Monday, May 21, 2007

The Last Shall Be First

No, no, no. It's not what you think. Probably the most famous book about men's shoes is The Last Shall Be First by Brian Dobbs. It's not that it's a particularly good book -- it's the typical puff piece that many famous companies commission to promote their businesses. Rather, it's the title, which not only echoes a famous phrase from the Bible but also states a truism of bespoke shoemaking, and the subject: John Lobb of St. James, which is the best-known bespoke shoemaker in the world. Not the best, mind you, but certainly the most famous. The firm dates from 1859, when its founder (John Lobb of course) returned to England from Australia, where he had been making boots for gold prospectors. Through talent and sheer audacity, he managed to obtain the warrant as bootmaker to Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII); and his firm has subsequently held the warrants of all the important British and Continental royals. Currently, Lobb St. James is the bootmaker for Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, and Prince Charles. Because of its fame and its prestigious (and rich) clientele, Lobb charges substantially more for its shoes than other British bespoke makers: ordinary calfskin shoes start at £2130, plus £444 for trees and £104.17 for embroidered shoe bags; by way of comparison, Gaziano & Girling, probably the best British bespoke maker, starts at £1650, including trees and bags. Lobb's process also differs from other British makers in that they don't do fittings: you're measured for your shoes, and 12 months later, a finished pair shows up at your door. By contrast, G&G and the rest of the British makers have at least one fitting on partially-made shoes. The results of either process can be good, although Lobb's recent shoes frequently lack the flair and the refinement of last shape that can be found in shoes from G&G, GJ Cleverley, and Foster & Son. Whether this is because they can't do it or because their clients don't want them to, I can't say; but enough talented independent lastmakers trained with Lobb that I suspect the latter is the case. Anyway, The Last Shall Be First should be among the first books that anyone who cares about men's shoes should read, although it certainly shouldn't be the last.

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