Lobb and Smith: 'A Brit might have on a great suit, but look at his feet…'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

So complains the creative director of John Lobb, which has shod everyone from Frank Sinatra to Prince Charles. Now, the great British shoemakers has teamed up with Sir Paul Smith and created three new designs to put a spring in the British man's step

'Classic with a twist' is surely the most irritating, cringe-worthy fashion cliché in the history of irritating, cringe-worthy fashion clichés. But sometimes it just happens to be a succinct way of explaining something. Take the latest in this season's big-name fashion collaborations: that between establishment bootmaker John Lobb and British designer Sir Paul Smith.

"Colour is not new to John Lobb but these are very vibrant," says Andres Hernandez, Lobb's director of creation and development, of the three special-edition styles displayed before us. In this case it is, indeed, colour that provides the twist.

'Westbourne', a sober, punched-toe Oxford, has been updated in rich tones of blueberry, forest-green, greige and indigo blue; while 'Willoughby', a sleek, suede Derby, has that instant 'want, want, want' factor, more so because of the eye-popping shades it comes in: amethyst, wheatgrass-green, pale grey and kingfisher-blue.

"Lobb is a historical brand that makes the best shoes in Europe, if not the world," declares Hernandez. "In terms of style and elegance, we are leaders in the men's shoe category. We are not into fashion and trends. We showed Sir Paul some styles from the archive and we ended up with these two styles that we all agreed on.

"Sir Paul also liked a lounge slipper that we had designed for our customers to wear inside, but he wanted a slipper that could be worn outside." Cue 'Lucca', a loafer that looks suspiciously like one of those shoes that only Italians with a Vespa can pull off, available in combinations of crimson and pebble, inky-blue and terracotta, turquoise and grey.

"As this was our first project together, I decided to use existing shapes and styles and so my input was in the choice of leather and colour," says Sir Paul Smith. "For instance, the 'Westbourne' is in a leather with a beautiful patina which feels like you've owned and loved the shoes for a long time."

For Smith, the 66-year-old, Nottingham-born designer who has built a fashion empire on a look he has described as "Savile Row meets Mr Bean", this collaboration is an obvious one, perhaps surprising only for not having occurred earlier. "Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès [the company that has owned John Lobb – excluding the London bespoke service which still operates from No 9 St James Street – since 1976], has a wife who went to design school with Sir Paul's wife, Pauline," explains Hernandez. "They're still good friends and f so, through them, Pierre-Alexis and Sir Paul came up with the idea of a collaboration. It's more of a collaboration of people than it is just brands; something that was more about fun than a commercial exercise."

While 'fun' is part of the DNA of the Paul Smith brand – cheery striped linings for a workaday suit, vintage Mini Cooper prints on a gentleman's washbag, pin-up girl cufflinks – it is previously unchartered territory for John Lobb; a name associated more with serious politicians than fickle pop stars.

"I think that as John Lobb becomes more well-known, we have to keep an element of surprise and attract new customers," says Hernandez. "Of course, it would be inappropriate to do anything shocking or crazy. Everything must have a reason to be here and an answer to the customer's needs."

Those customers have been coming to John Lobb since 1866, when the Cornish-born cobbler, having cut his teeth making boots for gold prospectors in Australia (he invented the hollow-heeled boot so that gold-rush rats could hide their treasures), set up shop in Regent Street.

Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) gave the firm a Royal Warrant (today, Lobb holds Royal Warrants for Princes Philip and Charles) and by 1902 it was so successful that a Paris branch was opened to cope with demand from customers such as Frank Sinatra, Aristotle Onassis and Roald Dahl.

"To me, John Lobb symbolises British tradition and craftsmanship," says Smith. "Luckily there is still a good shoe-making tradition in England, especially in the Northampton area." The spiritual home of English shoes, Northampton is a strangely humdrum backdrop for Hernandez, who cuts something of an exotic figure in his sage-green, double-breasted suit, his crisp white shirt unbuttoned so that you can see the slither of gold that hangs around his neck.

