All about shoes

My editor sent me to check out a few custom shoe-makers. I thought it was silly at first, but I became fascinated by this niche market. People pay $15,000 for a pair of bespoke shoes. Who are these “people”? The salesman at an Italian boutique politely describes his customers as “Chinese non-Beijingers.” My guess? Shanxi coal mine owners, China’s newest nouveau riche. Funnily enough, while the Chinese are shelling out big bucks for a pair of soles, the expats and diplomats prefer the cheaper local options. My favorite of the custom shoemakers was “Lao Yu” at Gulou Dongdajie (tel 6404 1406).

‘Best of best’ footwear from Italy
By Qi Zhai (China Daily)

On the lower levels of the Peninsula Hotel shopping arcade, where ultra-luxury European boutiques cater to Beijing’s most discerning fashion plates, is a small shop called Silvano Lattanzi. The name may mean little in China, where the company maintains a “low key” profile, but elsewhere, from Milan to New York City, Silvano Lattanzi is celebrated as the world’s leading custom footwear maker.

Started in 1971 by Silvano Lattanzi himself, an Italian shoemaker hailing from a family of shoemakers, the company has since fitted some of the most elite feet around the globe. From statesmen (Barack Obama) to celebrities (Uma Thurman), a small group of in-the-know footwear aficionados enjoy the quality of Lattanzi bespoke shoes. Last year, the exclusive Robb Report named Silvano Lattanzi the “Best of the Best” in the footwear category.

In China, custom Italian shoes are a fairly new luxury. Silvano Lattanzi came to Beijing just two years ago, and to Shanghai a little over three. Manager of the Beijing Peninsula store, Roberto Jiang, explains in a lilting mix of Italian and Chinese the advantages that lure customers to pay, and to wait, for custom made shoes:

“Made-to-order shoes are above all comfortable. They are made to fit the precise shape of the customer’s feet. Chinese men, in particular, may feel parts of their feet squeezed too tight in Western shoe models. I would suggest custom making in these cases.”

The custom shoemaking process is indeed meticulous, and long. Customers initiate the affair by choosing a model from the display shoes at Silvano Lattanzi, or they bring in their own designs. Then, a leather is selected from more than 300 swatches available at the Beijing store. From basic calf to exotic skins, such as ostrich and crocodile, the texture and color the eventual shoes can take on are astounding. Finally, Roberto personally takes several measurements of each foot. He sends these specifications to Italy, where craftsmen with 30 to 40 years of experience begin their labor.

Like a bespoke suit or a custom wedding gown, fittings are an essential part of the shoemaking process. Silvano Lattanzi’s craftsmen in Italy send a mock-up of the shoe – without the soles – three weeks after a new order is placed, so customers can try them on for comfort. Under the careful attention of Roberto, the customer notes parts where the “shoe” feels too tight, or too loose. The mock-up is then sent back to Italy, marked with areas for adjustment, where hand-sewing of the real shoe can begin.

When the shoes finally arrive in Beijing, they are presented to the customer with luxurious accessories, including spare heels, laces, polish, and anti-slip soles. Roberto makes it a point to tell customers that they must wear their new shoes for a month before applying the anti-slip soles. “After a month of wear, the shoes have grown into the shape of the customer’s feet. Only then can we send them back to Italy for the anti-slip sole to be added.”

The footwear love affair does not end here. In fact, it has just begun. Most customers at Silvano Lattanzi’s Beijing store, like elsewhere, are old customers. Although Lattanzi prices are the highest among foreign custom footwear makers in Beijing, Roberto attests that the wearer can notice the difference. “When they first come in, customers ask why we are priced higher than Berluti, for example. But once they have worn a pair, they feel the quality difference and they come back for more.”

For Lattanzi’s exquisite services, customers pay dearly. Custom men’s shoes start at about 47,000 yuan for basic calf leather and run to more than 100,000 yuan for crocodile. Although man’s footwear is the brand’s specialty, the Beijing store also has a small selection of stylish ladies footwear. Shoe lovers who cannot stomach the prices, or do not have the patience to wait, can pick up a ready-to-wear pair of display shoes. These are priced significantly lower than their custom cousins, starting at 20,000 yuan.

Now, if you have the budget and the interest, better hurry to Silvano Lattanzi. The waiting list for a new custom pair is now three months. The exclusive circle of fine footwear owners is getting smaller.

The local maker

Despite the hefty price tags for a domestic brand, Tongshenghe’s waiting list is long. Since the lunar new year, business has been picking up. New customers can now expect to wait more than two months for their custom creations. Alternatively, ready-to-wear models in the store are available for a 30 percent discount. This prestigious old Beijing brand has been around for 102 years.

After relocating several times- most recently in 2009 – Tongshenghe is back to its original home base in Wangfujing. Outside the store, bronze statues of children playing around an oversized shoe invite curious looks from customers and passing tourists. Inside, the store looks like any modern footwear retailer. Up front, the shelves are stocked with ready-to-wear shoes and a host of salesmen stand by. But a large room off to the side of the Tongshenghe store, decorated with rustic hand tools and leather swatches, gives away its traditional trade.

Tongshenghe is one of three old shoemaking brands still surviving in Beijing. It is the only one to specialize in all-leather shoes. Customers – businessmen, politicians, and people on a mission to find the most wearable shoes – come here for the comfort and breathability that bespoke shoes can offer.

Starting at 2,800 yuan, Tongshenghe’s shoes do not come cheap, but wearers are assured that their shoes underwent 100 minute steps in the making. The store also brings customers in for at least one or two fittings before sewing the final product.

At Tongshenghe, an expert craftsman is on hand to guide customers through the process. Zhang Qingjun, a “third-generation shoemaking craftsman”, did his apprenticeship at Tongshenghe’s factory and has been working at the store for the past 10 years. Quite unlike his salesmen colleagues up front, he does not promote made-to-order shoes to customers who walk in. Rather, he feels confident that those who take the time to acquire a pair will come back, again and again.


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