A new band of British shoemakers threatens to reclaim the streets from Italian footwear designers. Belinda Morris reports. Photographs by Julia Cody
In Tokyo, Patrick Cox is not the only name to look out for on shoe insoles. A cult following has grown around a new generation of young British shoemakers, including Lawler Duffy, Nicholas Deakins, Jeffrey West and Ian Reid. But while Japanese fashion junkies would crawl over broken glass for shoes bearing these labels, their names provoke hardly a flicker of recognition on the streets of London. It is one of fashion's many truisms that you have to make it abroad, before you can hit the big time on your own turf.

Now that the new Shoe Brit Pack has foreign fashion editors hyperventilating, the time seems right for them to make some noise at home. Guy West, half of the Jeffrey West design duo is determined that high fashion, stylishness, even eccentricity should not be sacrificed for quality - or vice versa. The label is quietly successful in Britain, with shoes selling from pounds 120 at independent menswear shops around the country as well as at branches of the shoe chain Office.

Oswald Boateng, the maverick off Savile Row tailor, has picked out Jeffrey West's contemporary classic boots and shoes for his West End shop. "The narrow cut of my suits works best with the classic, but elegant shoe," Boateng explains. "But apart from the design, the `Made in Britain' label is very important to me. I like the quality of British shoes and dislike the thin sole of Italian-style shoes."

The difference lies in the construction. The best of British footwear is Goodyear Welted, a process based on hand sewing, resulting in a shoe that is comfortable, durable and keeps its shape for longer. Once a term bandied about among the exclusive fraternity of top shoemakers in Northampton, it has now reached a wider circle of devotees. Customers of Wade Smith in Liverpool are beginning to hear about it, as are those of Limeys in Nottingham and Derby, Van Mildert in Durham and Psyche in Middlesbrough. These shoes might be expensive, but increasingly, people are spending pounds 100 and upwards for a pair of shoes that they know will last for more than one season. Like buying a handmade suit, once you've worn a Goodyear Welted shoe, it's hard to go back to the cheaper, cemented-sole variety.

But it isn't just the construction. Like British fashion design, there is a certain quirkiness about these new wave designer shoes. Their choice and mixture of innovative leathers and the reworking of traditional techniques produces contemporary shapes, off-beat heel structures, stitching details and new ways of fastening. After several years of tough Timberlands and craggy Caterpillars, these are the boots and shoes being chosen by menswear buyers to complement the sleek clothes of Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Dries van Noten, and John Rocha.

Despite the fact that we make the best in the world, the British have been slow to appreciate quality shoes. "A man spending pounds 500 plus on a suit will know just what to look for," says Nicky Lawler, designer at Lawler Duffy. "But ask him to spend pounds 150 on a pair of shoes and he'll know very little about them. And, ironically, most women are worse, because for them shoes are throw-away items. Men at least appreciate quality and choose shoes for their versatility, which makes things easier."

Lawler Duffy, the label that made the shoes for John Galliano's St Martin's graduation show, started with men's shoes in 1989 and, like Jeffrey West, also produces shoes for women, based on its men's shapes. From the signature square-toed last George boot, the Lawler Duffy collection has evolved to include a range of materials such as denim, canvas and leopard-print leather, funky trims and a whole range of heels previously considered impossible to achieve through the Goodyear Welted process that she, too, prefers.

Nicholas Deakin started out five years ago with a designer twist on the chunky boot. Then, his shoes appealed to the jeans and sweatshirt-wearing clubber who was not wild about drawing attention to his feet via a pair of shiny pink loafers. Things have moved on since, however, and this year will see a new addition to the Nicholas Deakin line Premier Collection using unusual and technical finishes for elegant, sophisticated footwear.

The boots and shoes by Ian Reid of the Old Curiosity Shop are completely impervious to the whims of fashion. The minuscule emporium is aptly named, both for it's Dickensian atmosphere - wooden floors, walls and staircases are surreally askew - and the stock itself. With bluntly descriptive names such as Fat Shoe and Hog's Toe Shoe, there is a timeless quality to these designs that Reid describes as modern classics. There is no pinning down his typical customer who might be a barrister from nearby Lincoln's Inn or a Japanese tourist. One gentleman was happy to have at last found a boot he could go boar-hunting in.

Having served his apprenticeship with the late John Moore, shoe designer to the stars, Reid set up his own five years ago and, like his peers, is determined to offer quality. "I was attracted by the craft of shoemaking first," he says, "and the design element followed after. If you can't understand one, you can't achieve the other and although some of our shoes are factory- made, I still enjoy making the occasional pair of one-off shoes." He offers rough, calloused hands as proof of his industry.

Reid's talents have not gone unnoticed: Yohji Yamamoto chose his boots to accompany his winter 96 collection shown in Paris last January. Another shoemaker, Claire Norwood, has made catwalk shoes for Katharine Hamnett, Alexander McQueen and Clements Ribeiro. It was her kitten-heel mules for Hamnett's menswear collection that David Bowie wore on stage at the Brit Awards. Norwood specialises in special occasion shoes, made to order so you can specify fabrics, toe shapes and styles of heel, but not made to measure, so you can still just about afford them.

`Fat' shoe (opposite page, pounds 180, handmade by Ian Reid, from the Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth St, London WC2 (0171 405 9891).

Heeled faux-tigerskin Chelsea boot (top left), pounds 299 to order from Claire Norwood on 0171 837 2355: women's range from Philippa Lepley, 494 Fulham Road and Rebecca St, 294 Upper St, London N1.

Faux Bengal Lizard Monk shoe (top right), pounds 120, by Jeffrey West, from: Office (call 0181 838 4344 for stockists); Oswald Boateng, 9 Vigo St, London W1; Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Psyche, 201-203 Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough; Cruise, 39-42 Renfield St Glasgow; Flannels, 4 St Annes Place, Manchester; Wade Smith, Matthew St, Liverpool (inquiries 01604 602 075).

Fiji mock-croc loafers (bottom left) pounds 85, by Nicholas Deakins from: Selfridges, Oxford St, London W1; Dickins and Jones, Regent St, London W1; Flannels, Manchester, as before; Rackhams, 35 Temple Row, Birmingham.

Moss-green golf brogue, pounds 160 (bottom right), by Lawler Duffy, from: Love, 57 Stephenson St, Birmingham; Zoo, 239 High Road, Ilford, Essex; Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London SW1 (inquiries 0171 923 2821). Also Chocolate-brown brogue boot, pounds 175, by Nicholas Deakins as before, and brown suede, square-toed George boot, pounds 250, handmade by Ian Reid, from the Old Curiosity Shop as before.