n a sea of well dressed businessmen, it’s often brutally apparent when good taste doesn’t extend below the ankles. As the late George Frazier once stated, “Wanna know if a guy is well dressed? Look down.” But as much as Frazier advocated that shoes make the man, some of us simply don’t know how to spot quality in footwear. Although many resources attempt to highlight these features, most of them lack the detail needed to aid informed decisions.
There are three main areas you should focus on when evaluating fine dress footwear: leather quality, construction methods, and design and fit.
Think of leather like your skin. It is a hide and its quality can be most accurately discerned though the density of the fibers in the grain. Very simply put, the higher the density of the fibers, the more durable the leather. For our purposes, we can focus on the processes that produce the 4 main types of leather used for shoemaking - full grain, top grain, split grain, and bonded leather.
On the very low end of the spectrum you have bonded leather and split grain. Both are made from less desirable parts of the hide and neither make for durable or beautiful shoes. Although these leathers don’t offer much in terms of longevity, they’re used by many low end shoemakers because the leather is cheap to produce and can be masked to mimic full grain leather. Choosing shoes made out of either of these leathers is a mistake that will be evident after only a few months of wear.
On the higher end, we have top grain and full grain leather. Top grain is what’s left after you sand down the imperfections of full grain leather, like hair follicles or scars. Although better than the two methods mentioned above, top grain leather removes most of the qualities that make full grain leather great, such as the ability to revive the leather after corrosion or deterioration and the capacity to develop a rich patina. Full grain leather’s dense fiber structure add to it’s durability, breathability, and moisture wicking capabilities which make it the strongest and most ideal leather for making shoes. Although more expensive, full grain leather must be the starting point when considering the purchase of quality footwear.
The next area of evaluation is the construction method of the shoe or how the shoe is assembled. There are literally dozens of methods for attaching a shoe’s upper to its sole and each method has its relative merits and disadvantages. The most widely used methods today are cement construction, Blake Rapid, Goodyear, and hand welted with a leather holdfast.
In cement construction, the sole of the shoe is applied to the upper using a shoe glue or cement. This method offers very little structural integrity and isn’t a good base for recrafting. Generally you want to avoid cement construction in dress shoes.
Blake Rapid and Goodyear construction are each considered to be a step up from cement, although the integrity of the assembly depends heavily on the manufacturer. As these methods are both lengthier and more complicated, some manufacturers “cut corners” by using cheaper synthetic materials. This can ultimately compromise the overall structural integrity of the shoe which is one of the reasons that Blake Rapid and Goodyear construction are often misleading.
A more telling guide when comparing shoes is to take note of the construction method and then to base subsequent observations of the shoes on things such as leather quality, design, and raw materials. In general, use of better raw materials and more meticulous construction go hand in hand, although that is not always the case. Sometimes raw materials are difficult to spot as they’re embedded in the shoe, but you should do your best to avoid synthetic toe and heel caps, bonded leather insoles, synthetic midsole fillings, and composite outsoles. In other words, advertising a shoe’s construction as Goodyear or Blake Rapid is only part of the story when judging a shoe’s quality.
The best method of construction for shoemaking lies in the old world craft of assembling a shoe by hand. By using organic materials throughout the process, a hand lasted, hand welted shoe with a leather holdfast results in shoes that are much less prone to failure than their machine made counterparts. It’s a much more intensive and expensive process, but one that ultimately results in the world’s most beautiful and hard-wearing shoes.
Lastly, design, styling, and fit should be important factors when purchasing high end footwear. More often than not, these components come down to the personal preference of each consumer. Don’t hesitate to try on shoes from different manufacturers that may vary in style. You may find that a certain last shape fits you better than others. The key is to pick shoes that you find visually pleasing and also comfortable. Although your tastes may vary, you won’t be happy with your decision until you’ve picked the pair that you could see yourself wearing every day. Besides, what’s the point of spending more on your shoes if you can’t enjoy them yourself? At the very least, George Frazier would have given you his nod of approval.
The Armoury is proud to present a unique range of shoes from manufacturers that meet our standards for crasftmanship, including Carmina, Saint Crispin’s, and Koji Suzuki.
Words by Jeffrey Hilliard