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Reflections on a trio of John Lobb Bespoke pairs part 1: Tan Austerity Brogues. Do "Old Money" makers need to justify their astronomical price point?


Thoughts on a generally fruitless pursuit


Long-time readers will know about my predilection for picking up bespoke pairs of shoes on eBay, most often from a trio of London-based makers: John Lobb St. James (sometimes called just "John Lobb" or "John Lobb 1849"), Foster & Sons (now defunct and replaced by Canons Bespoke) and George Cleverley.


I wrote about some of the basics for how to shop them here, although candidly, this is more of an enthusiast activity than a sensible way of building a shoe collection. The central problem for second hand buyers is the central attraction for the original buyer: they are commissioned to fit one pair of feet very exactly, and this creates an obvious obstacle if it's a different pair of feet trying to wear them. Quirks in the size and shape of the last make a good fit improbable, even if the rough dimensions seem to suggest they should be fine.


I'd estimate I've picked up about 25 bespoke pairs from the above makers over the years, and have kept only 4 pairs in my collection. And if you think that sounds like a pretty grim attrition rate... well, yes, it is.


Three of those are from John Lobb St. James, a company often associated with flattering adjectives like "venerable", "storied" and "esteemed", but also less favourable ones such as "expensive" and "really very extremely expensive". See this relatively up to date price list for an idea (and I'm pretty sure that doesn't even include VAT). They are literally an order of magnitude more costly than what most people would already consider an irresponsible amount to spend on shoes.



Given their customer base are probably more "stomping around the estate shouting at groundsmen" and less "terminally online iGent poser", there isn't a lot of online discourse around what their shoes are actually like in terms of quality for what they charge (very vulgar to even entertain such a discussion, I'm sure).


Really, the concept of "value" becomes fuzzy to the point of non-existence at this sort of price point, such are the diminishing returns inherent in shoemaking. And, of course, the experiential part of the ordering process- visiting the shop, refining the fit over multiple visits, the customised feel - is completely lost when purchasing them second hand. I hope at the least this review will serve as a bit of a de-mystification for what is otherwise a product unobtainable for 99.9% of shoe shoppers.


Note: which John Lobb is which?

These John Lobb shoes should not be confused with the more readily available Hermes-owned John Lobb RTW shoes, or the French-made bespoke John Lobb shoes. I gave a brief write-up of the brand name's history here where I also reviewed the black Derby pair pictured above.



Tan Scotch Grain Austerity Brogues


A recent eBay purchase, and, for the reasons listed above, surprisingly excellent in fit - somewhere out there I have a foot shape Doppelganger, walking around unbeknownst.


Note: What's a fair price for an eBay pair?

Given the sky-high cost of John Lobb St James shoes, you can forgive overzealous eBay sellers for setting some optimistic asking prices. I'd personally say somewhere around £400 is a fair price for non-exotic leathers or £800 for rare or exotic leathers. This may seem an outrageous depreciation on the £7,000+ original tag, but keep in mind that the people looking to buy these shoes are in a pretty self-selecting audience of enthusiasts, and they likely already know what a crapshoot the fit will be.


So, try to buy from a seller with a return policy, or failing that, buy at a price that you can confidently resell at without a loss.


These arrived in borderline unworn condition. Not pristine condition, though, as the uppers have been splattered and stained with something (oil, maybe?). The most plausible (albeit bizarre) turn of events seems to be somebody picking up their lovely new shoes, opening the box, immediately spilling some manner of oil all over them, and then chucking them out without wearing them.


As somebody who is usually very anal about keeping shoes in good condition, this is isn't ideal. On the other hand, they do actually lend themselves well to slightly more casual wear since I don't have to be so neurotic about keeping them looking perfect.

In fact, on their first day out I spilled an entire cup of coffee on them, and while such an event would usually have the effect of ruining my entire week, I took this rather philosophically given the presence of such prominent patina already.


Tan shoes have seen a lot of blowback in the last few years when worn with suits, but the grain adds a nice, casual feel. The last is still quite round at the toe, and they wear well with jeans and chinos. They don't polish very well, though - I don't want to apply a lot of darker polish at the toes to form a burnish - so they shall remain comparatively matte.


These also came with the matching trees, which many bespoke pairs don't. Generic trees or lasted ones from other manufacturers may not fit bespoke shoes, sometimes even deforming the leather due to the quirks of the bespoke last.


It may be that the original owner didn't shell out for trees (they cost more than £1000 to add on top of the minimum £6000 for the shoes). Sometimes they just become separated, which is tragic and also a bit redundant as they will be a poor fit for any other shoes. These ones are beautiful, though.


Without wanting to sound... creepy, there is something profoundly satisfying about sliding a bespoke shoe tree into its respective host shoe. No force needed at all, just a gratifying "shlip" of air as they fit perfectly into place, not a centimetre of wasted space. That did sound creepy, didn't it? Oh well.


The trees are hollowed out in the body, which helps them to cut down on weight while also holding the shape of the shoe.


As is fairly standard for the classic London-based bespoke makers, there isn't much focus on decorative features like narrow-waisted or fiddle-shaped soles. I don't really know how receptive they'd be to such a request, or if they'd just arch an eyebrow at such gauche affectations.


