It always seemed to me that a second half was missing from the aphorism “If the shoe fits, wear it.” I’ll take liberties and suggest “If it doesn’t, go bespoke.” One day in St. James’s I dropped in on what might be the longest-running dynasty in shoe making. Misters John and Jonathan Lobb were kind enough to meet with me and give me a tour of the bespoke workshop in the lower-ground floor of what used to be home to the carousing Lord Byron. Our afternoon involved less sherry.
History of John Lobb
Both Lobbs, fourth and fifth generation respectively, are skilled last-makers, as well as custodians of the family business. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the first John Lobb came to London from Cornwall, on foot, and through a fortunate combination of luck and skill established himself as bookmaker to King Edward VII. For the last century and a half, the Lobb family have been turning out some of the world’s finest footwear from the heart of SW1.
“I guess I was 19 or so when I had my first pair made,” remarked Mr. Jonathan Lobb, “you have to wait for your foot to stop growing, otherwise it’s just a waste. My father took my measurements and made my last himself, so there was an additional family connection as you would expect, being a Lobb. You only appreciate the shoes more as years go by, when you still have them fifteen years later.” After university, Jonathan returned to his roots and as any apprentice would, he tried his hand at clicking, making, closing, last-making, and other stages of the craft. Finally, he settled on last-making like his father and is extremely proud of what he does. And rightly so.
Ever-modest, he insists “you only learn as you work, so I would say for the first ten years or so I wouldn’t call myself a ‘skilled craftsman.’” Each craftsman is highly-trained in a specific area of the process, each of which is a completely different art from the next.
The Lobb Bespoke Shoe
First, a last-maker measures your feet and hand carves the last (model on which the shoe is made) from beech wood. This specific wood is hard enough to be durable, but not so hard that it cannot be precisely sculpted, sanded, and shaped to be a perfect fit. After the last is made, a pattern is drawn for the uppers and given to a clicker. Clicking is the technical term for cutting leather, and the clicker takes the pattern and ensures that the uppers are properly cut from the optimal pieces of hide. Then the uppers are assembled by the closer. With the uppers closed, and the sole and heel pieces also clicked, the whole bundle goes to the maker, who assembles the shoe. After this, a brilliant polish and they’re finally yours.
This makes it all sound so easy, but during this time, the client comes in for fittings, with the maker adjusting the actual shoe and the last-maker adjusting the last to match, ensuring that future models will require less adjustment. Shoetrees are duplicated from the last, and after you take your new creations home, your last joins thousands of others in the vaults under St. James’s Street. You’ll be in good company, with too many famous authors, artists, and public figures to name stashed in the same shelves. The whole process can take months, but the rewards are well worth the wait.
As times change, and people are “dressing up” less, the Lobbs find themselves making more casual footwear, and less boots and formal footwear. As for my two cents, those formal pumps, barely visible at the back of the picture to the right are as good as it gets. But, my bucking the trends aside, Lobb is showing no signs of slowing. While other craft-based firms are struggling to find new trainees, Jonathan informed me that Lobb have never had to seek out trainees. The best come to them and the best of the best are taken on. No surprises there.
The Lobb Video
The Address:John Lobb
9 St. James’s Street
Tel:+44 20 7930 3664
Fax:+44 20 7930 2811
Monday-Friday: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.