A John Lobb St James. bespoke "Navvy cut" derby shoe review - an in depth discussion
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
John Lobb Ltd. / John Lobb St James "Navvy Cut" 5 eyelet, plain front derby shoes (as seen on John Lobb's site)
Black calf leather, leather soles
Bespoke size but approx. a UK 9.5 E
RRP - we'll get to that, but I paid £800 for nearly new condition from Classic Shoes for Men
This is my third attempt now at buying bespoke shoes second-hand - I’ll write about my recent George Cleverley purchases in future articles.
Continuous repetition of the same thing expecting a different outcome may well seem insane to you - there is some squeamishness around buying used shoes, let alone used shoes that were specifically shaped around another person's foot. For me, the allure around the companies that make these shoes (John Lobb, Foster & Son, G.J. Cleverley et al) combined with a RRP that I am probably a good few decades/centuries from affording is a sufficient draw to keep on trying to buy them.
The previous attempts went wrong because it's a complete crap-shoot in terms of whether they will fit or not. They were literally made with somebody else in mind, and you can only hope that person's foot is sort of the same shape as yours. So caveat emptor (and make sure they have a good returns policy) if you're going down this road.
Hopefully, you'll agree it's a worthwhile review, because for a brand with so much heritage, there are very few in-depth reviews of John Lobb St James shoes online. For good or ill, their customer base just doesn't overlap that much with people who post photos of their shoes on the internet. They must be off buying horses and looking at stock tickers, or whatever the rich do.
The purchase process
Having angled for a robust pair of black derbies for a while, when these came up on Classic Shoes for Men I jumped on the chance.
They were punchily priced at £800 - a lot, but the condition was essentially new, the style exactly what I wanted, and the site has a very comprehensive returns policy even if it's for fit reasons, so there isn't the same risk as buying on eBay. After some quick email exchanges discussing sizing with the site owner, Sevan, I sent the money over, and the shoes arrived a few days later.
I highly recommend the site by the way. Sevan is a real gentleman - not a men's style blog "gentleman", where he posts vignetted photos of cigars and whiskey decanters with pretentious aspirational lifestyle quotes - but just a pleasure to chat with. And his collection of shoes, especially high-end British makers, is pretty much unmatched online.
It's not cheap, but a lot of the shoes are near unworn or deadstock, and are rare indeed to find on eBay in the same condition. For bespoke shoes, he can give some comprehensive sizing advice too, which is a clear benefit of dealing with someone with years of expertise.
Sidenote - about the Lobb brand name
Let's delve into the storied, confusing history of the name "John Lobb".
John Lobb St James (sometimes called John Lobb Ltd) shouldn't be confused with the Hermes owned John Lobb Paris ready to wear operation. John Lobb opened his London shop in 1866, expanding to a Paris workshop around 1900. The John Lobb Paris (JLP) workshop and name was acquired in 1976 by Hermes, who have since made RTW shoes under the name, while JLSJ continued to make only bespoke pairs from their London workshop.
JLP sell RTW and bespoke shoes across the world - indeed, their RTW collection is made in a Northampton factory formerly used by Edward Green, and these are the John Lobb shoes most people will be familiar with.
However as part of the sale agreement in 1976, JLP cannot sell their bespoke shoes in the United Kingdom, so the only bespoke shoes made in the UK under the John Lobb name come from JLSJ.
About that price
John Lobb Ltd. makes some stupendously expensive shoes as seen on their pricelist - this pair would start at around £5,700 inc. VAT.
Sadly the purchase didn't include bespoke shoe trees. This may be because they were not made with the shoes - the shoe trees alone are about £1,400 inc. VAT, so I could sympathise with somebody skipping them for more generic ones.
This is clearly a price that is aimed at people who have a very comfortable amount of disposable income, and is kind of the point where "value" as a concept becomes redundant. So for this review I'll be talking about my own sense of value having spent £800.
Are they, as the company claims, the finest shoes in the world? Sure, they have history and heritage, but I'll bet there are any number of Saint Crispin or Gaziano & Girling makeups you would find more appealing at 1/5 of the price.
