Brogue trader

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His shoes cost up to pounds 400 a pair. But Venezuelan designer Andres Hernandez, head of the ready-to-wear division at traditional British shoemakers John Lobb , knows he's worth the investment

EDITH WHARTON once said of opera, "An unalterable law of the musical world requires that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English speaking audiences." The fashion industry can be just as confusing. For example, Venezuelan shoe designer Andres Hernandez heads the quintessentially British John Lobb ready-to-wear shoe division from a factory in Northampton which exports to Singapore, Hong Kong and France. Of course, Edith Wharton was making a characteristically arch comment about opera. Andres Hernandez is making, in his opinion, "The best ready-to-wear shoe in the world."

"A brogue is not a brogue is not a brogue," Hernandez says, staring intensely from under his dark eyelashes. "There are on average five hundred holes on a good brogue. That means you have five hundred chances to get it right or get it wrong. At Lobb, each hole is punched as an individual action from a hand-operated machine. A mass produced brogue is made in one cutting. That's why our brogues cost from pounds 400 compared to pounds 40 on the high street." Until recently, the diminutive South American had a mane of black hair that understandably made him stand out in the closed world of shoe factories in Northampton. Ever since Oliver Cromwell placed a not immodest order for 4600 boots in 1642, Northampton has been famed for men's shoes. Hernandez, now 48, arrived aged 19 at the invitation of a native Northampton shoe representative he met in Venezuela. "My father's uncle made bespoke shoes for the gentlemen of Venezuelan society, so I had an introduction to shoe making. I came to Northampton because, for personal reasons, I couldn't continue my studies to be a teacher in Venezuela. It was a leap into the unknown.

"When I came to England, I knew nobody. I studied for two years and then became an apprentice at R E Trickers. I worked under a chap who was 95, and was at his right hand for six years. That man walked into work at 7am every morning, as well as on Saturday. He had worked for Trickers all his life. He was quite reclusive and I became a son to him. That's where my dedication started. I worked very late and learnt my trade."

Hernandez now oversees 50 workers at the John Lobb factory which produces 100 pairs of shoes a day. He produces the prototype for each shoe, two seasons every year. "A Lobb shoe can't be too wild or too trendy. 55 to 60 per cent of all Lobb sales are in black," he says. "Quality is the beginning and end at Lobb. The most extreme pair of shoes I have designed are the ones I am wearing [black crocodile loafers]. I have relatively small feet for a man and I always wear the loafer in lizard or crocodile."

"Perfectionist" is an often abused term in fashion yet there are few true perfectionists in the business. Hernandez is one of them. After Trickers, he approached shoe manufacturer, Edward Green the man who was putting it about Northampton that he was going to make the best shoe. "Edward Green's reputation went before him. He was a bastard but he made the best shoe," he says. "Nobody lasted longer than three months in his employment. He interviewed me at seven in the evening, called me at seven the next morning and gave me the job at seven the next evening. Those were hours I could identify with and I outlasted his three monthers by eleven years and nine months."

A good pair of men's shoes is like a well-fitting bra for a woman: once bought, never bettered. "Good clothes with terrible shoes will always let you down, " says Hernandez, "but you wear a pair of my crocodile loafers with a pair of jeans and everyone notices. Several current Lobb clients introduced themselves to me because they admired the shoes I was wearing. Shoes are a focal point - people notice them straight away."

Hernandez genuinely believes a good pair of shoes can last a lifetime. Admittedly, that doesn't sound so impossible if you have up to the 20 different pairs which this designer recommends for the working man. "You must give your shoes a day off," he explains. "Don't wear them on consecutive days. Keep them in shoe trees and treat them with respect. All our shoes are sent back here for repairs. They are no high street 'non-repairables'. Look at the quarter rubbers in the heel of every Lobb shoe. The action of walking on the contact point of the heel is severely damaging, and the rubber cushions that."

A tour of the Lobb factory reveals at least some of the Lobb secrets. Each shoes has a cushion of cork which moulds, with time, to the wearer's foot. "People tend to think a shoe should be instantly comfortable," says Hernandez. "Not so. A shoe needs time to ease into the comfort zone. A Lobb shoe holds its shape because it is left on the last - the block around which the shoe is made - for in excess of a week. A high street shoe comes off the last within an hour. The golden rule in gauging the fit of a shoe is that it should touch the entire surface area of the foot with no bagginess but enough space for movement at the toe."

You heard it here from the man who knows.

John Lobb, 88 Jermyn Street, London, SW1, 0171 930 8089.

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