x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ahead of an exhibition of John Lobb shoes, a look at the bespoke designs beloved in the Middle East

Lobb's latest shoe collection will go on display this week at the brand's store in Dubai Mall.

From left, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Guillaume de Seynes, an executive with John Lobb, and Mohamed Ali Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties.
From left, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, Guillaume de Seynes, an executive with John Lobb, and Mohamed Ali Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties.

When a customer approached Patrick Verdillon to place an order early last year, the development director of men's shoemakers John Lobb's Paris atelier was not quite sure how to take it. After all, a pair of Lobb bespoke shoes costs upwards of Dh26,000, boots as much as Dh79,000, and take up to six months to be handcrafted by a team of just 15 working out of small, quiet rooms on a side street. And here was one man wanting 56 pairs - or one-tenth of the company's tiny annual production.

He took the order, of course, and the artisanal process of shoemaking began: the customer's foot was measured by the fitter, who, like a tailor, used his own experienced eye to work in adjustments for the perfect fit; ideas for the customer's own unique shoes were discussed; details were designed and leathers selected by the clicker; a beechwood last was hand-sculpted; and on to this, the pattern-cutter would begin to realise the final shoe, put together by the closer and the maker.

It is weeks of work by master craftspeople. Then, six months later, the customer at last turned up for a second fitting. He was happy. He had lost eight kilograms.

"I had to say, 'Well, congratulations, but for us that is a disaster'," recalls Verdillon. "And he could see the disappointment on my face. So he told me that his plan was to lose 12kg in all. At that point, I told him 'good luck' and to come back when he had finished losing all he wanted to. And that then we'd have to start all over again."

Such is the precision of the bespoke shoe experience at this level that, since weight loss can affect the shape of the foot and so the fit of the shoe, anything less than perfection is not permitted to leave Lobb's premises.

It cannot have been an easy decision, even for a company that has seen a 25 per cent jump in orders year on year, and has plans to double production over the next three years. That still only means 1,000 pairs made a year, against 20,000 pairs of ready-to-wear shoes produced in the company's factory in Northampton, UK. Even that is trifling against Church's 700,000 pairs a year, or Tod's three million.

Small wonder perhaps, then, that John Lobb bespoke draws a certain kind of clientele.

"We get some crazy shoe fans who know everything there is to know about Lobb and take a year to decide what they want," says Verdillon. "But we also get customers who just want to try the bespoke experience, or who put a little money aside every month with the intention of just having one pair."

Some clients are buying into history - the John Lobb name, after all, dates to 1863, when, back in the UK, John Lobb was named official bootmaker to the Prince of Wales. Expansion - including the first store in Paris in 1902 - led to the company becoming part of the Hermès Group in 1976 and continued with the creation of some footwear icons along the way, including the William, a double-buckle shoe, and the Lopez loafer. This later launched Lobb into ready-to-wear (while a separate bespoke business run by the Lobb family continues to run in London). In 2009, it opened its first shop in the Middle East, in Dubai.

Others are buying into the olde-worlde customer service that most often survives in long-established companies. One customer, for example, is so keen to keep his identity secret that no record bears his real name, and he is known to all but the most senior executives in the company only as James Bond - fittingly enough, since Ian Fleming's secret agent was also a Lobb customer, not to mention Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet other clients are buying into longevity; the Paris atelier recently received a 1974 pair for refurbishment made out of antelope skin, now long since banned.

"And I think that's the best definition of luxury now - a product that lasts, that you can maintain and repair, something that is really non-disposable," says John Lobb's chief executive Renaud Paul-Dauphin, who sees further growth potential for the brand in slowly developing small leather goods and other accessories, as well as an Italian-made range of sneakers and even slippers - or what the company refers to as "house shoes". This, at least, fits with the idea of John Lobb being a quintessentially English company, even if its bespoke comes with a Parisian flavour.

"But there's a growing demand for bespoke shoes too because of the relationship to the product - clients want their shoes to be exceptionally comfortable, and bespoke is as much about the fit," he adds. "And more and more people also want to be creators of their own style, which bespoke allows. Of course, there is a price to pay for that - Lobb shoes are expensive because to make them is costly. It's always going to be a niche market, not least because the skills to make such products are in short supply as well. But more people see the value in it."

They are, however, perhaps not prepared for the exhaustive decisions of going bespoke. After all, John Lobb has 35 different shades of black leather alone to choose from. But then the benefit is footwear exactly as the client wants it: one heard of a king of England hiding gold in a secret compartment in the heel of his shoes, so wanted the same replicated in order to house his mobile phone; another has requested Lobb make his wife a pair of riding boots to match her Hermès handbag - in white crocodile, at a cost of Dh160,000; and another wanted his initials brogued on to his shoes' toes - and insisted on the pair being remade when Lobb made them with the initials facing outward. He wanted the initials so he could look at them.

"But then the idea is that a pair of Lobb bespoke shoes are just your shoes, and once you take possession, they're not Lobb's anymore," offers Verdillon. "It's why there's just one word 'Lobb', stamped on the sole, and no other branding."

Whatever the motivation, no matter how stylish or how wealthy the client, one prerequisite is harder to come by in these times of instant gratification: patience. "Bespoke is a way of making shoes that doesn't really fit with today's way of thinking, and occasionally we get customers who point out that they have paid a lot of money and want their shoes now," adds Verdillon. "But it just can't be done - craft takes time. For some, the idea of having to wait six months to get something is just impossible to grasp. Others know it's worth the wait."

And that, unexpectedly, even includes the chief executive of the company. With a background heading up Hermès's tableware division, Paul-Dauphin was no shoe connoisseur before joining John Lobb three years ago, but inevitably has fast become one. "I now understand what goes into them, and you need that to deserve them," he says. "But I'm not a customer yet. I have four kids going to university and the time is not right for me to be buying bespoke shoes. But it will come."

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