraniec, and Lucy Smith apply their talents to all the various stages of the production process from cutting out the patterns to polishing the finished shoes. Encouragingly for anyone interested in the continuance of crafts-based skills, this talented quintet are all in their 20s or 30s. Their efforts are complemented by those of a handful of shoemakers who are outworkers, plying their specialist trade in their own homes. An ever-present spirit is that of Terry Moore, the legendary last maker of Foster, who joined in the mid-1960s and still works part time for the company, even though he is nearing 80 years old.
“Terry Moore was the most celebrated last maker of the past several generations,” says Edgecliffe-Johnson. “He has trained all the team here in the Foster & Son way. It was Terry who created our signature ‘West End’ look, an elegant, slightly elongated shape, often with a chisel toe.”
Customers wanting bespoke shoes can have any style they like, of course. Or nearly any style, as Foster occasionally turns down a request. “Recently one customer wanted a very long, narrow toe, but it would have been curling upwards in no time, so we had to say no,” Edgecliffe-Johnson recalls. “The design of our shoes is a collaborative effort. Some people come to us because they may have difficult feet, but the vast majority simply want shoes that will be unique to them.”
The strong attraction of the shoemaking craft is something Edgecliffe-Johnson understands only too well. Seven years ago, after a 34-year career in corporate banking with Citibank, he bought the then-ailing Foster & Son, along with a Royal boot maker, Henry Maxwell (established in 1750), and a fine leather goods and cases company, Barrow Hepburn. Today, Edgecliffe-Johnson says, they are thriving specialist makers that, quite simply, deal in quality products. And maintain very honourable traditions.