Custom shoes without the bespoke price tag - considering Carmina, Wayman Bespoke and Saint Crispin's
Designing and customising your own very specific pair of shoes is no longer the sole purview of expensive bespoke makers. While many makers operate fairly extensive made-to-order services, they typically exist as a minor add-on to their primary ready-to-wear business and will include sometimes off-putting surcharges to cover the additional production costs of a made-to-order pair.
Some excellent solutions have emerged on the internet over the last few years, and though none are mega-cheap, they are significantly more affordable than the traditional bespoke route.
This Spanish brand probably needs no introduction, and they absolutely knocked it out of the park last year with the introduction of their custom shoe tool. This has had heaps of online coverage for good reason - this is genuine industry-leading stuff and a powerful tool for visualising and ordering a pretty much completely customised pair.
You can choose pretty much any combination of leather, last, sole, hardware - even down to the stitch colouring. A wide variety of exotic and unusual materials are available for the uppers, and being able to mix and match the different upper components with different materials is great fun. Carmina have a pretty wide array of base models that you can customise too, so it's pretty likely you can something pretty close to whatever is in your imagination.
This is all the more impressive with a full 3D model of the shoe updated in real-time, with very convincing rendering of the different materials. You'll also get a full-price quote updated in real-time. Ever wondered how much an alligator tongue or lizard heel will add to the price of your boot order? Wonder no more (hint: it's quite a lot for the alligator).
So, seems pretty incredible right? The only possible wrinkle, and it is potentially a major one, is just how well the pair that you receive matches that 3D visualisation. While Carmina are typically superior to competitors like Meermin in terms of quality control, it can be a bit hit-or-miss gambling on the outcome of any small-scale Made to Order shoe. There is obviously a lot more room for error when everything made is "non-standard" and you're also waiving a lot of return options with such a bespoke order.
Time will tell as customers start to receive more of these orders and post their reviews online, though early reviews seem positive. For the moment it's a fun tool to put together your dream pair (and also any really hideous Frankenstein's monster nightmare pairs that you might want to concoct too).
An esteemed maker, and one that anybody reading this blog will be familiar with - Saint Crispin's have established a strong position for shoes that are customised in terms of design as well as fit.
I don't really have enough good things to say about the overall quality of SC as a maker - I have a pair of their mod 104 Austerity Brogues reviewed here (which are currently being worked on by a patina artist since I rather clumsily stained the leather trying to condition them) and I think their is a general consensus that their output is rather good.
Saint Crispin's offer a very flexible approach to material and design customisation, though lacking the impressive 3D models of the Carmina solution. They operate a Cyber Fitting system to tweak fittings, managed personally by Phillip Car who owns the company. Trial shoes are sent to perfect any fitting issues.
Once a customer has been through the above they can save a personalised last for future orders - a strong advantage over Carmina, and although the initial barrier of entry for the SC process is there, it can enable a pretty perfect fit going forwards.
Wayman Bespoke has hit upon what I think is a very smart niche - fully customisable designs with bespoke level fitting modifications, with the actual construction work done in China to minimise overhead costs and allow for an overall excellent value shoe. They've called it "remote bespoke".
Simon (the owner) acts as the middleman based in Germany, coordinating details and fitting notes, and manages the nitty-gritty communications with the factory. I've exchanged a few emails with him and he seems very personable, and from the examples that have been posted on their Instagram and Styleforum the quality of their product is high.
To manage virtual fittings they use trial shoes and video calls to discuss any changes required - while this will lack some of the effectiveness of in-person fittings, I've also seen enough horror stories from high-end bespoke makers to know that in-person fittings can have their own downfalls and bad outcomes.
You can see the focus they put on details like slimmed-down heels and aggressively bevelled waists, and the advantage this should give you over the Carmina customiser above is that you can go really off-piste in terms of your fitting needs. I think that if you could nail your personal last down with a couple of fittings, this could give a really good option going forwards for people that want optimal fit at high-RTW but sub-bespoke prices.
Pricing puts them around the Saint Crispin level and the quality of their hand welted output and materials seem very comparable. I hope to get a pair (or two) in the future, although additional import fees since Brexit do push them ever upwards in terms of final costs.