This is 5-eyelet derby in black leather. Lobb insists on calling this a "Navvy Cut", but the rest of the world would just call it a derby.
They're pretty chonky shoes. Lobb does not really concern itself with sleek and modern-looking designs. For better or worse, they make the shoes they know how to make. It's a very plain and understated design - the only decoration is some double stitching around the vamp and a zigzag stitch parallel to the lacing.
The toe is conservatively round - no dramatic chisel shapes here - but I find this welcome in a black shoe compared to something more flamboyant.
Compare the heel stack to something like this Yeossal - the JLSJ is straight as an arrow up and down, with none of the tapering of the Yeossal.
The overall profile of the shoe sales close to being "blobby" but they still work for me aesthetically. Like a lot of bespoke shoes, you see a less idealised conception of the shape of the human foot and more of a direct reflection.
Sidenote - about the Lobb philosophy
As an anecdotal example of what it's like to work at John Lobb and how that may have informed the styling of their shoes, this story from bespoke shoemaker Nicolas Templeman who used to work at Lobb:
“It could be rather frustrating at Lobb: you had little interaction with the customers, yet they would still be upset at you if something went wrong... In fact when I first started working there, we had to go to the office and explain what email we wanted sent to the customer. Then replies were printed and handed to us later.”
So maybe we can say this is a shoe borne from that mindset - inflexible but impeccable in its own way. Overall, a shoe for a man who cares about his shoes, wants the best construction possible, but for whom talking about shoes would seem a bit embarrassing. The main appeal is in the absence of ostentation.
Boy howdy, these are sturdy.
The leather is thick and less pliable than my RTW pairs. The uppers are in incredible condition - I don't know what happens to a person to allow them to order a £5,700 pair of shoes and then never wear them, but I'm happy to inherit them on that basis.
JLSJ shoes are hand welted, a topic I'll write more in the future. The soles are superbly finished - only a very slight bevel, with an immaculately concealed channeled sole stitch. Note the LOBB stamp just in front of the heels, a good way of spotting original soles or resoles by Lobb themselves, but given the excellent condition of the uppers these are clearly the original soles.
The derby design essentially gives a bellows tongue, which is very welcome as I loathe a tongue that slides to the side.
Fit and comfort
I'm a UK 9.5 mid to wide in nearly all big British shoe brands. My right foot is about 1cm longer and wider than my left, which has thrown off the sizing for bespoke pairs previously. These were listed as a UK 9.5, mid to wide fitting, so I was hopeful the fit would be good.
And the fit is pretty much perfect, it turns out. The left shoe is fractionally longer than the right, but the right shoe is 1cm wider than the left. They hug the foot very comfortably without squeezing. I honestly think this fit is about as good as you could hope for buying second-hand bespoke.
To the eye they do look quite wide compared to my other shoes and are probably 2cm shorter than most of my RTW pairs, but they are actually very well shaped to accommodate the widest part of the foot - some prodding while the shoe is on shows the interior is comfortably occupied.
£5,700 (the RRP) can buy you a whole lot of shoes. £800 (the WIAP, or What I Actually Paid) can buy you, if not a whole lot, then quite a lot of shoes. So would I say these were good value?
Well the condition and rarity of the shoes adds a certain premium to the price. My own fascination with the industry and the heritage of the company that created them adds a bit more. The knowledge that the shoes came from skilled craftsmen working age-old methods rather than a mechanised production line adds a real satisfaction, even if it's something only I would care about.
This is still a third less than the retail price for a pair of Saint Crispins, and in the same ballpark as new pairs of RTW John Lobb. The finish is far better than a RTW pair of John Lobbs, but the difference with Saint Crispin's is marginal.
As far as paying at full price, it seems a bit unhinged to me to be honest. There is such a wide selection of equally well-made, and honestly more aesthetically diverse and appealing shoes out there, that the full RRP boggles the mind. But then, we've established this is not a price where the purchaser is tossing up one pair of these or five pairs of another - they just want one, specific, reliable purchase to their own specifications and will pay whatever needs paying.