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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Andy Murphy Of Foster And Son - The Jermyn Street Shoe Maker With 430 Years Of Experience

You hear a lot of people talk about 'heritage' brands on the internet. I certainly don't claim to be one and if I were to trade for another five years I would be more than grateful for the experience. On the internet a number of more prominent voices throw rocks at those brands that claim they are 'heritage' but have been around for no more than thirty years. Foster & Son is NOT one of these brands. They are the ones that should be bragging but with that English sensibility they don't have the time nor the inclination because they are too busy getting on with the job. Which is probably the reason why with over 430 combined years of trading, they are still a going concern. I managed to speak to the manager, Andy Murphy, on the business of shoes both bespoke and ready to wear.

Andy, I have asked a number of people, including Xavier De Royere from Corthay of Paris as to what was the main difference between a British and a French or Italian shoe. I have always found English shoes to be far more sturdy and bulky than their continental counterparts but this does not always hold true. Can you tell me about your thoughts on the matter of national identity of shoes through manufacturing methodology?

A very interesting question. The majority of fine English shoes are Goodyear welted, with a proportion being hand welted at the semi-bespoke and fully-bespoke end of the marketplace. It does create a distinctive silhouette in most cases and I can see how you come to that conclusion.
French and Italian shoes are often Blake or Blake-Rapid in construction which does tend towards a sleeker line but has some potential drawbacks with regard to repair and water ingress and that sort of thing. Having said that the French and Italian makers are also producing Goodyear welted shoes and from my reading of the situation they do so for sound reasons.
There are a number of other factors to take into consideration, not least of which are the desired aesthetic outcomes and the effect of British weather, where our inclement climate makes a waterproof sole essential. If you look at all of the quality English makers they are capable of making refined shoes, with the welt cut close to the upper; sturdier shoes, typically for a country style; and all sorts of variations between the two. So if you compare the shoes in the photographs below both have what might be called a British sensibility even though one is a sleek city shoe and the other is a country boot.

When, in fact, they’re both classically English and the sleekness, or otherwise, reflects their purpose. When English shoemakers get this right I think that they make the best aesthetic in the world. And, to come back to your original question, yes the manufacturing process has something to do with it, but so have British weather conditions. Many, many fine pairs of shoes come out of Italy and France but I believe that we’ve got the edge.

At Foster & Son you seem to concentrate on bespoke shoes. What is your proportion of bespoke to ready to wear in terms of sales? Are all of your shoes made on site or is this only for the bespoke shoes you make?

We were first and foremost a maker of bespoke shoes. Foster & Son and Henry Maxwell (founded 1840 and 1760 respectively) have over 430 years in the business. The shift towards offering ready to wear in addition to bespoke shoes started about 40 years ago and since then we’ve carried / made both.
The market for ready to wear shoes is much larger than that for bespoke and that is reflected in our rtw sales which run significantly higher than our bespoke shoes. I would estimate that we sell twenty pairs of rtw to every pair of bespoke.

All of our bespoke shoes are made on site in our workshop at 83 Jermyn Street by our team of craftspeople who have, for many years, benefitted from the tutelage and support of Terry Moore who has been with the firm for nearly 50 years and is, in our opinion at least, the best last maker of the last half century in the whole world.

Our rtw shoes are made to our specifications and under our supervision at a number of the best Northampton workshops. Northampton is the home of English shoemaking and we have been working with companies there for many years. Our bespoke shoes have been an inspiration for many of our rtw models and will continue to be so.

We have recently developed a new set of lasts which will form the core of our new Heritage rtw shoes.

In Sydney there are so few shoe stores which offer great shoes and there is possibly one or two shoe stores that offer a bespoke service. Is there a way for international clients to order Foster & Co bespoke shoes without having to travel to London?

We’d love to come over to Sydney to see our friends in Australia, many of whom visit us in Jermyn St when on holiday or business. We’re certainly aware of a strong interest in men’s clothing and accessories in Australia, an example of this is the Styleforum thread for Australian members, which has been read over 1.7m times.
It would be great to build on the success of Double Monk by having trunk shows where we can show our Australian friends our rtw and bespoke shoes and take bespoke orders. I travel with Jon, our lastmaker, to North America [link here for details], so Australia would seem to be a logical step from there.

