What is the point of bespoke?

Judith Millidge's Photo

Once upon a time, all shoes were handmade. Today, handmade and bespoke shoemaking is a niche area, but the demand for quality, handmade footwear remains alive and kicking.

As part of London Craft Week, bespoke makers Carréducker – the partnership of Deborah Carré and James Ducker – commissioned a film, A Conversation of Cordwainers. Sponsored by the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, five shoemakers who produce very different styles of footwear, discussed their experience of modern handmade shoemaking.

‘So is the trade dying?’ asked Simon Crompton of Permanent Style.

‘No.’ says James Ducker. ‘Although West End shoemaking is niche simply because of the price point’.

Certainly, the variety of makers seems to have grown, with bespoke crafts people producing a huge variety of styles and shapes. Is this a new thing? No one is utterly sure, but these makers partly credit social media and the internet with the wide diversity of styles. Felix Jouanneau, who makes bespoke American workwear-style boots, mentions ‘the beauty of Instagram, where everyone can upload their own images,’ and this enables makers to draw on a much wider set of influences.

‘It’s much easier to get knowledge these days with the internet’, says James Ducker. And self-taught shoemaker James Kearns proves his point: he initially learnt his shoemaking skills from YouTube videos and now has a successful bespoke business selling handmade leather trainers.

‘I always maintained that I would never refer to myself as a shoemaker until I had ten years’ experience under my belt. And actually, upon reaching that point and passing it, I realised I was probably short by about 20 years’, says Sebastian Tarek.

Collaboration among cordwainers is another theme. Bespoke shoemaking throws up many challenges and shoemakers often need to phone a friend in search of the answer to a technical issue. ‘Problem-solving is part of the joy of what we do and people are now far readier to share information’, says James Ducker. It has something to do with the ‘democratisation provided by internet’, says Sebastian, and more to do with supporting the next generation of shoemakers. ‘Where is the next generation going to come from unless people like us help them’? asks James.

Ultimately, bespoke shoemakers work to produce the finest quality footwear. ‘You never know whether a shoe’s working until it comes back for its first long sole and heel. Until it’s been worn and lived in and loved for a bit, that’s when you really know that you’ve done your job as a bespoke shoemaker’, said Cordwainer Liveryman Dominic Casey.

And that is the point of bespoke: making a really good shoe that fits both the customer’s foot and their lifestyle.