Kieran Meeke visits the famed shoemakers of St. James’s to discover the secret of its longevity.
The gas lamp and wooden bow-windowed frontage of John Lobb at 9 St James’s Street opens into an interior that feels entirely masculine.
All dark wood, workbenches and an assortment of antique showcases in different sizes and style, it is more workshop than chic boutique. The brand was established in 1849 and little seems changed since.
The shop is a short stroll from St James’s Palace and within walking distance of several gentlemen’s clubs, not to mention the manly shops of Jermyn Street. Royal Warrants above the door attest to the approval of Prince Charles and the Duke of Edinburgh, while famous past clients include Frank Sinatra, Rex Harrison, Aristotle Onassis and Lord Olivier.
Initial appearances, though, can be misleading; women have always been equally as welcome as men at John Lobb. Having previously held a Royal Warrant to Her Majesty the Queen, its customers have also included the Princess of Wales, Lady Thatcher and Ava Gardner.
The atmosphere can best be described as self-contained, even comforting – well-suited to a place where you will put your sole in their hands. Several craftsmen at their workbenches diligently rasp and smooth previously unwieldy blocks of beech wood into elegantly contoured lasts, which are models of clients’ feet, coming and going with the air of people happy in their work.
I was given all the time in the world to look around the display cabinets, spotting a last for Queen Victoria and admiring the bewildering variety of available styles; from casual loafers (known as Norwegian slip on shoes at John Lobb) to sturdy wax calf riding boots for the most dedicated of riders.
“This happens to be a very unusual premises,” said John Hunter Lobb, 75, great grandson of the original John Lobb, as we sit in his upstairs office, from which a glass window allows him to survey his domain.
“And although this shop could be anywhere in terms of getting the work done, as far as customers are concerned being in this area is very important. We have been in this street for over 100 years and in this premises for nearly 50. People are pleased we are still here and so are we.”
Ordering your shoes from John Lobb will cost you thousands of pounds. A basic pair starts at around £3,500, while polo boots are closer to £6,000. Opt for crocodile leather and your shoes will bite you for £10,000. All that is before VAT. “Once you have your first pair it becomes an expensive habit as you do not want to wear anything else,” he said.
The process can also take some months. “It is hard to be precise because every pair of shoes takes a different length of time, particularly the first pair as you have to make the lasts,” said Lobb.
“The last makers work in the shop because they have to see the customer and take measurements. To make the shoes, we employ a lot of pieceworkers, many of whom were trained by us, who work from home and where regular customers are ordering more shoes we try to ensure the work goes back to the same craftsman for each order. It can really affect the fit and shape if you change the craftsman.”
A good last is the key to a pair of handmade-to-measure shoes and Lobb was trained in the skill by his father. “I was fortunately quite good at it and I never had a wish to work in any other business.”
A tour around the workshop shows much of the process, with different parts of the shoe being worked on in quiet corners of the ground floor and basement. Once the beech wood last is made, a pattern is drawn and cut and a ‘clicker’ carefully selects and cuts (or ‘clicks’) the leather for each pair of uppers.
The various intricate pieces are then stitched and assembled by a ‘closer’ to create the finished upper. The ‘rough stuff’ cutter then cuts all the leather for the rest of the shoe, including the insoles, sole and heels and sends this together with the uppers and the lasts to the ‘maker’ to assemble and make the shoes.
The finished shoes are then socked by the ‘socker’ and sent to the ‘tree makers’ for wooden trees to be made to fit each individual shoe. The final step is a shiny polish to Guards standard.
The process for your first pair may involve several fittings, during which the last can be tweaked to make sure it is perfect. Afterwards, it joins the shelves full of those lasts from thousands of other eminent customers in the basement storage racks, ready for the next order.
There is no mistaking the skill involved at each stage but I am assured there is no shortage of craftspeople willing to learn. “It is a job for life if they want – and fortunately quite a lot do,” explained Lobb.
“Many of the lastmakers you see in the shop have been here for 15 and 20 years or more. The pieceworkers are self-employed – which gives them a lot of freedom – but once they make for a customer, as long as that customer comes back for more, they have a job.”
I wonder what changes technology has brought – there are none very apparent – and the answer is a surprising one. “The biggest difference technology has made is credit cards,” he said.
“There was a time when a customer would come in, give a few references from his tailor or a bank and then they did not expect to pay, even when they took the shoes away. People could just disappear and that was troublesome. So credit cards were an opportunity to initially ask for a deposit and credit accounts almost disappeared.
“We still have accounts with a few customers who have been with us for 30, 40 or 50 years. They don’t want to change their ways and we are happy for them not to.”
The firm’s darkest period was just after World War II when their clientele fell on hard times along with the rest of the post-war economy. “Before the war it was all English aristocracy who came to St James’s to go to their clubs and so on.
“My father’s answer was to go to America to look for new customers. That has expanded to the Far East and the rest of Europe, and become an important part of our business. We now travel to these places to see our customers every year in the spring and autumn.”
“I don’t talk about markets,’ he added. “I only think about individuals because we only deal with individuals whether they be British, American, Russian Japanese, Chinese, or any other nationality.”
For those who do not have the money, or the time, for a bespoke pair of shoes, the answer may lie in a readymade pair made by French luxury brand Hermes. They now have a number of John Lobb ready-to-wear boutiques in various cities around the world but the exact details of the arrangement with the original John Lobb of London at the heart of the brand remain confidential. “I was brought up never to talk about money,’ said John Hunter-Lobb, laughing.
His final thoughts reflected just the old-fashioned attitude to business you might expect. “The key to keeping customers is giving them what they want. You have to do what you said you would do in the time you said you’ll do it. And you have to keep in touch with them to make sure they are happy.”
As I leave, I am courteously shown out by John Lobb’s son Nicholas, the shop manager. “In the short time I’ve worked here it’s become clear that my family has always focused primarily on the craft and making beautiful, elegant bespoke made-to-measure shoes that people love,’ he said as we stood at the door, looking out on the St James’s traffic.
“That’s why John Lobb is still here and is now being run by the fifth generation of Lobbs. Training the best craftsmen and women, making the best shoes we can and giving customers what they want comes first and everything else follows. If you start thinking too much about markets and spreadsheets you risk losing sight of what’s most important.”