"I'm passionate about everything I do," says the Venezuelan-born, Caribbean-educated man. "We only have one shot at life so have a blast." In lots of ways it takes a man like Hernandez to keep what might be a dying craft alive – in less passionate hands, the "190 steps" that it takes to make a pair of John Lobb shoes might be reduced for economy's sake.

"I insist on what I call 'real leather', not that 99.9 per cent stuff that everybody else uses. Most of our leathers come from Scandinavia and Eastern European countries like Poland, as these areas are not too hot, so the skin won't be scarred by insect bites."

In fact, so particular is Hernandez, that 45 per cent of a skin hide is thrown away due to imperfections. "The best bit of the leather comes from the butt because the grain of the leather is finest in this area; it's a part of the animal that's always flexing so it has some give."

He gives a cheeky wink before moving on to the cutting-out station, where the pattern pieces are cut by hand, and the stitch-marking area, where chalk marks act as a flight path for the sewing machine to come. "Everything we do must have a reason, so there is no stitching just for the sake of it."

Unless, of course, they're making a batch of brogues. "Every single hole is done by hand," says Hernandez, relishing in the trainspotter-like detail of it all. "In a full pair of brogues, there are up to 500 holes and I like every single hole to be the same distance from the next. I insist on it."

The edges of the leather upper are then stained and an interlining applied before it is moulded over the last (the prototype of the shoe's shape). "The man whose job it is to put the shoe on a last has to do so with the minimum of effort as there has to be some stretch left in the leather for when the customer tries it on for the first time." Then it's on to a room full of female workers where the level of concentration reaches fever pitch. "They're 'closing'," explains Hernandez, struggling to be heard over the screams of Kylie Minogue blasting out from the radio. "That means all of the components are sewn together." The process – exacting work that requires experience and a huge amount of patience – is scrutinised with an eagle eye. "Now we need to go downstairs. That's where all the drama happens."

With a change of tempo (this time, appropriately, Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger"), a pair of burly-looking Northampton blokes are 'tapping' the beautiful, freshly-hatched uppers – the soon-to-be shoes, which will cost anything from £500 to £900, are having the hell beaten out of them with hammers.

"It's to fuse the different components together," assures Hernandez, chattering about things called welts and shanks and about bottom filling. "It's the process of applying granulated cork to the sole so that a little mattress is made for the foot, moulding to the individual pressure points. Now we're going to bottom roll them."

Lazy sniggers come from the workmen (they've heard all these bottom-isms before) as the shoes are finished: the heel is applied, the shoe's last is swiftly removed, the sole's edges are trimmed, stained and sanded; and then the shoe is polished to within an inch of its life.

"We're putting some goodness back into the leather," says one woman who rubs the shoemaker's equivalent of La Prairie Skin Caviar into a pair of Lobb/Smith Westbourne's. They look delicious and immediately put my own shoes to shame.

What does Hernandez, a keen tennis player and dancer, with his tiny feet shod in olive-green, suede brogues, think of the state of the Great British man's shoe? "I am surprised that the average British man is not always wearing great shoes. He might have on a great suit but when you look down at the feet…" his eyes roll in mock-horror. "I think it's a reflection of not just ourselves but our country and values. When I see people in these big sports shoes, you can't help but see the slob element. It's a reflection of society and today."

So what are Smith's rules when it comes to men's shoes? "If you're talking about design then the rule is: 'Don't try too hard, keep it simple'. If you're talking about buying shoes, my rule is always: 'Buy good-quality', because if you take care of them, they just get better and better."

Had Smith ever owned a pair of Lobb's before the collaboration? "I did own a pair. They were brown suede lace-ups. That was before I started my own shoe collection. You know, I think the principles of our companies are the same. We both love tradition and craftsmanship, but obviously I am a fashion designer and so my work is changing more…"

Classics with a twist.

The John Lobb/Paul Smith collection (Westbourne, £795; Willoughby, £785; Lucca, £445) is available from John Lobb stores worldwide and selected Paul Smith shops

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal