THE INTERVIEW had barely begun, but already Oliver Sweeney was at it. The shoe designer, who admits that his interest in shoes borders on fetishism, was crouching on the carpet looking at my shoes.
He did not just look; he started fondling them, too. Before I realised quite what was going on, he was squeezing the arch of the shoe on my left foot, asking, in the manner of a solicitous doctor, how they felt. 'They're OK, are they? You're putting some black polish on them?'
Sweeney had reason to be interested in my shoes. The pair I was wearing were designed by him. I bought them in Harrods a year ago, for the giant sum of pounds 195 (it took months to summon up the courage to spend that sort of money). I do not regret the purchase. Twelve months on, people still ask me if they are new: they are pounds 195- worth of solid, enduring craftsmanship from a man reckoned by many in the business to be the finest designer in the world of classic-with-a-twist men's shoes.
The problem is that few of us are prepared to pay that sort of sum regularly: I had my next purchase of a pair of Oliver Sweeney's marked down for sometime in the late Nineties. Which is why the best fashion news for men this spring is that Sweeney is launching a lower-priced range, called Sweeney's, making his shoes accessible to many more customers.
The shoes are going into the shops next week and bring his prices down to a more realistic level: hand-
antiqued oak-coloured calf semi- brogues for pounds 95; tobacco suede monk- straps and sand suede Chelsea boots, both pounds 110.
Sweeney, now 37, learnt his trade at McAfee, the bespoke and stock shoemakers, where his enthusiasm became an obsession. 'I loved handmade shoes. At McAfee, I never wanted the shoes to go out to the customers. I could handle them, look at them, for hours.'
When Sweeney set up his own company in 1989, he began developing his techniques with the aim of creating a kind of 'demi-bespoke' product: shoes that were factory-made but of a quality reminiscent of the bespoke pairs worn by the likes of Cary Grant and James Stewart. So Sweeney's shoes are sold 'off-the-shelf' but each customer should feel he is buying and wearing a bespoke product.
The key, perhaps, is the hand-finishing - the polishing, brushing and staining - which gives exceptional character to the leather, turning a plain brown into a deep rich polished- wood brown, quite unlike any shoe available in the high-street stores. Sweeney encourages his customers to rub black polish into their brown shoes. 'I hate bland colours,' he says.
He has also developed his own last which, he claims, fits eight out of 10 men. His shoes are elegant and nostalgically narrow in appearance, but with sufficient width to fit the wider feet of today. He believes a shoe should support the arch of the foot properly, so he adds a deliberate hint of pressure at this point of the shoe to hold the arch in position. 'People complain of tired feet when their arches drop,' he says. 'Proper support can actually strengthen the arches.'
Sweeney needs little encouragement to launch into a masterclass of shoe design. The heels, for example, are made from leather with dovetail quarter rubber tips, and a line of brass pins so that the foot does not slip. His 'Storm' Derby, a plain shoe with a rubber sole, is more hard-wearing, but even here the inner layer (the insole) is made of leather, allowing the foot to breathe and also enabling it to sink into the base, forming an outline of the underside of the foot.
Sweeney is a romantic as well as a technician. He calls his shoe styles after the cinema greats. Bogarde is the name for his semi-brogue. Then there is Connery, the plain Oxford; McQueen, the Storm Derby; Pacino, the full-brogue; Poitier, the brogue Cambridge; and Redford, the chukka boot.
He lives a romantic, semi-nomadic existence: partly in London, where he sells his shoes to retailers from all over the world; partly abroad, where he hunts down factories that will make the shoes at a competitive price; and partly on the edge of Dartmoor, where he retreats to ponder over a new collection and look out on a garden full of old shoes with plants growing out of them.
The interview was over, but Sweeney had not done yet. He was looking downwards again at my (his) shoes. 'They're all right, are they? You sure you're using the black polish?'
He looked quite anxious, genuinely concerned. So the first thing I did when I got home was pull out the black polish and work it into those shoes.
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