Ask any craftsman at the John Lobb atelier the difference between a ready-to-wear shoe and the bespoke one he's making and he'll flip the shoe over and trace the outline of its sole. Slender with a beveled waist and delicate hourglass contour, the invisibly stitched sole gives the shoe an elongated elegance that is quintessential John Lobb.
Connoisseurs have long considered the 137-year-old company the epitome of old-world British style. (It helps that Lobb shoes have been worn by such high-profile Londoners as the Prince of Wales and Hugh Grant.) However, what many regard as strictly English is actually fashioned across the Channel—Lobb's exquisite bespokes originate in a small workshop on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Paris. Merging the time-honored traditions of skilled British shoe production with French savoir-faire, this atelier creates shoes whose craftsmanship and classic lines hail from another era.
When John Lobb himself arrived in London in the mid-19th century, the city already had 38,000 shoemakers. But this was no deterrent to Lobb's ambition. Having obtained the precise measurements of Edward, Prince of Wales, from an acquaintance, Lobb created a pair of riding boots for the future king that so impressed him that he granted his Royal Warrant to the unknown craftsman. (The firm still boasts this royal seal of approval.) In 1901 Lobb's son opened a boutique and bespoke atelier in Paris. And some 75 years later, Hermès solidified the British-French connection by buying John Lobb.
The company's colorful history is best displayed in the atelier's basement, where the stacked wooden lasts carry the names of the movers and shakers of the 20th century—Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, and Charles de Gaulle are tucked between Alfred Hitchcock, J. Paul Getty, and Gregory Peck. And although many are unaware of the fact, John Lobb's classic styles have long had a discerning female following—Jacqueline Kennedy and Katharine Hepburn, for example, were faithful customers.
Regardless of status or gender, first-time clients have to be patient as the firm still works in seasons: Should you order a pair of double-buckle boots in the spring, don't expect to have them until late winter. Made by hand from first stitch to last polish, one pair takes at least 40 hours of precision craftsmanship, and the workshop produces fewer than 500 bespoke pairs a year.With proper care they'll last decades.
The process begins before you set foot on measuring paper. The shoes' fine calf leather, for example, undergoes a six-month oak-bark tanning process until it is perfectly supple and in the richest shades of burgundy, chestnut, or chocolate. "Our shoes are made from a single piece of full-grain leather," explains Patrice Rock, who has been cutting these pieces for 14 years. "The selection process is extremely rigorous." Even a small bug bite on the animal's skin spoils the smooth texture, rendering the piece unusable. Depending on a customer's preference, the company also works with such exotic skins as ostrich and alligator.
John Lobb has more than 80 basic bespoke styles, ranging from soft slippers, casual moccasins, and city loafers to double-buckle Derbys, classic Oxfords, and high riding boots. The company can also provide special one-off touches, such as monograms in the shoes' linings, intricate embroidery on slippers, even shiny red-leather lips on black patent loafers.
Once the question of model and leather has been settled, the customer's feet are measured by a fitter who will see the order through to its conclusion. (For those who cannot come to Paris, the atelier sends its senior fitters to the New York boutique two to three times a year.) A solid beechwood last is then carved from the rough-sketch pencil outlines, which are legible only to one of Lobb's trained artisans. "The comfort of a made-to-measure shoe depends entirely on the perfection of these lasts," says one of the senior craftsmen. "We use them as guides throughout the whole process." The lasts are kept in storage, ensuring more timely follow-up orders.
After the leather is cut, taking into account the customer's weight and height, the different pieces are sewn together, creating the shoe's floppy upper. Design details like fine-punched toe caps for a pair of Oxfords, thick Norwegian seams on a sporty Derby, or a delicately stitched apron on a suede moccasin are created with an assortment of antique awls, hammer stamps, and edge tools.
The virtuosity of a John Lobb bespoke, however, lies in the shoes' complex soles, handmade using traditional English welting techniques. Several thin layers covering the sturdy full-grain leather insole hide any trace of a seam. Precisely modeled on the customer's last, the soles take on the exact shape of each foot, creating the pronounced beveled waist that makes Lobb footwear so unmistakable.
Before these shoes are packaged and sent off in an elegant crimson shoebox, a pair of shoetrees, fashioned after the customer's measurements, is added. Sculpted of beechwood by one of the last artisans in France specializing in this elaborate carving technique, these forms exude a sense of delicious old-fashioned luxury. John Lobb shoes could not come with a more appropriate finishing touch.
John Lobb bespoke shoes start at $4,000. First-time orders may take as long as a year to produce. At 21 Rue Boissy d'Anglas, Paris (33-1-42-65-24-45) and at 680 Madison Avenue, New York (212-888-9797).