THERE IS NO ATTRACTIVE GREETER to welcome you and usher you in. There’s no hard sell. There’s no expensive lighting, no trendy music playing, no blowout sales -- almost none of the modern amenities shoppers have grown accustomed to. And there’s nothing unintentional about it.
John Lobb Ltd. is a London institution. The company -- whose tiny solitary shop is located a block away from St. James Palace, in one of London’s tony shopping districts -- has been known for one thing since its inception in 1849: crafting the best shoes money can buy. And even as the bespoke-suit makers nearby on historic Savile Row have gone mod -- bringing in young hotshot tailors like Richard James, Timothy Everest, and Ozwald Boateng to appeal to a younger demographic -- John Lobb remains a testament to old-world convention.
Shoemaking, also known as cordwainery or cobbling, is a craft that was, of course, widely practiced at the time of the store’s founding. Moneyed men of that era wouldn’t consider wearing anything but the finest footwear, and John Lobb boot makers did very well serving the aristocratic niche. It was a rite of passage for upper-class boys to get their first pair of John Lobbs when they graduated from university and were preparing to enter the business world.
But with the eventual advancement of technology, machines slowly began to replace traditional shoemakers, allowing retailers to manufacture exponentially more product at a fraction of the cost. The modest Lobb shop never budged, though. The store soldiered on at the hands of several generations of Lobbs, each of which was sure that their craft would continue to be appreciated by a select segment of the population.
They were right. John Lobb remains the brand of choice for many nobles and notables. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin bought shoes here; so did Groucho Marx and stage stars like Rex Harrison and Sir Laurence Olivier. And today, the shoes continue to be a favorite of British royals, just as they were in the nineteenth century. Prince Charles as well as Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, have given the shop royal warrants as a sign of their confidence in its enduring quality. (For further endorsements, patrons can look to the signed thank-you notes from various kings and queens that are framed around the shop.)
If the client list seems exclusive, it’s for good reason. In this mass-production era, a pair of handcrafted shoes is a luxury, and one that doesn’t come cheap. A typical pair of John Lobbs costs in the ballpark of $5,000, with extras such as exotic skins or laces costing even more. So why would anyone pay such a price for footwear, especially given the fact that French fashion house Hermes sells a less-expensive line of ready-made Lobbs?
“All I can say is it’s very skilled handwork,” Lobb says. “The materials are expensive, and the amount of skill and effort that goes into each pair is considerable. It is not appreciated by many people. They see one shoe and look at another shoe and say, ‘What’s the difference?’ But we are crafting something unique for each individual.”
TO REALLY UNDERSTAND the worth of these one-of-a-kind works, one must learn the intricacies of the shoemaking process. First, a fitter takes measurements of a customer’s feet. This is a fairly straightforward procedure in which he meticulously records anything that might affect the fit of the shoes. Next, a last maker uses the fitter’s notes to construct a wooden mold of each foot. These molds, known as lasts, are saved and used for any future orders.
A workman called the closer then cuts paper patterns that define the style of the shoe and passes them on to a clicker, whose task it is to cut the eight pieces of leather that will be pieced together. The closer then shapes the leather around the last before a maker delicately joins the upper part of the shoe to the sole.
At this point, a socker inserts the insole covering, which bears the name of the shop. The shoe must then be left on the last for a week or so to set properly. Finally, the last is removed, finishing details such as laces are added, and the shoe is polished. One final craftsman makes precise wooden shoe trees fitted exactly for each pair of shoes so that they will maintain the proper shape.
Elapsed time of the process from start to finish? Approximately six months. Sure, it’s significant, but not when you consider how long the shoes will last. Though Lobb makes no guarantees on durability, customers have been known to sport their custom-made kicks for decades.
“We have shoes and boots that we’ve made for [Prince Philip] that he’s still wearing after 50 years,” Lobb says.
CHANGE IS CLEARLY something that doesn’t come easily to the family-owned firm, whose bespoke customs have remained intact through the generations. But Lobb has updated a few of the company’s business practices in order to better serve their modern customers, many of whom live in the United States. Representatives from the store now travel the world to fit customers and take orders, making two visits yearly to the States and frequently sojourning to other countries as well. Customers who stop in the London store can also have their order shipped to them when it’s complete. In every case, John Lobb stands by its quality and will make any necessary adjustments to the fit.
But there is one business tactic the company refuses to pursue: advertising. Lobb says the firm has never done so and has no plans to any time soon. And though he won’t disclose sales figures, the firm seems to be doing just fine. The store is able to rely solely on word of mouth and the favorable publicity generated by its royal warrants to attract its clients. Besides, Lobb admits, because of the time it takes to teach the craft to new workers, the store couldn’t accommodate a rapid influx of new customers.
“We’re not a big firm, really, and we don’t have a budget for advertising,” he says. “We can’t just increase our output. It takes years to train any one person, so for the last 20, 30 years, we’ve concentrated on that. We’ve devoted a great deal of expense and effort into training young people. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be here now.”
Lobb realizes that their predictability is part of their charm. Indeed, there is something stubborn and impressive about the company’s resistance to change. They don’t advertise. They don’t modernize. They don’t bend to trends. And evidently, they don’t need to.