The traditional garb of the English "gentleman" - invented by the Victorians, like most English traditions - also happens to be the global uniform of power. Our prime ministers may go to M&S for their suits: everyone else's goes to Savile Row, which is why it's still in business. Like the bootmakers, shirters and hatters, their cousins on the other side of Piccadilly, the tailors are largely ignored by the natives, but to dudes from Dallas to Tokyo the Row and Jermyn Street are shrines.
Every so often, though, the sedate luxury of Mayfair and St James's catches the eye of Fashion, and there's a wavelet of local interest. This time it's shoes, specifically those of RE Tricker Ltd, English Shoemakers since 1829, who have a small and perfectly preserved 1930s shop at 67 Jermyn Street.
I was a bit puzzled when first alerted to this important new trend. My father wore Tricker's shoes. I particularly remember a really hefty pair of veldtshoen, extremely resistant to "breaking in", which were left to soften for six months in a bucket of water, then dried and dubbined - they turned out nicely. I myself have some orange brogue Oxfords from Tricker's, which I realise some people might find offensive. Could such footwear really be fashionable? Apparently so.
Emmanuel Lester, who manages the retail side of the business, is delightedly bemused at the sudden trendiness of Tricker's. "These things" - he ponders a nifty Chelsea boot, complete with double bootstraps - "we've been making these for the last 30 years, and now we can't make enough of them." Another boot, a black brogue lace-up called the Stow, looks like the sort of thing Dickens used to wear. "We're selling a lot of those," says Mr Lester, wonderingly.
There are other boots - the Burford, the chukka, the George ("very popular with military blokes") - and all sorts of shoe: suave Oxfords, well-bred Derbys; brogues of every description; tasseled loafers, brothel creepers; a variety of apron-fronted and monkstrap numbers; Tricker's very own "whole- cut" shoe, made from a single piece of leather ("that one goes down very well with our Continental friends, Mr J, and with our American friends"); velvet slippers with gold-wire motifs (eagles, foxes, monograms, coats of arms).
I was sorry that my orange Oxfords, bought 12 years ago and still going strong, were not among the shoes on display. Mr Lester showed me some black ones and explained that if you find a style you like they'll make it for you in any leather, any colour, for an extra charge of pounds 50. Most of them cost about pounds 200, which is the going rate for proper men's shoes these days.
There's a extra-large pair of co-respondents on show, with a sign reading "By special order only". Special order, aka made-to-measure or bespoke, is the holy grail of the shoe fancier. "It's like a suit," explains Mr Lester, "you've got to take all the vagaries of the foot into account." First a series of measurements is taken: toe-joint, instep, heel and ankle - and calf if they're making a riding boot. Then a drawing is made, and from that a last, a wooden model of the foot, is constructed. Then, when the shoe is half-made, there's a fitting.
"I was arguing the other day with a big suit-man from Savile Row. He was saying that suits are more skilled than shoes, and I said that shoes are more skilled because you can't make mistakes. If mistakes have been made on a suit then adjustments are easy to make, but with a shoe, well..." I was reminded of a friend who began his career as a cub reporter on the local paper in Northampton, which is Shoe City, UK, where Tricker's has its factory; he told me that at the country house of a shoe manufacturer the fires were fuelled with failed lasts.
The process takes three to six months, about twice as long as a suit, and costs about pounds 700, with pounds 100 discount on subsequent pairs. This is comparatively cheap. There are only four bespoke booters left in St James's: New & Lingwood, whose shoes were favoured by the monstrous hero of The Bonfire of the Vanities, charge about pounds 900, Foster & Sons about pounds 1,200, and Lobb about pounds 1,600. If you treat them right, with trees and polish, these shoes will serve a good quarter century; and each last is numbered, so you can ring up from Caracas or somewhere, quote the number, and a few months later they'll send you a new pair.
The Prince of Wales is not to be seen in the shop (Tricker's goes to him, to St James's Palace round the corner), though you might spot one of his Danish cousins there (if you knew what he looked like) or even Lenny Henry ("Lovely man, very big feet").
As Mr Lester talked about his work I had a sense of professional intimacy, akin to that involving priests and doctors, and of passion. "The foot's an ugly thing, let's face it - gnarled and twisted and clawed. D'you ever see the feet of the supermodels, those lovely girls? No, and I'll tell you why. They're horrible. But in this business of feet we try to make them come alive, to be beautiful. We try to give people confidence."Reuse content