It could almost be a fairy tale… ‘Once upon a time, a crippled young country cordwainer from Cornwall called John Lobb sought his fortune in the city of London, only to be spurned by the established shoemakers of the time. So, he emigrated to the other side of the world, to Gold Rush Australia, where he found both fame and fortune, supplying prospectors with handmade hollow-heeled boots in which they could conceal their gold nuggets. Then, on his return to London, he continued his shoemaking business in the fashionable area of St James’s, started supplying the future King of England, and went on to establish one of the most influential shoemakers in the world, supplying the rich and famous, the great and the good, with beautiful handcrafted bespoke shoes. A legacy which has continued for over 150 years.’
Times have most certainly changed over the last century and a half; John Lobb survived fierce competition in the early days, as well as two World Wars, including repeated bomb damage during The Blitz. Since then, in these more recent of times, demand for master craftsmen in many traditional trades has sadly dwindled, as the handmade and the bespoke has been usurped by the mass-produced, with its convenience, mechanisation and cost-cutting. And yet, as a unique example of the distinguished timelessness and quiet quality of traditional British style, John Lobb remains.
And this tale of what has long been termed the ‘gentle craft of shoemaking’ – a classic craft, with charming sounding roles such as last-makers, clickers, closers and sockers – is still unfolding. These terms, befitting of 1849 when John Lobb was founded, are still learned, practised and perfected to this day. In fact the fifth generation John Lobb (Junior) is mastering the craft today. Within John Lobb’s workshops, no less than five different specialist crafts are alive and well, and a multiple of ‘steps’- too great to recount here – are necessary from the moment the customer presents his stockinged foot for measurement within the famous panelled fitting room, to the moment he ‘steps out’ in his made-to-measure handcrafted shoes, to ensure they, most definitely, will fit perfectly.
Here, the fourth generation John Lobb – John Hunter Lobb to be precise – the Chairman of John Lobb, a trained last-maker himself who started working in the family firm in 1959, gives us an amazing insight into this iconic family business, and how it has stood the test of time and continues to be a quintessential British company, renowned the world over.
Firstly, for those readers who aren’t familiar with John Lobb, please can you tell us about the history of the company?
The firm John Lobb was founded by my great grandfather, a Cornishman. John Lobb was brought up on a farm, but due to an accident when he broke his leg he couldn’t carry out farmwork, so he became a bootmaker in Fowey, Cornwall, instead. From there he moved to London to find work, as London had become known throughout the world as the pinnacle of excellence in bootmaking. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t find employment with any of the city’s bootmakers – they probably felt that he was too much of a country bumpkin, which was a problem back then – and so in 1849 he went to Australia to join his brother who had already emigrated. This was at the time of the Gold Rush, but instead of becoming a miner, John Lobb made boots for the miners from a workshop in Sydney. He did well, and then like many people did once they’d become successful back then, he returned to England. Undeterred, in 1866 he returned to London again, but this time, instead of finding work, he was able to establish his own shop in Upper Regent Street.
He must have been an astute chap, as he managed to get hold of the Prince of Wales’s measurements and make him a pair of boots. The Prince liked them, and before long John Lobb received a Royal Warrant for bootmaking which really helped him become established. He worked hard in building up his profile amongst the nobility and aristocracy; regularly entering exhibitions for which he received many awards.
The business has since been passed down through several generations of the Lobb family; it was passed down to me twenty years ago when my uncle died, and today my three sons and our cousin are still employed within the family firm.
Can you define what a John Lobb bespoke pair of shoes is and why they are so special?
They are so special because they are unique. Not many shoes are made like this any more – entirely hand made and completely bespoke for what the customer wants. It’s not obvious at a casual glance, but to the customer it’s special and it fits perfectly. It all comes back to giving the customer what they want; we don’t impose a particular John Lobb shape, we give the customer exactly what they want, and we do this by placing a great emphasis on last-making, which enables us to create a well- proportioned shoe, with good shape, giving elegance to the shoe; but it does require a great deal of skill and experience and considerable perseverance to achieve this successfully.
For those people who have never purchased a pair of bespoke shoes and are a bit daunted by the prospect, in terms of maybe not knowing what style of shoe, type of leather and sole to choose, do you have craftsmen on hand who can talk them through the options, and do you have any words of advice for what research customers should do before making their first appointment with you?
