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BESPOKE SHOES

HENRY MAXWELL
W.S. FOSTER & SON

Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesI know that it is wrong to covet. But the shoe in the window of the shop in Jermyn Street was so beautiful that I could not help it. It was a black semi-brogue, of supreme elegance and clearly hand made. Yet what fascinated me, and did so over several years on my many perambulations down the Street – which is so handy a thoroughfare when one needs to collect a few shirts and then lunch at The Ritz – was the toe-cap, from which the colour appeared to have been bleached by the sun. The effect was that the shoe, although pristine and gleaming, appeared to be antique. Eventually, the coveting overcame me and the decision was made: I had to have some shoes like this. Thus I came to enter the door of 83 Jermyn Street, London, S.W.1., the home of Henry Maxwell and W.S. Foster & Son, makers of exquisite footwear.

The two firms came together in 1999. Henry Maxwell is the senior by 90 years, having been founded in 1750, in the reign of George II. By the time Foster & Son began to trade, in 1840, Queen Victoria had been our sovereign for three years. This, then, is a place of tradition and history – and all the better for that, say I. There is something very reassuring about the presence of Royal Warrants on the walls of a shop. Portrait of Henry Maxwell, Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesAnd it is a very pleasant shop, with mahogany tables and chairs upholstered in (what else?) leather. There is a display of impressive spurs, for Mr Maxwell (whose portrait I reproduce for your edification) started as a spurrier, before branching out into the making of riding boots. There is also a cabinet of other leather goods, for folk of discernment come here not only to have their bespoke shoes made, but also for new bespoke luggage, for the repair of their old luggage and for good shoes of the ready-to-wear sort.

Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesI had here a sense of the timelessness of good taste. I therefore expected to find the establishment in the care of persons of good taste – and my expectation was fulfilled. My photograph shows Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson and Sarah Adlam, the Chairman and Managing Director of the company. Both of them are keenly aware of the remarkable heritage of which they are guardians and both are fiercely enthusiastic to carry it forward.

If you like the films, you might be interested to know that Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Fred Astair, Bing Crosby and Cary Grant were all shod by these companies. Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesTheir lasts are among the vast number stored on the premises. My picture shows a few of them, belonging to past and present customers. Each is different from its neighbours, and each was made by a skilled craftsman. Which brings me to Terry Moore.

Mr Moore (pictured) comes from Essex and has been a last-maker for over half a century. The workshop on the first floor of 83 Jermyn Street is his domain. Here he fashions the wooden last which imitates the shape of the customer’s foot and over which the finest leather – from the Freudenberg Company in Germany – is shaped and patterned, before the sole of English oak bark-tanned leather is fitted.Mr Terry Moore, Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, Shoes In talking to him, I encountered that modesty and quiet determination to produce the very best which is the hallmark of the master craftsman.

He drew around my feet in his pattern book and then examined each foot carefully, noting its shape and peculiarities. Like tailors, he explained to me, shoemakers have their own words to describe customers’ characteristics. ‘Pes Caves’, for example, means a highly-arched foot. I will spare you the detailed description of my own feet – suffice it to say that it was noted in Mr Moore’s book. We came to the matter of style. At this point I walked across the shop and took the very shoe which had been the object of my admiration for so many years. “I want them exactly like this,” I said. So it was inscribed: semi-brogue, fiddle-back waist (i.e. the underneath to be shaped like a violin), metal quarter heel (so important, if one wishes to ‘click’ on the pavement), two rows of nails around the toe (to reduce the wear), black, with faded toe-cap.

I know of no other company which does this ‘fading’, so I asked about it. It began, apparently, after some shoes were left in the sunny shop window for too long. They faded. Customers began to ask for shoes ‘like those in the window’. So a technique was devised, using solvents, to imitate the effect of prolonged exposure to the sunlight. The ‘fading’ of my shoes would be extended along the sides, as if it had occurred naturally. We call making such happy discoveries by accident ‘serendipity’. Here serendipity had served the cause of beautiful shoes.

Shoes at Fitting stage, Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesA few months passed and I was called in for the fitting. The shoes, without their soles, were already looking good (see picture). I stood in them for a couple of minutes, while Terry Moore carefully examined the fit. Then I was off for lunch.

Finally, after a few more months, the message came. My shoes were ready. I hurried along to Jermyn Street and there they were. I put them on and walked around the shop five times, to ensure that they were comfortable. They were. You will see from the pictures that they are deliciously attractive. The craftsmanship is evident and the finish… well, the finish is quite superb. The ‘fading’ has been brilliantly done, and makes the shoes look very special indeed. I have also discovered that it provides an unexpected bonus, for these shoes can be worn with all sorts of clothes, both those requiring black shoes and those demanding brown.

The cost? £1,650, including VAT, for the shoes, and £250 for the specially made wooden trees. Considering the craftsmanship and expertise involved in their making, I consider this to be good value.

Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, Shoes

The moral of my tale is simple. Do not covet. Take yourself off to 83 Jermyn Street and order some bespoke shoes for yourself. And, if you want to cause a bit of coveting among your friends, have them ‘faded’.

Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, ShoesHenry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, Shoes Henry Maxwell WS Foster & Son, Shoes


ADDRESSES

HENRY MAXWELL
W.S. FOSTER & SON

83 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JD, England.
Telephone +44 (0)207 930 5385
Fax +44 (0)207 839 3803
www.wsfoster.co.uk

Francis Bown 2004
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