On the Best

I was astonished to learn recently that a new international custom shoemaking competition, and even more astonished that 30 entries placed.  I hadn’t counted on 30 decent custom shoemakers existing in the world today, let alone entering an international competition. Yet there they were, from all over the world, with a panel of what amounts to industry luminaries judging: custom shoemakers like England’s Nicholas Templeman and France’s Eric Devos, enthusiasts like Gary Tok, certain luxury online retailers and bloggers like Sweden’s Shoegazing, who coordinated the competition and judging and graciously granted me permission to use photos of the competition models for this piece.

Like the world exposition competitions of yore, those ancient and unrelatable ceremonies memorialized as little gold medals on vodka bottles to, indeed, the showrooms of century-old custom clothiers, this competition brought out quirks and national flair.  Custom shoemakers like Christophe Corthay, who has left his brother Pierre’s firm to found the more design-oriented Paris atelier Tranchet Vif, warped the proportions of the required black cap-toe oxford shoe model and added other very French, very Corthay embellishments to the sole: a heel in the shape of an elongated “C” and an inset alligator piece in the middle of the sole.  

And like those old expos, shoemakers entered on their own individual account or through their firms, so this competition brings us a host of new names, many belonging to young shoemakers working at better-known firms in London or in Italy, to add to the handful we knew of already.  Some of these names testify to the pilgrimages that certain enthusiasts have made from Northern Europe, Japan or elsewhere to learn in London or Florence.  Youthful stamina and enthusiasm were necessary, to judge from the incredible fineness of hand stitching used to in “closing” the better entries and, overall, the effort and time necessary to craft these unusual one-offs.  The winning entry, by Patrick Frei, reflects all these mad attributes just like those exposition winners of old: 160 hours of work showing in tiny sole stitches, incredibly fine nailing in the heels, ludicrously tapered waist, and as a splendidly unnecessary extra (since shoe trees were not included in the judging), a sculpted shoe tree with a spiral-curling handle made by a violinmaker. 

That old exposition work used to take its toll – 60 years ago custom shoemakers interviewed in Thomas Girtin’s Nothing But the Bestrecalled that incredibly small and dense stitches used in entries for the old 19th-century expositions could make someone go blind.  And unlike the laureates of those expositions, or, for that matter, France’s Meilleur Ouvrier de France competition, these entries now form part of a travelling exhibit at various luxury retailers worldwide, where they will greet curious visitors in their untouchable, unparalleled, unwearable splendor.

For what is the best?  An ideal, and an ideal is unrealizable. In this case, as with the shoes made for the old expos and the MOF competition, these custom shoes were not made to fit anyone.  The organizers requested an approximate size 8, but unlike bespoke shoes made for a customer, fit is not at all a factor in these competitions.  Instead, the entries were made generally to show off the contours and proportions of a sleek shoe.  Many, if not most, are thus far too narrow for most feet on this planet (as are, I suspect, many sample shoes in the window or on the tables of fine shoemakers around the world).  

Of course, this, and its antecedents from a century ago, is a competition in shoe making, not shoe fitting.  Making a last (the sculpted form on which a shoe is fitted and molded) to accommodate a specific foot and still make an attractively shaped shoe seems to me the most difficult part of making a custom shoe.  It’s not just creating a beautifully proportioned shoe, it’s doing so while accommodating someone’s decidedly homely, oddly proportioned foot.  One entrant I spoke to pointed out that it would be very difficult for all these shoemakers around the world to be judged on how they could create a custom shoe that fit, unless they were all to make a shoe to fit the same person.  Reflecting, I observed that since entrants were only supposed to submit one left shoe for the competition, the hypothetical fit tester would have to be a globetrotting (globe-hopping?) and very lucky one-legged man.  So construction and esthetics have to be the metrics for this competition and its successor, not ergonomics.

This practicality aside, what does the rest mean?  The best entries exhibit painstaking stitching and assembly methods as well as levels of finish – the beauty of the polishing and sole treatment, for instance – that are not feasible in any sort of retail custom shoe operation. In fact, the winner Frei offers as an alternative to his normal EUR 5,000 custom shoe price a “Divine” line costing nearly three times as much for shoes of the same degree of fineness as his competition model.  Can shoes made with this amount of delicacy be worn, with their dizzying number of stitches per inch and innumerably layered heel stacks? I suppose so, although they really would be only for someone who could afford to pay no heed to price, and thus who likely would not care.  The paradox of affording luxury: affording it means it is not a luxury, so these items of wonder to us unwashed may be taken for granted by the few who can indulge in them.

One other non-entrant custom shoemaker I spoke to had an interesting historical perspective.  He suggested that back when such competitions took place regularly, entrants often were employees of prestigious shoemakers who did so in order to make a name for themselves (and their employer), in the hope of advancement in their company.  Their employers would sometimes facilitate their competing by making materials and collaborators available to them and giving them all the time they needed to work on their competition shoes during business hours, when they would otherwise have had to spend copious amounts of their own time after long work days putting these together.  My interlocutor hadn’t had the time to enter, or felt the need for the extra exposure. 

Nonetheless, I am glad that these whimsical wonders, international competitions for custom makers, live again.  I am glad to have an excuse to ponder what the best in shoemaking means , to marvel at the sculptural curiosities created by new names in pursuit of some oddly defined ideal.

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