4 Things to Look for in a Good Pair of Men’s Shoes

Sonya Glyn NICHOLSON

4 Things to Look for in a Good Pair of Men’s Shoes

Corthay RTW shoes display @ Leffot New York

Selecting a pair of shoes is a personal, if not intimate experience. We wear our favorite shoes hundreds of times before throwing them out or restoring them. And, if our shoes look good and feel good on our feet, then somehow we feel better than if our shoes are in bad shape.

This very human relationship with shoes is a strange phenomenon that is subject to a lot of contemplation by neophytes and experts alike. Even sociologists have tried to understand why shoes hold such a strong intrigue for so many people.

Some men have an extreme devotion to understanding even the slightest nuance about the quality and appearance of bespoke versus high-end handmade or bench-made ready-to-wear shoes. But other men really don’t know what to look for when buying a pair of shoes, other than trusting their intuition about how the shoes look on their feet, and deciding whether the pair is affordable, or not.

With the help of Justin Fitzpatrick’s famous online journal: The Shoe Snob, we have put together a list of four things to notice before buying your next pair of shoes.

1. IS THE LEATHER QUALITY ACCEPTABLE?

This is a particularly difficult subject to address, and only with experience can one discern excellent leather quality from good leather quality.

Since everyone has to start somewhere in order to master a subject, we will try a first-attempt to tackle the topic of leather quality in shoes.

Put plainly, big companies (e.g., John Lobb of the Hermès Group) have the most money to purchase the highest quality of leather. It is that simple. A handful of companies are thus able to buy large quantities of choice leather in bulk, to the extent that an industry-wide shortage of such leather can result.

This can cause a problem for many talented shoemakers who want to practice their trade and build their businesses. Not being able to access “better leather”, puts a number of gifted shoemakers in a position of searching for clever ways to provide well made shoes with great raw materials.

Yet, since most customers will not spend thousands of dollars for shoes with top-of-the-line leather and handmade construction anyway, there are plenty of opportunities for shoemakers to use clever methods to provide beautiful quality shoes that are also affordable.

But, how is one to know if the leather used to make a pair of ready-to-wear shoes is acceptable, or not?

While a consumer cannot determine a specific leather quality simply by looking at a shoe, there are some visual cues that can help guide a buying decision.

How to (Roughly) Assess Leather Quality ?

A. Practice tuning your eye to what quality leather looks like, and what it does not look like by reviewing a leather grading system as described below. Justin’s example of contrasting the Gaziano & Girling Hanley shoe (first photo below) with a cheaper shoe (second photo below) demonstrates a clear quality-difference between the two types of leather:

Gaziano & Girling nice quality leather

Calf skin (Gaziano & Girling)

Substandard leather

Cowhide

Full Grain Leather (Grade 1) has little to no blemishes that are sanded, buffed or chemically treated to hide flaws. It is supple and clean and consistent  in  color, with almost full surface yield. As shown below, full grain comes from the top layer of the hide–typically containing all of the grain; thus the term full grain. Some say that with use, full grain leather only becomes more beautiful and burnished (yet appreciation for a natural patina gained through wear and exposure is in the eye of the beholder).

Grains of Leather

Every pair of full grain leather shoes has some kinds of markings such as scars, insect bites, wrinkles, and veining which are natural characteristics of leather. Full grain hides have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed, versus corrected grain, to remove slight imperfections or natural marks of the hide surface.

Top Grain Leather (Grade 2) is slightly less consistent in color, but still has a high surface yield, with the leather appearing smooth and in very good condition, with only a few faults on the surface prominent enough to require some minimal corrections (i.e., snuffed or sanded).

Genuine Leather (Grade 3) means the product contains “some level” of leather. It is less consistent in color with a lower surface yield often due to wearing down the surface through sanding and buffing, along with sometimes noticeable stiffness created from surface treatments used to hide imperfections. Although suede is included in the above diagram, it is our opinion that suede stands alone in its unique presentation and should be omitted from the above illustration.

Belly Leather (Grade 4) is literally taken from the belly of the animal. It is loose and wrinkly with many aesthetic faults.

Bonded Leather (Ungraded) is made from leftover scraps that are ground and glued together in a way similar to vinyl manufacturing. Bible covers are usually made from bonded leather, which is weak and degrades rapidly.

B. Understand that leather is taken from different parts of the hide and some parts of the hide render a nicer appearance than other parts of the hide.