I recently saw a shoe that was advertised as ‘triple welted ‘. Can you explain what this would entail in terms of production and can you please explain to the average person what it means in shoe manufacturing to have a ‘Goodyear welt’? I am quite certain that most people assume that it was invented by the tyre people and involves rubber. 

[By triple-welted I think it may mean Goyser stitched which is primarily, though not exclusively, an Austro-Hungarian shoemaking tradition. The welt is split and stitched to the sole in the normal way and then twice more to the shoe at the point at which the upper and the sole meet then further up the upper so that it looks a little like a reverse storm welt. It’s actually very tricky to get right and more complex to repair.]
The image on the Wiki page you’ve quoted above is actually quite good in explaining the basics of GYW, which is not, in any way related to tyre making. In GYW the sole is connected to the upper via a strip of leather called a welt which in turn is sewn to the insole. This makes for a very clean line, a strong shoe and a repairable product. In principle a GYW shoe can have any number of re-soles and, providing that the uppers have been properly maintained (and that means shoetrees as well as polishing/conditioning) a GYW shoe can outlast its owner.
The reason why it is known as Goodyear welting is because the chap who invented the first machine was a Mr Goodyear. Many machines are made by other manufacturers but the name has stuck and it’s become a generic term.

Since you have taken over as manager of Foster & Co, can you tell us what is the most interesting shoe you have seen come through production?

What a question, there have been so many. I suppose I’d have to say the semi-brogue Oxford shoes in the picture below. They are an absolutely classic pair of Foster & Son shoes and I think they’re marvellous.
In my opinion no-one in the world does this shoe better than we do.

No Brown In Town – does this still hold in London? If it doesn’t, can you give us a rough idea of what sort of staples of shoes a man ought to own if wished to be a great ‘all rounder’?

It really does depend on where you are in London. In the City the rule holds up pretty well, though elsewhere it seems to be going out of favour.

In terms of staples, the following could work very well.

Black calf plain captoe Oxford (will also work with evening wear at a pinch)
Brown calf punch cap or semi-brogue Oxford
Brown calf plain Derby
Brown Chukka boots, suede or calf
Brown suede penny loafer
Brown double monk

Do you offer a patina service and how do the English feel about patina as an art form of shoes? Does it wash with English conservatives?

That’s a very interesting question and I suppose it depends on what you mean by patina. We see a lot of shoes on blogs that have been worked on by people known as ‘patina artists’ and they’re often very striking indeed. We don’t tend to see people wearing them on Jermyn Street or in the more conservative parts of town.
We offer a service to our bespoke and rtw customers to ‘fade’ their shoes (in addition to our high-shine service that anyone can take advantage of). This replicates the effect of sunlight on leather and came out of our experience when sample shoes were left in our shop window over an extended period of time (see shoes in answer to Q1 for an example). This is a very popular request, but whether we would call this patina or not I don’t know.
The ‘art form’ element is interesting. I can’t see that we would ever offer the kind of patina that patina artists apply and it’s most definitely not in the English conservative tradition. But things change and maybe there will be a distinctly English take on this.

 Out of the Savile Row tailors, who stands out from the rest for you? And in saying that, can you tell about a dream outfit you might put together between the suit, the tie, the shirt and the shoes?

I’ve worked in the West End for over 30 years and have many friends in Savile Row. I have had suits, jackets and other clothes made by Huntsman and Henry Poole. They are both excellent tailors and I have many compliments while wearing them. But they are expensive.

Andy Murphy, Manager Of Foster And Sons, the historic London shoe maker

More recently I have found a tailor called Sam Oppong from Sobespoke. Sam worked for Hackett as their in-house tailor for many years. At the moment I am wearing a classic blue 3piece from Sam.

I have around 100 shirts from:

Turnbull and Asser
New and Lingwood
Sean O'Flynn
And more recently rtw from Henry Arlington.

Ties the same as above

My favourite shoes are classic brown wholecuts and brown full brogue derby boot for the weekend

I don't own any black or navy socks ... I only wear colours, spots, stripes, argyles.)

And my next purchase will be the brand new rtw foster's double monk.

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