October 27, 2015
By Christian Frosch. Christine Fröhlich contributed research and support
There are three uncontested dogmas in gentleman’s fashion. James Bond was, is and will be the role model for classic man’s fashion for many years to come. Armani and elegance are a synonym. And John Lobb is the most famous shoemaker on earth.
Men’s Individual Fashion was there.
Appointment with history
Somehow, it has been obvious to me that I would visit one day this almost magic place. For some years it was a dream, on April 8, 2015 it became reality. Above all, I love shoes. It started being with me being jealous of my school mate’s sport shoes. Many years later, a friend gave me Bernhard Rötzel's book „The Gentleman“. This was the start of a great passion.
The centre of everything in shoe matters is in St. James's Street Nr. 9 in London. There John Lobb, the most famous shoemaker on earth, has it’s place of business and Men’s Individual Fashion had an appointment there. I invited our lovely photo assistant Christine to breakfast in a coffee shop nearby. On the way, I was very silent. Several times she asked whether everything was all right. It was very much so indeed. I prepared myself mentally to experience a legend. Finally we entered the store of a shoemaker, which started business in 1849.
In this store, time seems to stand still. Shoemaker are working silently and in concentration. If I hadn't known that the Lobb family communicates via email and has a website, I would have thought they still work with paper bookkeeping. The chairs in the office are wooden, the view from the office windows shows the backside of the two Royal Warrants John Lobb currently holds.
During our visit to the workshop and the basement there is shred on the floor once in a while. In the red shoe boxes the final bespoke shoes are stocked, the names of the future and mainly prominent owners are posted (due to discretion we have broadly retouched the picture). Even though it looks historical, it is a working place and the excuse of the host it were a workshop would be unnecessary if the entrance hall didn't look like Queen Victoria’s home. On the wall Royal documents displayed granted Royal Warrants to the work shop. If this place were a museum, I could stay hours in here. Nicholas Lobb, who works in the fifth generation for the family company, shows us around.
It started with a riding boot
His great-great-grandfather John Lobb, who died in 1895, started a bespoke shoe business in Australia before he came back to England and opened the legendary workshop in London. The founder became famous as he send unsolicitedly a pair of extraordinary, crafted riding boots to the Crown and was granted the Royal Warrant afterwards.
Nowadays, Nicholas Lobb names this historical gambit „a bold step“. Prince Charles, the Crown Prince, and Prince Philipp, Her Majesty’s husband, granted Royal Warrants to his father. Queen Elisabeth II did not extend Her Majesty’s Warrant in 2008. Although I do not know the details and will not get to know them, I am speculating that an 89 year old Queen, who apparently has been a customer for many years, is not in need of more new bespoke shoes of that quality. Still, there is a gap in the shop's front.
The other shoemaker named John Lobb is the former Paris branch of the British workshop. The London based workshop sold the name to the French company Hermès and they are still associated in a considerate and friendly way. John Lobb Paris offers both bespoke and ready to wear shoes.
During our stay at the workshop a British gentleman enters the store and Nicholas Lobb calmly orders his employees to welcome and take care of him, which they immediately do in the same calm and professional manner.
30 employees work in the workshop, the same number at home. The Lobb family calls them „piece by piece“ workers. As I mention the term „freelancer“, they tell me very politely but clearly that this is a modern business term which has nothing to do with their way of crafting. It takes six to nine months to craft the first pair of Lobb shoes, if necessary they do it more quickly („recently, we had to craft a pair within a month“). John Lobb thinks in bigger timely dimensions, my question about the overall hourly working time actually is a surprise to them.
It is the company’s policy that employees work their own pace, both in the apprenticeship and in the professional crafting. In contrast to the competitor Fosters John Lobb does not offer ready to wear shoes but focuses entirely on their core strength full bespoke shoes. Starting from the shape of the feet, a last made of wood is crafted, which is the basis for the bespoke shoe. A shoemaker who has been working for 24 years at John Lobb recently told them, he had now entered a new level of crafting bespoke shoes.
In the basement there are 16000 wooden lasts in stock. For two decades John Lobb takes care of a last, then the workshop asks the customer whether they wish to order new shoes. Among the customers there are politicians, managers, actors, bankers, lawyers and above all the Royals. It is unknown whether you can ask for a place according to the degree of sympathy in the basement. They showed us the historical lasts of Frank Sinatra. Apart from all these very famous people, there are normal British people appreciating traditional products and ordering these shoes. „People you would never think of“, Lobb says.
A part of British identity
During Second World War John Lobb wanted to stop business in light of the German attacks. The British government told them, this would be inappropriate. The moral of British people might suffer, if a British institution stopped working. Finally, with the help of the Royal Navy the shoes were shipped abroad.
Today twice a year John Lobb sends its representatives abroad to meet costumers, especially in America, Europe and the Far East. Nicholas Lobb has two brothers, who are craftsmen and who take care of the customers accompanied by their employees. With leather, instruments and a selection of sample shoes they travel abroad and in hotels offer the same service as in the shop.
Whereas some shoemakers work with a testing shoe, John Lobb takes, as a general rule, measurement just once. „We do it the traditional way. It proved to work“, Lobb says. I am deeply impressed as he tells us with honest pride, that it is such a privilege to ship abroad and I remember myself that these words come from the probably best recommended bespoke workshop in the world. Days later I saw a poster of a soda company in the London underground reading: „Men have status, boys are busy updating theirs“. Now I do understand so much better.
„Quality will always count“
In 2009, The Times wrote about the Royal Visit of Prince Charles, he wore a pair of shoes made by Lobb forty years ago. „Quality will always count“ he said during the workshop visit. I ask Nicholas Lobb, how things are with the Royal shoes. In light of the level of discretion, a detailed answer would have been a big surprise, at least he tells us „Prince Charles uses his things“.
Nicholas Lobb wears a suede pair of bespoke Lobb shoes during our visit and says he doesn’t want to wear anything else, since they are so comfortable. Shoes made by Lobb last very, very long, but you should not expect magical shoes. It's still a shoe. Not only quality and service are first class, prices are as well. A pair of hand made shoes made by John Lobb cost around 5000 Euros. „We have a lot of competition,“ Lobb says. Nearby in Jermyn Street the competitor Forster does business. The very good shoe manufacturers Crockett & Jones, Cheaney and GM Weston offer very good ready to wear shoes, for plainly lower prices.
And so it is even more impressive that John Lobb still is the centre of the shoe world. Apart from that, it is overall touching how much passion and understatement we experienced in this very special workshop. That’s quite something every man can learn a lot from whether he opts for a pair of bespoke shoes or not.
Men’s Individual Fashion thanks John Lobb. Pictures at Men’s Individual Fashion are, if any, very slightly digitally altered. By contrast, the picture with the red shoe boxes in the workshop is broadly retouched, since there was a piece of paper with the customer's name on on every box.
The shoe defines the man
Due to the outstanding role of fine shoe selection and conscientious care for man`s wardrobe Men's Individual Fashion publishes an extraordinary solitaire category dealing with man's shoes.
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