READY TO WEAR SHOES
NEW & LINGWOOD
Patience, time and money. Sometimes a gentleman lacks one or more of this demanding triumvirate – particularly when it comes to buying a new pair of shoes. Thus is he driven into the netherworld of prêt-à-porter. But it need not be all that nether. So come with me to a place where buying ready-to-wear shoes can be a pleasurable substitute for the lengthy process of acquiring real bespoke.
We are in London and we are in Jermyn Street. No surprise so far, then. At the end of Piccadilly Arcade we enter the noble premises of New & Lingwood and climb to the first floor. Those of you who think of New & Lingwood only in terms of shirts, pyjamas and dressing gowns must think again. In 1972 N & L took over the ancient boot-making firm of Poulson Skone and thereafter became one of England’s foremost bespoke shoemakers. Now it is the proud boast of the Chairman, Anthony Spitz, that the quality which marks the company’s bespoke shoes is also built into its two ranges of ready-to-wear shoes. (Prices per pair are £250-£300 for the ‘New & Lingwood’ range and £400 for the ‘Poulson Skone’ range.)
As I sat in the clubby fitting area (a carpet of deep red, lots of dark wood and the heady aroma of leather and wax polish), I wondered for what I should be looking in a pair of ready-made shoes. Colin Austin rode to my rescue. A South African (from Johannesburg), Colin has worked at New & Lingwood as a specialist shoe fitter for 4 years, and has been in the shoe business for 17. Let me pass on to you his tips.
Always insist on leather uppers and leather soles.
Examine the quality of the leather. The finer the grain, the younger the animal from which it was taken and the more it has cost the shoemaker. All the shoes at New & Lingwood are made from calfskin.
Do not be impressed by shoes which come from the box already very shiny. They have probably been made of cheaper leather which has been supplied with its shine at the tannery. The initial appearance should normally be dull. (More on this later.)
Look carefully at the side and bottom of the shoes and buy only shoes which have been properly welted. The welt is the piece of leather attached to the bottom of the shoe, to which the sole is sewn around the edge. (A false welt is an abomination: the sole is stuck to the shoe and then an attempt is made to simulate the appearance of stitching. Ugh!)
Peer inside the shoes. Are they completely lined with leather (good) or has canvas been used for the toe area (not so good)?
With these handy points in mind I surveyed the 35 designs on offer. Some had false laces and were actually slip-ons with side gussets. Such conceits appeal to me, but finally –fuddy-duddy to the end – I rejected them as too racy. So I reverted to my usual: a pair of Oxford semi-brogues in black. (I observe, as I travel the world, that – among persons who wear decent shoes – the English are the most wedded to black. Outside England, brown seems to be much more favoured. I wonder why?) They were from the Poulson Skone collection and, needless to say, sailed through all the above tests with patrician ease.
Colin gave me two further tips, this time about shoe maintenance. I have always attended to my shoes assiduously with wax polish; indeed it has been my custom for several years to polish any new pair of shoes twenty times before I step out in them. But, of course, while this helps to protect the leather, it does not feed it and keep it supple. So Colin supplied me with a bottle of hide food and suggested that each month the cream be applied to the shoes, left for half an hour, then wiped off and the shoes re-polished.
His second recommendation concerns shoes which have been soaked in the rain. Do not immediately put in your shoe trees. (New & Lingwood supplied me with an excellent pair of trees, in properly unvarnished wood.) Instead, stuff in newspapers, leave the shoes for 24 hours and then remove the paper, insert the trees and leave for a further 5 days.
Finally, a paragraph which is not for the squeamish. As we noted earlier, the initial appearance of good shoes will be dull. But neither you nor I wish to wear dull shoes. The answer at New & Lingwood is the traditional one – spittle. Not for nothing has the phrase ‘spit and polish’ entered our language. It seems that the application of saliva and vigorous, prolonged rubbing does give to leather an intensely deep and luminous gloss. I left my new shoes with Colin overnight and, when I collected them the next day, they had been transformed. The shoes purred quality.
Not bespoke, no. But when patience, time and money need to be guarded, these shoes convinced me that New & Lingwood can provide a most pleasing alternative.