Some customers do research beforehand and know exactly what they want, whereas others just come in without any thought as to what they want. Often they’re gobsmacked by the fact that we can do anything they like, in terms of style, choice of leather, sole, etc. Our fitters will sit down with them to discuss in detail what they want the shoe for and what style they prefer and then talk through the various options available to them. The fitters usually also make the lasts, so are ideally placed for advising them on what options will work best. Sometimes a customer will literally just pick out a shoe they like from those on display and say they want one ‘just like that’ without discussing the options.
By way of an insight into your work, could you briefly describe the process of crafting one of your shoes?
Firstly, the fitter will examine the customer’s feet and take measurements, noting the basic dimensions as well as any individual features.
After taking measurements, we make the ‘lasts’ first, whereby the information recorded by the fitter is used by the last-maker to carve a solid block of wood into a contoured model of the customer’s foot. It is the accuracy of the last that determines the fit and style of the shoe. The choice of wood is normally beech or hornbeam, which is durable, but not so hard that it can’t be shaped easily.
The lasts are then used by the pattern cutter to draw the patterns which are based on the lasts and the style of shoe the customer has chosen.
Using the patterns the clicker then cuts the upper leather – a process called ‘clicking’ – into the necessary (generally eight) pieces of leather used in the upper part of each shoe; interpreting the properties of the individual pieces of leather relevant to the style of shoe required and durability needed depending on the shoe’s function.
The closer then assembles the upper parts of the shoe; sewing and shaping the leather provided by the clicker around the last.
The maker then takes the carefully assembled upper and expertly adds the leather sole and heels that have also been clicked (i.e. cut and prepared) by the rough stuff cutter. The socker then finishes the shoe by fitting a thin piece of leather to cover the innersole.
We also make bespoke trees to fit each pair of shoes, duplicated from the lasts, which maintain the shape of the shoes and prolong their life.
Finally, we have the polisher who gives the shoes their final polish, so that they are pristine for the customer.
Once the customer’s shoes have been successfully fitted, their lasts are then put into storage so they can be used again in the future as and when the customer wishes to order further pairs of shoes.
If the customer remains a constant weight then the lasts can continue to be used for a long time. However, feet do change to a certain degree, for instance, if the customer gains or loses weight, and they can also change shape if the customer takes up running or gets bunions or hammer toes. Normally it’s not necessary to make new lasts, as we can make allowances by adding leather to make them bigger, or shaving wood off to make them smaller if feet shrink, although we will make a new pair of lasts if the feet change considerably in shape.
The whole process, from start to finish, can take several months, but it is worth the wait.
Has this process changed much since your great grandfather’s days, and would he recognise the work you practice today?
I believe John Lobb would feel very much at home here today. Things have changed a bit – we use certain rasps and fellowing lathes to take wood off the block in last-making that wouldn’t have been available in my great grandfather’s day – but many of the tools are the same, and indeed some of the tools we use are the original tools.
Apart from that, the processes of last-making, closing and making he would recognise straight away. The fact is, in our craft, everything is so individual and the only way you can achieve the objective is by doing the process by hand, and this doesn’t change.
Have there been any noticeable changes in footwear trends when comparing your early career to today?
Our name, John Lobb Bootmaker, probably gives a clue as to changing trends – we are called ‘bootmakers’, as that’s what we made in the past – boots. With lifestyle changes, primarily the use of cars, it meant people didn’t’ need to ride any longer, apart from pastimes like hunting, so boots largely disappeared, and shoes took their place. People wanted footwear which they could slip on and off easily on carpets, so for me, the most noticeable change has been the trend towards more casual and slip-on shoes, such as loafers that can be worn with jeans.
Having said that, some styles have endured, as they are practical. The ‘Oxford’ for instance, is a style of lace-up shoe with straight toecap that would typically have been worn as part of business uniform with a bowler hat. It has endured as it is smart and comfortable. Some people now still like old traditions.
Do you think the younger generation today still has an appreciation for traditional shoemaking and investing in quality over quantity?
Certainly, there is still an appreciation for bespoke made-to-measure shoes amongst the younger generation, but we have to accept that there is so much choice on the high street for ready-to-wear shoes, that the desire to get something made-to-measure is less than it was. People are definitely less aware of bespoke shoemaking today.