Diagram-of-Cut-Sections-of-Cattle-Hide1

Several shoe makers may get their leather from the same tannery, but can receive different parts of the hide. But most shoe makers receive a half hide or a whole hide and then decide which parts of the hide to use for their shoes or boots. The highest quality, i.e., “tightest” part of the hide is the spine area, or the center of the hide. The further you move away from the center of the cow down towards the stomach, the looser and more wrinkly and veiny the leather becomes.

rejected+pair

The shoe on the left is made with leather from the upper part of the hide, while the shoe on the right is made from the lower part of the hide

belly

This area of the shoe is likely made of leather taken from the belly section of the hide–mostly found in shoes priced under $300.00.

C. Notice the thickness of the leather. Thicker leathers may hold their form better, but are at times dense and less flexible. Some thinner leathers are more pliable and beautiful, but may wrinkle and wear more easily. While this rule of thumb may be applied broadly, it is absolutely not true with top grade leathers–which can be thin and strong, as well as thick and flexible.

D. Pay attention to the color consistency of a new shoe as a cue to leather quality. If a shoe has a patina, analyzing color variations is useless.

E. Does the outer part of the shoe appear to have a surface chemical treatment, indicated by stiffness or an unnatural sheen? Look for shoes that do not have a surface treatment to hide flaws.

F. Remember that whole-cut shoes are beautiful but are the most difficult to make. Whole-cut shoes have a full unbroken canvass that reveals each wrinkle and crease occurring on the shoe, while conversely, toe-caps / brogues show fewer wrinkles, since smaller pieces of leather comprise the total shoe, which leaves less surface area to be stressed and challenged.  Yet,as you can see with the  pair of John Lobb shoes (UK) below, even though the shoes are wrinkled, they are still quite beautiful.

john lobb

In regard to the subject of creasing (after wearing shoes for a while), most shoes will naturally have some level of creasing. Wrinkles and creases aren’t necessarily evil. Creasing will almost always occur to some degree on leather shoes because whenever stress is introduced to leather, by walking and bending the foot, the leather will respond by breaking down to some degree.

If there is a low bridge on the foot, it creates a vacant space in the shoe. Thus, with bending and movement, there is more stress and wear that occurs on the top of the shoe, as the foot is not completely “filling out” and stabilizing the shoe.

If wrinkles and creases stay in tact with no breaking or splitting occurring, then the outlook for the life of the shoe is still good.

2. IS THE SHOE ADEQUATELY COMFORTABLE?

foot

New shoes can feel tight and rub at the toes and the back of the heels, causing blisters and pain…until at last, the feet and the shoes find a place of conformity and comfort. Many quality shoes, custom and ready-to-wear alike, require a notoriously painful “break-in” period.

At times, custom shoes can be paradoxically difficult to break in, if the leather is especially thick or if shoes are made from strong hide cuts that are initially resistant to relaxing. Custom shoes also hug the feet closely for a more defined aesthetic look, which most of the time leaves practically no extra pockets-of-space for the feet.

This phenomenon of an expected break-in time may not be true for bespoke shoes crafted by Master boot makers specializing in orthopedics, such as Anthony Delos at Berluti or Dimitri Gomez.

Ready-to-wear shoes have been known to take less time to break in, since weaker leather may be used and because the shoes are generally roomier in order to deliver a more universal sizing scale for each specific shoe size.

Thus, while custom shoes are much more rewarding in the long run, ready-to-wear shoes have their advantages when time, money, and more immediate comfort is important. Yet, according to Paolo Scafora of the Neapolitan eponymous brand, most quality shoes require at least 24 full hours of wear before full comfort is experienced.

However, this 24-hour wear rule is not always applicable. If you find a RTW line that is compatible with your foot shape, then practically no break in time may be required. For example, Hugo swears by the Gaziano & Girling Deco RTW lines for his foot, which are for him, despite their beveled waist and sharp line, quite easy to wear from the get-go–requiring little, if any break-in time. In contrast, my Weston shoes took 20+ wears before I experienced comfort.

gaziano and girling deco 1

There are a few manufacturing tricks that some shoemakers use to make shoes more comfortable:

* Place a layer of foam cushioning (a technology called Lunarlon) inside the shoe prior to the sole being attached.

* Create an outer sole with “flex grooves”, or indented lines that help the sole bend with the movement of the foot.