The JL waist has a barely perceptible curve to it. The most distinctive feature is the LOBB stamp at the waist, which can also be found on French-made John Lobb bespoke models. The concealed channel is just starting to wear along the edge.


Just for fun, I've put them alongside a pair of Yeossal shoes I ordered years ago to show how far apart the design sensibilities are. You can certainly see how more modern makers might make a selling point over things like the sole construction and detailing, while JL really just treat it as a functional component of a shoe.


The shoes are shaped quite closely along the arch, much more so than you'd find in a RTW pair. This can be tricky to capture in photos, but you can see how aggressively the sole tapers in from the side to the heel section, almost creating a spade sole at the point where it turns in. It hugs the arch of the foot without being uncomfortable.

Pretty much all of the output of the London-based bespoke makers is hand welted. These have a 270 degree welt at about 12 stitches per inch, compared to say 8 stitches per inch on a standard Goodyear welted pair. I don't generally find SPI to be a great indicator of quality - it hits diminishing returns very quickly, so don't expect ten times the SPI for ten times the price compared to a more affordable maker. A very fine SPI - the type you'd see on an exhibition quality shoe - might be 16 to 20 stitches per inch.


Some close-up shotes below, which show very neat pinking around the panels and a well-finished heel section.
















As a point of comparison, I've put this pair next to my pair of Saint Crispin's Austerity brogues that I reviewed some years ago. Both are hand welted, and stylistically they have some similarities. Keep in mind that Saint Crispin's produce a far superior shoe to the overwhelming majority of makers on the market, but still represent about a quarter of the cost of a pair of John Lobb.


Top - John Lobb, Bottom - Saint Crispin's

Slightly more rounded toe on the John Lobb pair is evident, and you can see a bit more of a cutaway inwards on the arch of the John Lobb pair.



Top / left - John Lobb, Bottom / right - Saint Crispin's

Comparing the trees is a great way of seeing the last shapes without the actual shoe in the way. You can see the Lobb trees are more asymmetric with a greater curve on the outside of the foot; the Saint Crispin's are straighter, and closer to being a pointed oval shape. In spite of the difference in shape, both are snug but comfortable.


Likewise, the John Lobb pair have more of a curve to the instep, while the Saint Crispin's have a straighter instep shape.


Left - John Lobb, right - Saint Crispin's

You can see how that difference in shoe tree asymmetry translates to the overall look of the shoe from above.


Left - John Lobb, right - Saint Crispin's

A look at the heel lining of each pair, and not a particularly flattering comparison for the John Lobb's, which look noticeably messier and less refined than the Saint Crispin's. There is definitely an element of the "rustic" with John Lobb's make, which may seem counter-intuitive for such an expensive shoe. Indeed, you'd probably see a much neater heel finish on even cheaper pairs from makers like Crockett & Jones.


Left - John Lobb, right - Saint Crispin's

The rear silhouette is a bit curvier on the Saint Crispin's, which translates to the heel feeling more "hugged" when worn. The heel stack itself is super solid on the JL pair.


As an extra bonus, compare the heel stack of the Lobb pair with a Yeossal pair I picked up a few years ago:



The Yeossal pair is super aggressive at cupping the heel at the top, and the actual heel stack tapers, with a visibly smaller footprint where the heel stack meets the floor. The JL pair, meanwhile, actually flare slightly outwards before meeting the ground. In terms of daily comfort and stability, the JL pair win this hands down. In terms of aesthetics, I suppose that's a more personal preference.


Left - John Lobb, right - Saint Crispin's

Finally, a look at the inner lining and tongue. Again, not hugely flattering for John Lobb, but fairly representative of the other two pairs I'll look at in future. The Saint Crispin's are fully lined and very neatly finished. The John Lobb pair have a half insole, with Lobb's characteristic gold embossed logo. The front section of the JL interior shows the dimples resulting from the hand welting.


Common across all the John Lobb pairs I'll review is a remarkably flimsy tongue. It's a single piece of unlined leather, unlike the Saint Crispin's where the tongue is lined to match the rest of the shoe. It feels thinner and more crinkly to the hand. I can't say it affects the comfort or outward appearance hugely, but again, the word "rustic" comes to mind when you put it alongside the price.


Conclusions

Do John Lobb shoes count as Veblen Goods? They have always been extraordinarily expensive, after all, so nothing new there. And they are still operating the same single shop they have since 1866, so the size of their operation seems relatively static. They're more "money is no object" goods.


Consider that you can get a pair of Gaziano & Girling Optimum shoes for half the price, which would still be a staggering amount of cash for one pair of shoes. These are regular G&G models and sizes made to bespoke model quality. I've spent a bit of time handling G&G Optimum, and they are flawless and beautiful things: they just look and feel so much more expensive than JL. And yet, JL have been selling these things for over 170 years, so clearly they're doing something right.


I really like these shoes. They feel solid, permanent and unique. Not mass-produced objects of perfection (and I don't even make that comparison to the Saint Crispin's - which would not qualify as mass-produced - but even compared to Crockett & Jones or Edward Green).


The finishing and detailing are defined by idiosyncrasies and quirks, and those quirks give them character. They lack the bells and whistles that younger companies need to offer to compete in a crowded market, but I think that stripped-down design sensibility, alongside that "rustic" but solid approach to construction, means they will weather the years a lot better than their sexier rivals.

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