For those people in a position to have something made for them bespoke, they really do appreciate its uniqueness; they like the individuality and personal service. Everyone appreciates that, irrespective of age.
In recent decades the number of bespoke shoemakers in Britain has declined rapidly and there are only a handful of you left operating in the traditional way. What do you think are the main contributing factors as to why John Lobb has endured for so long?
A combination of factors. The Lobb family have really stuck at it over the generations, and worked to maintain and build on the traditions of bespoke shoe making. A key factor is the emphasis we place on training people to do the work. Over the past 30-40 years, we have been continually training people, and if I look around the business today, the vast majority of employees have been trained in-house. Some of our experienced staff work from home, rather than daily commuting to London, as they find it advantageous to work in places where they want to be throughout the UK, and I believe such flexibility certainly helps, and it doesn’t impair the quality of our work, as we are regularly sending work back and forth to our various craftsmen and women. We’ve also had to adapt to the use of technology, not in the way we make our shoes, which are made in the same way they always were, but in the way we communicate with customers, as without computers we couldn’t keep in touch with our customers around the world.
With the decline in the number of competitors, presumably this has a knock-on effect in terms of lack of skilled workforce for you. Is this a problem for you, and is it difficult to find trainees?
At any one time we have two or three people being trained constantly. We’ve had to do that; as the number of competitors have closed down, we haven’t been able to hire craftsmen externally. We have always been a business dependent on craftsmen working for us, rather than just being a small, family-owned business where the owners do all the work themselves.
The reliance on training staff in-house is not a problem for us though, as we get a continual stream of applicants to become craftsmen with us. In recent years I would say there has been an increase in the number of applicants as the options available for people to train are very limited, as there aren’t many places where they can find this sort of work experience around the world.
How important is the quality of leather in creating a bespoke pair of shoes, and do you have any favoured choice of leather?
The quality of our leather is of paramount importance, and we always go for the highest quality leather using the best part of the skin, and our suppliers always provide us with the best of what they have available. Good leather is undoubtedly expensive, which is why shoes made from cheap leather just fall apart, and we avoid that at all costs.
We still get a variety of leather from difference sources. Our sole leather comes from a family-run business in Devon that tans leather using a rare oak bark tanning process. Our upper leather comes from tanneries all over the world.
The majority of our leather comes from calf skin, which is flexible enough to give us a good range and multitude of colours, grains and thicknesses for a wide range of shoes. Deer skin is also popular. We also use exotic leathers such as ostrich, crocodile and in some cases even elephant, but only from suppliers who can prove the animals are sustainably managed and farmed, and which are properly licensed in order to properly protect these rare species. When using exotic leathers we are very strict on ensuring all the licences and paperwork are genuine, and the animals have been farmed sustainably.
We are only able to make a more limited range of shoes from these leathers as there isn’t the same variety of leather, as say, calf skin, and its scarcity means they are very expensive shoes. Among our customers it is generally only the super rich who are able to afford them.
How long will a pair of bespoke shoes last, and what can we do to improve longevity?
It’s an impossible question to answer really, as it depends on how they are used, the amount of walking done in them, the choice and thickness of leather, and the care shown to them. I’ve had shoes coming back to me to be re-soled that are over fifty years old, and they’re still in good condition.
There are some basic care tips that all owners should follow to improve longevity. For instance, when the leather gets wet, always ensure the shoes dry out slowly. Polishing regularly is necessary, and after use, always keep the shoes on trees to ensure they retain their proper shape. A bespoke pair of shoes needs to be kept on individually made trees. Stock trees won’t do the job, as they can stretch the shoes out of shape.
Historically, your client base includes royalty, statesmen and film stars of the silver screen. Is there a typical John Lobb customer today, and if so, how would you describe them?
We do have two Royal Warrants for supplying shoes to the royal household, but generally we don’t have as much royalty from outside the UK as times, and countries, have changed.
Before World War Two, the firm was kept going by the nobility and aristocracy. Lords and Ladies would use their private members clubs in St James’s (this is why John Lobb based his shop here), where they would take lunch in Boodles, for example, and then order several pairs of shoes from us afterwards. We do still have some Lords and Ladies as customers, but not as many as before, and most customers these days are people who are successful at what they do and can afford to live that lifestyle, whether they are businessmen, actors, artists or royalty.