* Install footbeds along the underside of the shoe at the bottom of the feet. Footbeds contain polyurethane that conforms to shape of the foot.

* Add a memory foam insert to the shoe.

* Use molded polyurethane, instead of leather, as a raw material for the outer sole, and inject rubber inserts in key areas to offer more flexibility in the front area.

If you have problems with shoe comfort, you may ask about these specific manufacturing methods in order to address your comfort needs (provided you have a knowledgeable sales person).

How to Evaluate Comfort ?

A. Make sure you bring the correct pair of socks to wear with the shoes you try on, so you can correctly evaluate the fit. After you try on the shoes, don’t take them off for another 10 – 15 minutes in order to identify potential pressure points. As many of us have learned the hard way, rushing into a buying decision without evaluating comfort is a mistake.

B. During the try-on, note where the pressure points are on the shoe and decide if the pain threshold is reasonable enough for a decent break-in time of around 20 wears or less. As you gain more experience in buying shoes, you will become more intuitive in knowing which shoes will break-in within a reasonable time, and which will not. Hopefully, if you are sized correctly, you will be lucky enough to have few, if any problems.

3. DOES THE SHOE HAVE AN OUTSTANDING APPEARANCE/DESIGN?

The entire shoe “last” (overall mold/shape of the shoe) is easier to analyze when you look at specific parts of the shoe.

Noticing the toe shape, lace or buckle closure, and the waist of the shoe (see examples below), is a great way to analyze which designs you prefer:

A. The toe shape is a defining factor that differentiates one shoe from the other. Do you prefer the elegant country-side look of a rounded toe on a Weston, or the sophisticated eagle-claw toe of a Corthay shoe?

Before getting into the subject of toe-shape, we would like to plead with all men to avoid shoes with toes that point skyward. Nothing says “cheap” louder than this look:

Avoid Pointy Toes

Avoid any toe-style that causes the shoes to warp upwards

That point aside, if you recognize a few toe styles that you like, then selecting a pair of shoes becomes easier:

Loding standard toe

Loding — standard toe

Alden, Rounded Toe

Alden — rounded toe

John Foster, pointed toe

John Foster — pointed toe

J. Fitzpatrick, Styled Toe

J. Fitzpatrick — chiseled toe

Cheaney - puff toe

Cheaney – puff toe

Corthay monk strap -- eagle claw toe

Corthay monk strap — eagle claw toe

B. Lace/Buckle Closure – Bespoke shoes typically have a complete lace closure, with no gaps in the leather sections where the laces meet–thus, almost fully hiding the tongue of the shoe, while RTW shoes have varying styles of lace closures.

Notice how the lace closure differs from one shoe to the next

C. The Waist – One of the most fascinating areas to examine on a pair of RTW shoes is the shoe waist. Most shoe aficionados are sure to be knowledgeable about this finer point of shoe design.

A beveled waist

A beveled waist

The beveled waist is something that RTW manufacturers have only recently been able to do well, since the machine created to create a defined waist is a recent invention. Even without the bevel, RTW companies are focusing more and more on cutting the waist further inward, and closer to the leather.

Generally speaking, the deeper the waist cut, the more sophisticated the shoe—although some men prefer the look and feel of the straighter waist cut.

Here are two examples of beveled waists by Riccardo Freccia Bestetti. The machine-made shoe is on the left and the handmade shoe is on the right :

Bestetti RTW et MTO2

Below, a defined waist cut — Meermin RTW:

meermin cut

And finally, a wider waist cut — Magnanni RTW

MagnanniShoes-Bottom

4. IS THE SHOE WELL-CRAFTED?

There are a few things to notice in order to compare the quality of one pair of shoes against another.

A. Note how the sole is attached to the upper:

Goodyear Welt Construction (machine-assist) — A welt is a thin strip of leather, rubber or plastic that is sewn around the perimeter of the shoe.

The sole, insole, and upper and welt are sewn together along the shoe’s perimeter (some debate that the newer definition of Goodyear construction should point out that the insole itself isn’t actually sewn at all–but rather the insole is cemented to a piece of canvas (aka “gemming”) and the canvass is actually the part that is stitched).

Goodyear constructed shoes are stiffer than Blake (below), but are very sturdy and long-lasting. If you look closely, you may be able to see the stitching on the outsole (outside) of a Goodyear welted shoe.

Goodyear welt

++ : Long-lasting, waterproof properties, easier to resole.
— : Costs more, less sleek than Blake shoes (even if some high-end manufacturers like Corthay or Gaziano & Girling produce extremely sleek Goodyear shoes).

