My first foray into quality came in the form of shoes. During my trip to America, I wandered into J.Crew at the height of their lofty success and lusted after their Alden longwings but balked at the price. At the time I knew next to nothing about shoes and had no idea why a pair of shoes should cost so much. I thought I could do better and came home with a pair of Hugo Boss shortwings and Cole Haan loafers. I now know they are cheap and glued but at at the time I thought they were a “lifetime” purchase because the sole looked like they were stitched on. Later I realised the stitching was just decorative and served no functional purpose.
My first “real” pair of shoes was a pair of Woolrich Yankee boots in black with natural sole. I snapped them up during a black friday sale and at the time it still seemed to me like a lot of money to spend on a pair of shoes (I think it was a bit over $300 Australian dollars at the time). Why would I spend $300 on a pair of shoes you ask? My friends asked me the same thing. To most people a pair of shoes is a cheap, disposable thing that you buy every year or two. “They go on your feet!” people would tell me. This is how most people are conditioned to think these days. They only look at the initial cost of something rather than how much it will end up costing them in the long run. But this wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, before overseas manufacturing, globalisation, and mass consumerism, buying a pair of shoes was an investment. In those days you would buy a pair of shoes and expect to keep it for 20-50 years, with a trip to the cobbler every few years to get the shoes resoled. Now you do the math – what ends up cheaper in the long run?
What does a $300 pair of shoes have over a $70 pair of shoes? It basically comes down to material and construction. I will go into more detail in a later post but I will cover the basics here (bear in mind this is not anything new. There are literally thousands of blogs and forums dedicated to this stuff and you can go read all about it if you want to educate yourself).
Most people think leather is leather but this is simply not the case. There is full grain leather, top-grain leather, corrected grain leather, genuine leather, suede, roughout, horse leather, shell cordovan – the list goes on and on and on. When a cow’s leather is processed, there are usually the good bits that are nice and blemish-free and then there are the not so nice bits which have veins and scars. Cheap shoes are most commonly made from corrected grain leather. These are usually the not-so-nice leather which then has had the top layer sanded off because it doesn’t look very nice. What you end up with is basically like suede. Then a plastic-like coating is put on top and stamped and coloured to imitate the look of leather. You can usually recognise this type of leather because it has an unnatural shininess to it, even when the shoe has never been shined. As the shoe ages, the plastic coating starts to crack and peel off, and the real leather underneath becomes visible. One step down from corrected grain leather is genuine leather. Genuine leather should really be called “genuine” leather because it is basically the scraps and off-cut bits of leather which has been blended up and mixed with polymers an then rolled out like dough and then stamped to look like leather. It is closer to plastic than leather and you should stay far far away. As an aside, if you are just starting out in the world of shoes and want to buy a cheap pair of shoes because you are experimenting, then suede is usually the way to go. It will still be glued but at least you don’t have the cheap looking plastic coating.
A good quality pair of shoes will generally use full grain leather. This is what you think you are buying when you buy leather. The top layer is the actual top layer of the skin and has the actual grain of the leather. This type of leather will last longer than the cheaper stuff and there is no plastic layer which can peel off with age. As this type of leather ages, it will develop a unique patina, and if you look after the leather (condition it once in a while) it will last a very long time. Now not all full grain leather is made equal either and there are also many other types of leathers to talk about but this is a simple explanation. The strength and durability of good quality leather is what allows a pair of quality shoes to be resoled over and over during its life.
Again we will start with the cheap. Most shoes these days use cemented construction. This means that the upper part of the shoe is simply glued to the sole. Modern cements are very strong these days so you would not expect the glue to come apart during the shoe’s life but once the sole is worn out, then the shoe is ready for the bin.
A quality pair of shoes is made differently. The sole is stitched to the shoe. There are a number of ways of doing this, the most common being goodyear welt, blake, and blake rapid. Without getting into the technical side of things (to be covered a later post), the stitching of the sole to the uppers is what allows the shoe to be resoled. A skilled cobbler can remove your tired, old, worn down soles and put a fresh sole on, ready for more pavement pounding.
A shoe is always made around a wooden last. The last is what gives the shoe its shape. Cheap shoes often use distorted lasts which lead to upturning of the toe and that elf shoe look. The trend right now also seems to be overly pointy toes which make your feet appear much larger than they actually are.
Traditional shoemakers often have lasts which are decades and sometimes more than a century old. They are usually designed to give the wearer choice of a wider toe box or a pointier toe or a higher instep etc. etc. One ready to wear company may have a dozen or so standard lasts, with each last used to make a number of shoes. If you find a particular shoe that fits you well an, then there’s a good chance other shoes made on the same last will also fit you well. In the world of bespoke shoes, you can also have a last made specifically for your feet. Unfortunately living in Australia means that I can’t always go and try on a pair of shoes at the store. Learning about which lasts from which brands fit me well allows me to buy online with more confidence. The internet is also rife with bloggers and forums discussing fit and comparing sizing between different lasts.
The price equation
For me it was a no-brainer. Buying a pair of shoes which looks fantastic from the beginning and fantastic to the end, which will ultimately save me money in the long run was the way to go.
I still lusted after those Alden longwings but couldn’t justify the initial cost. So like most guys starting out in #menstyle and #gyw with a budget, I went vintage. In the picture above are my shell cordovan and calf pebble-grain longwings from Florsheim. Florsheim has since moved its factories to India and the quality is not what it used to be, but these longwings circa 1970s and 80s respectively are about as bulletproof as they come. And they were a bargain at less than $100 each.
More on shell cordovan later…