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