AE CEO is on record stating his goal isn't to compete with Alden or Britush GYW shoemakers, but rather to convert Kenneth Cole or Calvin Klein square toe buyers who may not have considered paying more than 80$ on shoes before.
Fascinating reddit AMA with him a while back. I'm sure someone can furnish the link...
I do not have the link but Paul has stated this several times in different places as the mission statement of AE. And one of the reasons I am a fan of AE. In addition the 1 and 5 last fit me exceptionally well, and all ~40 pair of AE's that I own have held up exceptionally well. Half of those are shell.
When KMD talks I do listen.
On the C&J shoes I think it important to distinguish between handgrade vs. bench grade. I have the C&J for RL Marlows in shell. They do not fit my feet just as most European lasts don't and I see absolutely no difference between the quality of them and my AE shells. Except most all of my AE's fit pretty much perfectly and have held up well, some for many years. The Marlows I need to unload and seeing how it is winter should get around to putting them on B&S. They are not any better than any of my AE's, in fact much worse due to fit.
Which is a personal problem.
AE's are good enough for the President Of the United States to do his inaugural address in. Anything above that really doesn't matter. Really. If it is good enough for the Executive branch then it should be good enough for the Legislative Branch and top business management positions. But there is always a lot of posturing with strong willed people when they are all in a room behind closed doors. Just saying.....
I have never felt under dressed wearing my AE's at the Pentagon or in any business meeting. Or at work where heads of state from around the world come for medical treatment and care at a world class facility. They just work and work well IMO. And I have not found any other shoe that meets that requirement at that price point. For me.