This is the first in a series of articles examining the possibility of a timeless shoe collection that could — if properly cared for — be utilized over the course of one’s life.
These articles are the culmination of years of research and personal experience into men’s classic footwear and propose that investing in high-quality shoes and boots poses an arresting proposition from the tripartite positions of style, sustainability, and economics.
In reading further, we should remember the tenets of ‘True Materialism’ proposed by the farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry. He suggests that the current environmental crisis is due not to excessive materialism, but rather that we as a society do not have enough materialism; that we do not care enough about our belongings or invest in them the love and attention that they deserve. We have instead become obsessed with the consumption of new things, what could also be termed Novophilia; the love of things because they are new, as opposed to their intrinsic worth.
The shoes to be presented will also meet the basic requirement that the high-quality construction methods and materials used could feasibly last a lifetime with correct care. Although these shoes all cost significant amounts of money to anyone, we should take the advice of famed industrial designer Dieter Rams, by buying “Less, but better”. In this way, one might in time accrue a collection of footwear that is enduringly stylish, highly durable, comfortable and provide a good return on the investment (at least in the sense of utility).
The first shoe to be investigated in the pantheon of classic men’s footwear is the black cap-toe oxford. This is oft-recommended as the first high-quality leather dress shoe that one invests in. Although arguments could be made as to whether it remains the most versatile choice in the modern world, it does remain the dependable standard for job interviews, weddings, funerals, and any formal or semi-formal requirements.
The history of this shoe has been explicated at length in many books and websites, and for a definitive tome on men’s footwear and style in general, the author would refer the reader to Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser. Suffice to say, this style of footwear has a long and storied history as befits its’ bona fide classic status.
The cap-toe oxford is defined by its’ closed uppers forming a ‘V’ lace opening, a cap-toe, and restrained minimal styling. Black is the traditional choice as it is the most formal colour for footwear, and can be worn with morning dress, with a dinner jacket, a dark business suit ensemble, as well as certain smart casual clothes such as a navy blazer and grey flannels. Care should be taken with more casual clothing as the combination of plain design, sleek material and severe colour typically do not pair well with more casual outfits.
Typically, the uppers are made from calf leather, although a subtle and timeless option exists in the use of cordovan, which imparts a lovely lustre to the shoe. The soles are traditionally single leather soles, though, in some climates, an argument could be made for a thin rubber sole or overlay.
The first three recommendations for shoes are in the Attainable category, which comprises shoes up to the $400 USD price bracket, although they may be found for significantly less on sale or even gently used. These are by no means the only options in this price range, but have been experienced by the author and found to meet the criteria of style, materials, and construction. Expect good quality (but not flawless) leather uppers, basic finishing, and more traditional last shapes.
Option 1. Loake 1880 Aldwych
The Loake 1880 range is at least partially manufactured in Kettering, Northhamptonshire. Given the international nature of the brand’s offerings, it is impossible to know if a shoe has been fully or partially manufactured in the UK, although the brand maintains a very high-quality standard in both materials and construction, especially in suede and more casual footwear.
This Goodyear-welted shoe in black calf boasts a leather sole and the very soft square Capital last, which can suit a slightly wider forefoot. The overall design is one of restrained and harmonious proportions, and would be ideally suited to business use.
Its high-quality leather would also be able to take a high shine on the toe and heel counters, and thus be suitable to be worn with a black dinner jacket, with accompanying satin ribbon laces and black silk socks.
This highly versatile shoe is used as the ‘reference shoe’ amongst dozens of world-class bespoke shoes over at Shoegazing. This is indicative.
Option 2. Allen Edmonds Park Avenue in Black Calf
Constructed in Port Washington, Wisconsin on the widely lauded and highly comfortable 65 last, this shoe is truly built to last. This last is slightly longer with quite a high toe spring and roomy instep, and tends to fit those with high arches well.
The construction utilizes a ‘360-degree welt’ which not only increases the stability of the heel portion of the shoe, it also increases the ease at which it can be re-soled, a true cobbler’s dream. Proponents of sleek lasts and tight waists may bemoan the extra heel width that this feature necessitates, but the overall aesthetic is still balanced. Matching the robust heel, the shoe features a rounded and classic toe shape which suits a traditional ensemble.
The author can attest to the high comfort levels provided by the cork midsole and one-piece leather insole. This shoe was simply made for wear with the classic ‘menswear uniform’ of navy blazer and grey flannel trousers, perhaps worn with gold socks, a white OCBD shirt, and navy and gold repp tie for extra Trad style.
