A theatrical costumier friend of mine once had Peter O'Toole in the fitting room. He was a cantankerous customer, fussy and impatient. After half an hour, the siren song of the Fitzrovia pubs became too much for him, and he threw on his cape and bolted from the session. "Mr. O'Toole," she shouted after him. "What about your shoes?"
"My lasts are with Lobb," he huffed, and was gone.
Of all the status symbols the rich can acquire, none is quite as distinctive as having one's lasts with Lobb. John Lobb, bootmaker, has been fashioning some of the world's finest footwear from 9 St. James's St., the former bachelor residence of Lord Byron by the gate tower of St. James's Palace, for five generations.
The painstaking process, from measuring the foot, to fashioning the wooden last, to building the shoe around it, has not changed in all that time. It takes six to eight months to build your first pair of Lobb shoes, and customers are willing to wait.
Jonathon Lobb, the thirtysomething present proprietor, greets me wearing a simple cobbler's apron. Although Lobb shoes can be purchased ready-made (through Hermès in New York and Paris), these are poor cousins to a handmade pair, for which a pilgrimage to the St. James's wood-panelled shop is required.
The entrance resembles a shoe museum, with relics from its many customers among the great and the good. The 1898 wooden lasts for Queen Victoria's feet are on display, surprisingly small and dainty. King George V had a hammer toe. You can flip through an album of paper outlines of the feet of Count Otto von Bismarck, Somerset Maugham, Guglielmo Marconi, Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx. The Duke of Windsor abdicated in a Lobb shoe. Soviet spy Guy Burgess continued ordering Lobb shoes from exile in Russia. No problem -- his lasts were with Lobb.
Above the doorway are the shop's triple royal warrants (Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles), the only establishment in the world to have all three; there are many foreign royal warrants as well, ranging from the former Emperor of Ethiopia to the present King of Thailand.
For all this, Lobb is courteous and helpful, even modest. His father trained him as a lastmaker and he considers his apprenticeship to be "ongoing." He takes me down to the workrooms, where a handful of craftsmen are carving lasts, cutting leather and building soles. They, too, are lacking in airs; I ask a master maker his opinion of factory-made rubber soles: "They're all right," he replies. "Especially for mucking about."
The first step in making a Lobb shoe is a session with the fitter, who takes precise measurements and runs his trained fingers over the foot to notice any distinctive features. This information is sent to the last maker, who carves a matching last from hornbeam, beech or maple wood; the lasts are updated with wooden or leather plugs over the wearer's lifetime to match any changes to the foot.
Lobb shows me the racks of wooden lasts in the basement, about 11,000 in all, sorted by name and number. He asks me not to divulge any customers' names, but I do notice, in addition to the humdrum princesses and earls, are many names from the Arabic, Russian and Japanese.
The hides are selected by a craftsman called a clicker, who takes into account such factors as the purpose of the shoe and the wearer's weight; no less than eight types of leather are used in each upper alone from the 50 leathers kept in stock. A closer cuts the uppers and stretches them over the last, which are then sent to a maker who attaches them to a crafted insole and sole of English tanned oak-bark leather. The result not so much fits like a glove, as it makes a glove feel as though it fits like a shoe.
Lobb tells me his most popular shoe is the conventional Oxford, especially as a first choice. There are about 60 styles on offer, ranging from riding boots to household slippers, and they will make any shoe to custom order -- while I was there, craftsman were copying a Kansas cowboy boot for one customer.
As a final question, I ask Lobb what a pair will cost, and he answers without blinking an eye, "Eighteen hundred and fifty pounds plus VAT." That is more than $4,500, for the least expensive pair. Prices range upward to $13,250. That, and a six-month wait. But when set beside a factory pair of shoes made in minutes, he reminds me, a Lobb "is a Rembrandt compared with a penny print."