By Richard Carreño
[WC News Service]
I might be in the running for this year's Imelda Marcos Prize for Acquiring Too Many Shoes. JV, Men's Division. I have almost fifty pairs. In all designs, colours, and materials. Wing-tips, cap-toes, monk straps, bowlers, duck boots, boat shoes, Chelsea boots, hiking boots, an assortment of slip-on moccasins, rubber field boots, tennis shoes, brogues, and lots of things in suede. And opera slippers. More than I need, of course. But that's a bit beside the point, init?
I have my favourites; usually preferring lace-up Oxfords.
Apart from sport shoes, my choices are mostly all in leather in either black or brown. Though I do have blue pair of suede wing-tips and a sort of orangery-coloured pair of Oxfords. (I got these in Madrid).
All are in name-tagged in wood (mostly cedar) shoe trees. All are polished to a spit-shine. This kind of maintenance is labour-intensive. I use good tools. Horse-hair brushes and the like. Like John O'Hara, I do the polishing myself, finding the cleaning and brushing, in an odd way, as O'Hara did, relaxing and therapeutic. And I won't deny taking pleasure in the wafting aroma of boot wax that fills the air of my dressing room.
When done, laces are tied. Buckles are buckled. And the shoes are queued in rows, by colour and style. They shine like Horse Guards on parade.
Of course, I buy shoes for utility. Slippers. Snow boots. Canvas trainers for the gym. Espadrilles for the beach. But mostly, I buy for variety. And I have a strict regimen for wear. Suede only in the winter; slip-ons, in the summer.
When I was very young, my father would take me for shoe fittings to Best & Co. on Fifth Avenue (don't look it up; it's no longer there), where my feet were X-rayed for size (yes, X-rayed!) by an infernal machine, whereupon they were inserted in a brand new pair of Buster Browns. Shortly thereafter, I graduated to laced Oxfords purchased at 346 Madison Avenue, where Brooks Brothers' main store was located. (Still is).
It wasn't until boarding school and university that I had any notion that some shoes were actually not Oxfords (my introduction to Bass Weejuns, don't you know?), and that they could be purchased anywhere other than that place on Madison Avenue.
Again, my father, Ralph, provided the introduction. From his business trips to London in the 1950s, he had started experimenting with English suiting and footwear. Not surprisingly, a bit of that fashion migration rubbed off on me.
I got to thinking about all this when I was recently in the Big Smoke, which is just as about close as one can get to a men's shoe capital. Its epicentre is in St. James's, a neighbourhood that boasts a bulwark of shirtmakers, tailors, and bootmakers. Be they hand-finished ready-made models, or measure-to-measure or bespoke versions, some of the best, if not the best, men's footwear are found in these precincts of central London.
Over the years, beginning in the 1960s, I began to seek out English bench-made shoes. On my visits to Britain, I picked up shoes from high-end mass producers, like Church's and Grenson. From time to time, adjusting to budget constraints, I'd dip into more down-market brands at Clark's and Marks & Spencer.
The closest I ever got to owning a rarefied bespoke job by the legendary by John Lobb Ltd. (besides walking by its storefront in St. James's Street, that is) is a curious relic, an elk bone, a gift from the late Eric Lobb of the eponymous shop. As for being shod by Lobb, that privilege goes to the likes of the Duke of Edinburgh and Frank Sinatra and such fashion-plates as the late Richard Merkin and George Frazier. As for my elk bone, used to scrap crud off riding boots and refinish their exterior, I keep that in my shoebox. (Yes, I have hunt boots, as well. Not from Lobb, needless to say).
But I do have some gorgeous remnants, two pairs of shoes, some slippers, and a briefcase, from another luxury, London-based shop, Peal & Co., however. In its day, Peal was older than Lobb and, arguably, more prestigious.
The brown leather attaché, a 'lid over box' model,' a favourite of that now-extinct species of bowler-hatted City businessmen, is a 1950s hand-me-down from my father. My shoes and slippers have a more nebulous pedigree.
'Nebulous' because these items were actually manufactured by a successor company to Peal, which itself declared insolvency in 1965 after almost 200 years of serving the high and mighty, even becoming in latter years the 'world's largest bespoke shoemaker.' An indication of the company stature, in years shortly before its closing, those stepping into Peal shoes ranged from the Duke of Windsor and Lord Mountbatten to Steve McQueen and Fred Astaire. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were also devotees. John O'Hara, himself a loyal customer, mourned the company's end, almost equating it to a death in the family, in a syndicated newspaper column.
More important, though, than simply the retention of the brand after 1965 -- at least to those of us who care about such things -- was that latter-day 'Peal' shoes were produced from original lasts that were hand-carved by former Peal craftsmen. Hundreds of these lasts were stored, quite anonymously, in Peal's workshop on Jeddo Road in Acton, in West London.
Final instalments of the tale of Peal's 'survival' gets somewhat complicated, and involves, interestingly enough, the purveyors of my first adult shoes. Again, Brooks Brothers.
For some years before Peal's demise, Brooks had long-term arrangement for the exclusive distribution of Peal goods in the United States. When the company fell on hard times (due to a combination of declining trade and a shortage of skilled craftsmen), Brooks sensed an opportunity to perpetuate the Peal legend, market value, and product recognition by purchasing the company's brand -- and lasts. (These included the molds for its iconic Raywood wing-tip slip-on and its velvet opera shoes, notable for their fox head design on the toe-box).
In turn, Brooks conscripted two English shoe manufacturers, Crockett and Jones and Foster & Son, well-respected in their own right, to produce ready-made versions of the former Peal designs. Foster & Son also made good use of Terry Moore, Peal's most senior last maker, who just retired in 2011.
Any physical presence of Peal is long gone, as I learned during my recent London visit. Through World War II, the company maintained a high-profile shop at 487 Oxford Street, not far from Oxford Circus and Regent Street. That building was long ago razed. In 1959, the shop moved to premises at 48 Wigmore Street, down the street from Wigmore Hall. Today, that storefront houses Nicholas Anthony, high-end kitchen designers.
On one of my last days in the Big Smoke, I was wandering along St. James's Street. Approaching Lobb at 9 St. James's, I ducked in to buy some shoe polish.