Caroline Groves is excitedly displaying the remains of a 1930s American shoe she has taken apart. The many pieces of thin leather are a reminder of the complications involved in the construction of a good shoe. “I love cutting up old shoes to see how the manufacturers solved problems. One of the great difficulties with women’s footwear is to put strength and comfort in the shoe without making them too bulky. They must remain feminine,” she insists.
Caroline Groves is that rare artisan, a bespoke shoemaker for women. Born into a family of craftspeople — her great-grandfather was a cabinet maker and her grandmother a silversmith — she ended up doing secretarial work, which she hated. While on maternity leave with the first of her two children, she began working with leather and by chance found that there was an orthopaedic shoemaker near her home in Gloucestershire. What started out as just a part-time job turned into a 15-year-long stint in which Groves learned all there is to know about the mysteries of the human foot.
Eventually, however, making sturdy shoes for mature ladies with bunions failed to satisfy her creative urges and almost 10 years ago she set herself up as a bespoke shoemaker for women. And what sorts of clients are there who want individual footwear that starts at £1,800 a pair?
“My clients are usually women who are familiar with commissioning things to be made for them, whether that is couture clothing, bespoke furniture or one-off interiors pieces,” says Groves, who recently moved her atelier from rural Gloucestershire to West London (all the better to cater to her urbane clientele). “All of them want something unique, something that people will notice when they wear them. There are also some women who like to act almost as patrons for craftspeople like me.”
A customer whom — for the sake of discretion — we shall refer to as ‘Lady Anne’ is one of Groves’s most enthusiastic clients, and has had about 20 pairs of boots and shoes made in the past two years. Her interest in collecting high-quality vintage textiles is reflected in the luxurious textures she likes Groves to add to her designs. In a pair modelled on Victorian high lace-up boots, representations of gorgeous anemone flowers decorate the black suede thanks to the work of a young embroiderer called Alice Archer. In another amazing creation, real pheasant feathers have been sewn to the upper to create a visual and textural delight. In a third pair, the colours of one of Lady Anne’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings were the inspiration for the choice of fine skins. Groves has made eight different lasts for Lady Anne to suit the different styles she has chosen.
Another client who wishes to make an impact in her footwear is ‘Tatiana’, a famous Russian model. “She moves in circles where everyone can recognise the latest designer style on anyone’s feet,” Groves explains. “With the boots I made for her, people had to ask where she had got them from because there is nothing else like them.”
The high-heeled boots, a contemporary and fashionable interpretation of a Victorian style, have 12 old-fashion boot buttons (each one is different) that have to be closed in the traditional method with a hook. As striking as the design itself, the leather is unusual, being a quality usually used only in book-binding. Rather than being Italian vegetable- or chrome-tanned leathers, which is the usual quality for fine footwear, the off-white boots are made of alum-tawed goat skin, which has been treated using aluminium salts and a variety of binders and protein sources, such as flour and egg yolk. These are typically beautiful creations from Caroline Groves, who is a very uncommon talent — and is now also to be found applying her skills to custom-made handbags.