Hand-Welted — Can be covered in a stand-alone article with overall welting construction described above. Almost all work is done through hand stitching with minimal use of glue (with the exception that the only machines used are the ones that do the job better than by hand) and no gemming. The number of companies that are strictly hand-welting are diminishing, but a few include Paolo Scafora, Mario Bemer, Aubercy, Stafano Bemer and Enzo Bonafe.

Blake Construction — The outer sole is directly stitched to the insole, making the shoe flexible and lightweight because the shoes do not need an additional intermediate layer connecting the shoe sole to the shoe upper. The Blake construction is generally more comfortable but less resistant to water and repeated wear.

blake constructed shoe++ : More immediate comfort, flexibility, sleeker looking shoes.

— : Much less waterproofing, highly difficult to resole, overall more fragile than Goodyear.

Rapid-Blake construction – Rapid-Blake is a synthesis of Goodyear and Blake methods. The stitching technique of Blake is combined with an extra midsole.

Although the construction may be considered most similar to Blake construction, when the additional midsole is added and stitched to the outsole, therein is the similarity to Goodyear construction. The benefit is that the extra midsole provides more cushion for the foot. Blake-rapid is used on a lot of Italian shoes and is also used on more rugged shoes for the comfort, enhanced waterproofing and sturdiness benefits.

++ : Sturdier with better waterproof properties than Blake.
— : Bulkier than pure Blake.

Goodyear construction is the general method used for a great number of quality ready-to-wear shoes.

For the approximately 5 – 10 percent of men that have their shoes resoled, a Goodyear constructed shoe is much easier to resole compared to Blake constructed shoes.

In order to resole a Goodyear shoe, the small strip of leather (the welt) that attaches the upper of the sole is completely removed, replaced and re-sewn into place. Resoling is more difficult for Blake shoes, as taking the shoe apart can cause damage to the bottom of the shoe and trying to line up the same stitch pattern in order to avoid making more holes in the leather, can be a tedious task.

Secondly, Goodyear construction is simply more sturdy. However, Blake shoes can have great aesthetic appeal, and if you don’t mind fewer overall “wears”, then Blake construction is a good option for those who place greater importance on sleek form and comfort over sturdiness.

note: The shoe uppers should be stitched and not glued to the outsoles, as is the case with some mass manufactured shoes. Adhesive construction will fall apart much faster than Goodyear or Blake constructed shoes. Goodyear constructed shoes can also be resoled fairly easily, prolonging shoe life and saving the cost of having to buy replacement shoes–a great alternative for those who love the look of a natural patina, developed with age and use.

B. Is the shoe constructed with adequate arch support for your foot? Feel inside the shoe and assess whether there is enough arch support for your foot. A quick subjective review is well worth the few seconds it takes to evaluate whether there is enough arch support in the shoe, or not.

C. Are there any faults to the shoe like mis-sewn areas that create creases or bumps that may aggravate the foot? Run your fingers inside the shoe and check for any obvious faults.

D. Are there any apparent visual flaws to the shoe? Look for scratches, dents and bumps that should not be present.

 

One article can never do the subject of men’s shoes the justice it deserves, but hopefully this information is a good start for newcomers who want to have a better idea of what they are buying before making a financial commitment.

We welcome any other tips from well-versed readers that may help those who are just learning about men’s shoe design and quality.

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RELATED ARTICLEParisian Gentleman’s Comprehensive Shoe Review and Recommendations

sources:

Saddlebackleather.com, “The Quality Story: A Lesson in Leather”

Dr. Jurgen Christner, “Technologies to Improve the Useful Area of Leather”. World Leather Journal

additional information:

A reader wrote us in response to this article with more in-depth information on a specific method sometimes used during bespoke shoemaking.

We’d like to share this information with those who are more advanced on the subject:

temporary basting bespoke shoe making

Quote from owner of these bespoke shoes: The photograph shows them [bespoke shoes] in an early stage, ready for a trial. The upper leather is “braced” (hand-stitched to the insole (the same thing as “basting” in tailoring.).

If the fit is correct, the shoemaker will stitch in the welt, removing the bracing as he goes along. If the fit is wrong, the last will get adjusted (either increased or decreased where it is needed.) In this case the bracing gets undone (maybe partially) and the upper will be re-lasted over the altered last.