Option 3. Löf & Tung Gilbert in Weinheimer Box Calf
Produced in Spain for the Swedish specialty shoe store Skoaktiebolaget, the relative newcomer to this trio brings an amazing set of specifications. This includes closed-channel sole stitching, upper leather from famed German-Polish tannery Weinheimer, and the very beautiful - if classic - rounded toe S last.
As new arrivals to a very crowded and competitive market, the owners of the Löf & Tung brand utilized years of retailing experience to create new and unique designs that gently massage existing styles in interesting directions. Although this shoe is very classic in its’ design, the slight flair exhibited by the ‘swans-neck’ stitching on the facing suggests a more elegant demeanor.
Such a shoe would sit perfectly under a mid-grey glen check suit, white shirt, black knitted tie, and white linen pocket square for subtle elegance. Charcoal grey socks would suit this muted combination well and extend the line of the leg to the shoe.
The next category is intended to apply to those individuals whose tastes in footwear go beyond the basic needs of style and comfort. These individuals prize the provenance associated with certain marques and are willing to pay more for slightly higher quality uppers and internal construction.
Although the shoes will certainly be of a higher overall standard, we begin the slow plateau past the point of diminishing marginal returns. The price bracket of $400-800 USD may not yet be prohibitive, but will certainly provide a reason for careful consideration.
Old, storied brands are well represented in this category, and while certainly an investment, these shoes can really be expected to last several decades or more.
Option 1. Crockett and Jones Connaught
The name Crockett & Jones evokes thoughts of heritage designs, sturdy construction, and impeccable quality control. In particular, the quality of the leather used for the uppers is of a consistently high grade.
The last that this shoe is built upon, the venerable 236, was originally designed in 1961. That this shoe design — which is itself over 30 years old — is built on such an antique last speaks to its’ quintessential timelessness.
This shoe features a shorter round toe design and open-channeled sole stitching. If one area of this shoe could be criticized, it is that the finer making details, particularly on the soles, are less than may be found on competitors. One of C&J’s most popular styles, the Connaught will protect from being improperly dressed in most situations one could find themselves in.
The author has sampled shoes from all three price tiers and has decided upon this pair for himself. His preferred way to wear them is with an ’Agnelli grey’ flannel suit, light blue shirt, navy grenadine tie, and navy socks for a classic yet still visually coherent outfit.
Option 2. Alden 9071 in Black Shell Cordovan
The storied manufacturer Alden of New England has long been associated with overbuilt shoes resembling tanks and the upper material perfected by the Horween tannery of Chicago.
The material in question is Shell Cordovan. Notably, it is not technically a leather, but rather a membrane taken from the rump of horses. Its extreme durability and natural glow have earned it admirers across the world, but the heartland of equine membrane appreciation still remains in the US.
It only stands to reason then, that the most famed manufacturer of cordovan shoes is also from the US. Staunchly US-built, this shoe might become a family heirloom if treated with some modicum of care. Interestingly, the oils infused into the upper during the tanning process mean that the only maintenance needed is regular brushing with a horsehair brush.
This shoe is built on the very rounded Hampton last with oak-bark tanned outsoles. The shoe has a relatively basic finish in terms of details but has the highest possible quality of materials — a worthy trade-off in this price bracket.
The subtle sheen of this shoe would suit being used for semi-formal evening dress in warmer climates. Combined with an ivory linen peaked-lapel jacket, black satin braided trousers, royal oxford dinner shirt with mother of pearl buttons, black silk socks, and bordeaux pocket square, these shoes would look sublime.
Option 3. TLB Mallorca Artista 112
That this shoe barely enters into this price category is a testament to the incredible ability of modern Spanish manufacturers to present a product that is of unbelievable value for the level of materials and finish provided.
TLB Mallorca, another relatively new company in the world of fine men’s footwear, have been making their high-end Artista line for just a few years, but have hit an absolute sweet spot with their beautifully designed and executed shoes. The only drawback with any new company is that the shoes have not had the long period needed to prove themselves in the real world.
This shoe, built upon the rounded Goya last, is actually more of an almond shape compared with other ‘round-toe’ lasts examined thus far. They have a slightly asymmetrical shape that allows for a stunningly sculpted waist, and a very tightly fitting heel-base. For such an unadorned shoe, these subtle but sophisticated design features lend an incredible finesse.
For fans of bespoke detailing and incredible value propositions, these shoes could be the one pair to last a lifetime. These could be paired in the summer months with burgundy socks, grey fresco trousers, an oatmeal sports coat, and a blue and white university stripe shirt.
