Interview: A Shoemaker - William Efe Laborde
The first time I recall having the idea of bespoke tailoring was actually when I was around 15 or 16. I was at a French-American lycee in Bordeaux so they had this American tradition of the prom at the end of the year. We had to dress up but I didn't have a suit. My dad lent me his and it was too big. I just looked like a clown and I thought I hate this, wouldn't it be nice if I was living in London, where there would be a little shop with a mahogany interior, cloth from floor to ceiling and this little hunched over tailor, making beautiful suits. One day, I'm going go to that shop and get that suit because I look like a clown right now.
I went to Bristol University and fell in love with England. But after I graduated I couldn’t afford to stay. I moved home to Bordeaux for a few months but I was desperate to get out of my parents' house. A friend messaged me and said “we've just moved to London, we need a flatmate. Do you want to join us?” so 3 days later I moved to London, having only been there a couple of times in my life.
I got a job as a porter at Bonham’s auction house which threw me into the world of classic menswear. I remember this guy who came in with his trophy wife, he must have been about 70, with a massive cigar, and he was just so beautifully dressed. Really classic, he had a very slender silhouette, and he was wearing these beautiful drape cut suits, which framed him so well. He was walking around with such ease. I thought this guy, he’s nailed it. I couldn't put my finger on what I was seeing, but I couldn't help staring at this guy, trying to figure it out.
After a year I moved to Richard Green which was a private art gallery. And then my education really began. A friend took me to Jermyn Street one evening, it must have been 7pm, the sun was setting and all the lights were coming up in the windows. And I just thought “oh my god, this is great”. That's how I remember, very vividly, discovering bespoke tailoring.
I would sit in the gallery reading menswear blogs. That sort of thing is super common now but in 2012 sites like Permanent Style were just starting. They were at the same stage as me, we caught the wave at the same time so it was really interesting learning and researching.
I loved the cut of Anderson & Sheppard, their soft shoulders and drape jackets but I couldn’t afford it. I spent a lot of time in New & Lingwood, buying accessories and I befriended a chap who worked there called Michael. He was a proper 60’s mod, he would walk up Duke Street with a cane and black suede Chelsea boots. And he was just very smart. So I told him that my dream was to own a blue double-breasted suit. He says, “Oh, yes, sir. Yeah, I think I've got what you need.” He went downstairs and returned with an end of the line suit, about four sizes too big. But he completely recut it, for about £80, and it ended up fitting so wonderfully. I’ll never forget Mrs Green saying to me “you’re looking very chic today”. My first Mayfair suit - I still have it!
Alterations led to my first full bespoke suit. Mr Green needed a lot of alterations on his suits so I was sent, on his behalf, to a very high-end alterations tailor near Savile Row who put me in touch with Whitcomb & Shaftesbury.
By now, I knew exactly what I wanted: a classic blue workhouse suit with black horn buttons, something I could wear 5 days a week for work.
And so it began.
After that, I went loopy and got a tan and blue puppy tooth in an Anderson & Sheppard wool/silk blend.
I was working so much at the gallery that I didn’t have time for much else so I had a disposable income, and it all went on tailoring. And I have developed a great bespoke wardrobe, with pieces which are 10+ years old now.
After sorting out my suits, I turned to shoes. I bought a pair from Barker which were made from what I now know is bookbinder leather. It is a really bad corrected grain leather. In the summer, my feet would swell because these shoes were not fitting properly. I would come home with blisters, bleeding feet, and I thought I cannot wear these shoes anymore. I was in so much pain.
A pair of Edward Green shoes, which I'm still wearing today, ended up being my first proper investment. And like with tailoring, once I started I just kept going. I love learning, digging into something, investigating. It is why I love art. You can really research so much of a painting and the artist. It's like being a detective. And with shoes, it's the same, you can delve back in time and read 300 year old books. Because nothing has changed. It's all there. You can go back to the source material. I’ve got books from 1720 when academics in Paris were compiling the first encyclopaedia. They were trying to compile all the knowledge of science and the arts so they were sending out teams to record techniques. The result is a broad, but step by step observation of the technique that shoemakers used at the time.
I’ve been making shoes for about 8 years now. I began by observing, asking questions, seeking out the guys who’ve been doing it for a long time. I took some evening classes at Carreducker. They had a workshop on Chancery Lane with 4 or 5 students at a time. It was people who were interested in shoemaking or repairing, everyone had different interests but all were working in the trade.