Some readers may be a little confused between you, John Lobb in London, which has always been owned by the Lobb family and John Lobb ready-to-wear owned by Hermes in Paris. Can you explain the difference?
Yes. In 1902 my grandfather opened John Lobb Paris as an offshoot of his John Lobb London shops, of which there were then two (one in St James’s Street and one in Upper Regent Street).
In 1976, because of a quirk of French property law, the future of John Lobb Paris was looking uncertain as the landlord wanted to take the premises back.
After looking at various strategic options, a deal was reached whereby part of our John Lobb Paris business would be transferred to Hermes to enable them to develop a new ready-to-wear arm using our name; thus making John Lobb shoes more widely available.
As a result, Hermes are today making ready-to-wear John Lobb shoes in their factory in Northampton under our name. The factory-made ready-to-wear John Lobb shoes under the direction of Hermes really are top of the range. Continuing to build on our traditions, they are made to a degree of real beauty, elegance and perfection, which is hard to achieve with ready-to-wear; but fundamentally they are still ready-to-wear, and if you go to one of the ready-to-wear shops the shoes will either fit you or they won’t.
Again, continuing the bespoke traditions begun by us in 1902 with the original John Lobb Paris, Hermes maintain a made-to-measure bespoke workshop in Paris. They have a handful of craftsmen doing fundamentally the same as we do here in London, but with subtle differences in style.
The original family-run John Lobb continues, as it has been since 1866, to be based here in London and carries on, as it always has done, making bespoke made-to-measure shoes and boots. Our shop and main workshop is also located here in London, St James’s Street, and from here we supply customers throughout the world, making trips around Spring and Autumn each year to various cities in the USA, Japan, China, Russia and mainland Europe.
How do you foresee the future for John Lobb?
Our company is now in its fifth generation of Lobbs and our intentions are very much to keep it going and to continue building on our traditions which have served us and our customers so well over the years. We’re still in good heart and so we will continue doing what we have always done; serving customers here and around the world.
Just as my predecessors managed to weather all the recessions of the last century, we have also been fortunate to weather the most recent economic turmoil at a time when many businesses have gone under. Not only have we managed to keep going through these tough times but we are still in good health. We’re not just dependent on the UK economy either, as our business is dependent on loyal customers throughout the world.
I think one of the reasons we have been able to carry on for so long is because we have always focused on ensuring the craft can continue to thrive and on giving our customers what they want. Our interest has always been primarily in the craft of last-making and making bespoke shoes. It’s in continuing with that same focus that the future of John Lobb lies and the success of the brand will follow from that, as it always has done.
There are shoe companies, like Church’s and Clarks for example, that originally did what we do; which was crafting bespoke shoes made on individual lasts, but they packed up years ago doing that. A number of shoe makers have successfully followed that road, but we have always wanted to maintain our focus primarily on the traditions of the craft of bespoke hand-made-to-measure shoes making which lie at the root of John Lobb.
I expect this is one of the reasons why our relationship with Hermes has worked well over the years: For as long as we continue to focus our efforts on the bespoke high quality work we do for customers around the world, so we continue to build on our reputation and heritage which has since the time of my great grandfather been associated with our name, with what we do here and with John Lobb shoes. In turn, those customers who aspire to own an original pair of bespoke John Lobb shoes and share in a part of that heritage, can enjoy excellent top quality ready-to-wear John Lobb shoes at a more affordable price.
The thing is, we represent an increasingly unique craft, tradition and heritage that people love; and we craft shoes that people want to buy. So provided there are enough people who want to buy our shoes around the world, John Lobb will carry on.
Finally, what advice would you give to anyone considering a career as bespoke shoemaker?
Look at what we do, how we work, and decide if they are ready to make the commitment – it takes at least three or four years to build up the necessary expertise in any one aspect of the craft. Also decide on what aspect of the craft you are interested in – very few people can cope with mastering the entire range of skills, but with time most will invariably find their niche and that part of the craft which best suits their skills and temperament – it’s very rare to see someone do them all. For those that do enter the craft, the work is satisfying – leather and wood is a really nice medium to work with – and it really appeals to those people that like working with their hands, rather than wanting to sit in front of a computer screen. Those that do commit to the craft can be assured of a relatively secure livelihood, as the work is still in demand.
Thanks to John Hunter Lobb for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.