At this point of our journey, all talk of ‘value propositions’ must be abandoned. This is the domain of the shoe connoisseur, the enthusiast, and the very-well heeled (literally). Despite the fact that materials remain extremely high-quality, at this level, one pays for individual attention such as hand-stitching, hand-lasting, and incredibly tight quality control.
Notably, while still being ‘mass produced’ in the traditional sense, these shoes are highly human confections, with the care of skilled craftspeople leading to their eventual ‘birth’. They may look the same from across the room, but that matters not to the true footwear lover, who wears them for himself and no one else.
Option 1. Stefano Bemer 6471 in Nero Boxcalf
The name Stefano Bemer is whispered in hushed tones amongst the footwear cognoscenti of the world. This is not just due to the reverence for shoes of incredible quality, but for the memory of the generous, humble and creative man who envisioned them.
Based in Florence, Tuscany, the atelier creates ready-to-wear, bespoke, and made-to-order footwear, as well as hosting a shoe-making school. The shoes produced from this location have a distinctly continental flair coupled with a classic conservatism that has found fans the world over.
This combination can be seen on this model, which although based on the classic round-toe cap-toe design, features rows of subtle stitching details and a highly elegant last. This last, the J last features an elongated toe cap and slimmer overall design, which subtly modernize the shoe. This is coupled with a raised instep and almost non-existent toe spring. This shoe would definitely benefit from being tried on prior to purchase, as these details could lead to an unforgiving fit on many feet.
Despite this, the utter beauty of these shoes is apparent to all, and they would suit being worn in the highest possible levels of formality encountered in the modern world. Worn with a charcoal morning coat, mid-grey herringbone trousers, blue Bengal striped Winchester shirt, black and white prince of wales tie, and a buff linen double-breasted waistcoat, one's outfit would bespeak of old-world sophistication.
Option 2. JM Weston Edouard Cap-toe Oxford
Although less known in the anglophone world, the French manufacturer JM Weston dominates discussions of high-end footwear in the francophone world. From the ‘Sapeurs’ of Brazzaville to the ‘Bobos’ of Paris, a pair of JM Weston oxfords are an item worthy of fascination.
The uniquely French details such as the elongated toe of the 300 last and the six eyelets on the upper lead to a familiar, though distinctive shoe. Luckily for JM Weston, proximity to some of the world’s best tanneries allows unrivaled access to prime quality box-calf, renowned for its fine ‘break’ and attractive grain. If this French style of footwear appeals to you, these shoes will provide decades of service, and might even be passed down the generations.
The unique profile of this would best be paired with a slightly unusual suit. A dark brown worsted suit, worn with a black grenadine tie, white shirt, white linen pocket square, and dark brown socks would look lovely with.
Option 3. Edward Green Chelsea 202 Last
This shoe is truly an icon of an understated British style. Built on the enduring round-toe 202 Last, this cap-toe is in many ways the ‘best of breed’ and has defined the whole genre. While pared-back to the extreme, this model demonstrates that attention to detail and overall balance in a shoe can lead to a whole greater than the sum of its’ parts.
If gestalt theory is to be applied, let us first look at the parts. Only the finest quality leathers are used, which are clicked extremely selectively to ensure flawless uppers. Tight fibred oak-bark tanned soles and veg-tanned lining leather complete the package. Other constituents are the very tight stitching of sole and uppers, upon which a familiar ‘swan neck’ can be seen. A relatively unremarkable list of components, but the combination there-of has created something truly special.
The author has in past been a custodian of a pair of these shoes and can attest to their subtle and beguiling beauty. They would suit being worn in a classically English, but still unique outfit. A navy serge suit, forest green socks, pink shirt, and ancient madder tie could provide a lovely backdrop.
Despite the fact that the Black cap-toe oxford is a very restrained and solemn design, many manufacturers have taken the proforma and tweaked the design to offer something unique. All of the above shoes could be partners for a lifetime of wear and will provide the lucky owner with comfort and style of the timeless variety.
If a reader should consider one of the above shoes for purchase, include in your assessment the price of a pair of basic shoe trees and conditioning cream shoe polish. These are your necessary allies in the ongoing battle against footwear deterioration.
Hopefully, this guide was informative and will aid in selecting a pair of shoes for life. The next guide will focus on the city cap-toe Oxfords’ country equivalent — the wingtip Derby.
Disclaimer: Any views represented in this article belong solely to the author and may not represent those of the blog owner. This article is not sponsored by any brands.
Photography: as stated