On the whole I found the trade pretty welcoming. Most of shoemakers are kind of hard to find. So by the time you come knocking, they know that you've already done your research a bit, you’ve already jumped through some hurdles. Because it's a hard craft, and it will test you. You’re bending over, you’re cutting yourself, you’re hitting yourself with hammers, nails, making expensive mistakes. So there's a stage at which if you've jumped over those hurdles, people are ready to welcome you. Whereas back in the day when shoemaking was far more common, I read about guys working behind curtains, so they wouldn't share their techniques with their colleagues.
Making a shoe for someone is a bit like tailoring. You meet the person and need to make yourself an idea of them; their physiology, what type of shoes they wear, what their taste is.
Then you measure the foot, using a method which is actually super basic.You literally draw around the foot for an outline, take two lines for the arch, five circumference measurements and then make notes, like a strong ball, or maybe they have a fleshy foot or maybe a very bony heel.
Using those basic things we create a stylised wooden sculpture of the foot.
Starting from a rough block, I use a stock knife to get off all the surplus and rasp it down and get it to shape. Then depending on the customer, I will either get it fellowed which creates a symmetrical last that I can then add that foot’s intricacies too, because no one has a pair of feet. Or if the customer’s feet are extremely varied then I will repeat the entire process to make 2 separate lasts.
There is usually a bit of an education when it comes to materials. Most people don't know what good leather is. There are so many variants, veg tan, chrome tan; horse leather, box calf, goat, camel; all the different types of grains. Most people are clueless about it nowadays. And there are fewer and fewer good tanneries. Some of the finest skins come from a tannery which closed in 2004 but I've just found 15 skins from it. I had to beg and plead with the seller to get them.
In terms of what someone should choose, it depends on the use of the shoe. Aniline dyed leather will be more water resistant, veg tan leather will be very supple. Goat skin can be treated to get a very noticeable grain. Wax calf leather is a suede treated with wax to give the appearance of a smooth leather. It is used for riding boots or country boots, if you scratch the skins on brambles as you walk, it is possible to brush the hairs back into place in a way which can only be done with suede.
Shoe making demands a lot of precision, because you're working with these very valuable materials.
You need a razor sharp knife. When the knife is sharp it will cut through the material smoothly, otherwise the material will move with you and you will slip and scratch the leather. The first pair I made caught four or five cuts of the knife. Since you can’t unpick leather, I will make a sample shoe for a new customer using the edges of a skin which usually have marks or stretches on, to check the last.
You can’t cut corners with shoemaking. If you do, you might as well buy a ready-to-wear shoe. The point of a bespoke shoe is the details, the craft, the handiwork.
It is like looking at Rubens. He had a huge workshop so looking at his work, one question which comes up a lot is who actually painted it? But you can always tell if it was a student or a master because the quality isn’t as good. The brushstrokes matter.
Whereas with modern art it seems to be idea over construction. For example Damien Hirst, he doesn’t actually make a lot of his art, it is produced by his workshop. But it doesn’t seem to matter to people. Look at NFT’s. It is distilling artwork into ownership rather than a visual medium. This is why my interest in art peaks at the 1900s. With Andy Warhol or even Picasso, selling prints which are just signed off by the artist, there is no skill involved so it bears no interest for me.
At Richard Green there was a client who would buy Old Masters paintings and have the gold frame copied, at a cost of thousands of pounds. He would then have a copy made up to put in the frame and he would put the original in a vault somewhere to protect it. That never made any sense to me. The beauty of the painting is the way light catches on a canvas, the texture the oil paint has.
To me bespoke tailoring and shoemaking are the same sort of thing. You can’t fake it.
This is why I love shoemaking so much. It is tangible: the steps have stayed the same for 200 years. I discovered I had a great grandfather who was a shoemaker, and when I sit at my board I think gosh he must have done exactly the same steps as me.
When I was a kid I used to dream about the future, of watches which can make phone calls like James Bond. And now it’s all here. So much of our lives now would be totally unrelatable to people 40 years ago. I think that’s why so many people are turning to vinyl and handmade . These are familiar human things which we are moving away from in so many areas of our lives. So we need other things to compensate for that, to bring back familiarity and human touch. We need that human element. It’s reassuring.
More information can be found at: Efe Laborde