Finally got AskAndy to work. Here is what I originally reported there:
I just returned from a trip to Budapest and London. In Budapest,I ordered a pair of Vass loafers in the new "Italian/U" last, which has a longer, squared off toe - the loafer/"slipper" model shown in A. Harris' posts re: Vass shoe offer on the StyleForum http://www.styleforum.net/cgi-bin/ik...1f5a31aea4ffff
act=SF f=1. I chose a cognac brown leather, fairly close to the E. Green "Burnt Pine." Interestingly, the price of this the shoes on this last was 130,000 Florints (~$585) -including shoe trees-, only a 10,000 Fl. premium over their regular bespokes. The leather on the new, Italian-last shoes is finished to a very high shine, much more so than the other Vass shoes I saw at the shop; it is apparently the same leather as on the other models, but boy does it look different. I met Mr. Vass, and he took me to his showroom, where he showed me some new models from another last he has developed; they seemed more like the E Green line, with a nice rounded toe and a bit lower toe-box, relative to the traditional Budapest styles. As described in Kai's earlier post regarding Vass, the measurement of my feet involved only 3 measures plus the outlining of my feet. Clearly a less detailed process than that described in Mr. Vass' book. The shoes should be completed by the end of January. Also, I had with me a couple of pairs of E. Greens, which Mr. Vass inspected with great interest and whose quality he complimented. Then, I went to London. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I am looking into the notion of learning shoemaking. I arranged to meet with one of the top shoe sub-contractors in London. He does work for virtually all the leading west-end shoe makers, including the one with initials JL. A bunch of interesting observations from my conversation with him and others: The bespoke shoe firms sub-contract the majority of the work on their shoes, including the clicking/closing and the "making" of the shoes; only the lastmaking and the final polishing is done in-house, in addition to managing the overall process and supplying the materials. Therefore, much of the work on a pair of shoes you order from any of the major firms is likely to be done by two (one closer and one maker) of a fairly small group of outside providers, who work for most of the firms. So, the distinguishing characteristic of the different firms is the last. If you buy from Lobb, you are basically paying a big price premium for the privilege of the name, plus the work of their lastmakers. It is a pretty tough living being a shoemaker in London; it takes about 2 days to "make" a pair of shoes (i.e. stretch the shoes over the lasts, then add the insoles, welts, outsoles and heels to a pair of uppers), for which one gets paid approximately $400. The clicker/closer gets paid around $70 - $100 for a pair, but can produce a couple of pairs a day. In either case, this is after having apprenticed for very low wages (say $10,000 a year) for a minimum of 2 years. Given the expense of living in London, the income they make is pretty bad (and remember they don't have any company benefits, paid vacation, retirement plans, etc). When I asked whom my friend would recommend for a pair of shoes, he said Foster & Sons, as Terry Moore of Foster's is "the best lastmaker in London." Much better and more productive than the lastmakers at ___.... For what it's worth, Moore can produce 4 or 5 pairs of lasts a week, whereas those at another, better-known firm are only expected to produce one pair a week (lastmakers are the one significant labor source in the process who are employed on salary by the firms, so they have no motivation to work quickly). Lasts from the latter were also said to be looking "strange" these days, and also seemingly made uniformly wide to avoid customer feedback as to tightness (regardless of whether these wider lasts are truly necessary/appropriate for the customer's feet). Unfortunately, Moore is getting pretty old and may be retiring in the near future. There is quite a shocking variation in the quality of the sub-contractors working in London; because they are paid on a piece-work basis, the motivation is to crank out as many pairs as possible, often at the expense of quality. I saw some work that was pretty poor, given the $2000+ price for bespoke shoes. My friend said that he really would only trust two or three closers and makers among the (relatively) large number of people in the trade. Some of the people in the business take a great deal of pride in their work, but many others seem to care only a bit about their finished product; moreover, there seems to be a fair amount of resentment of the name firms from the outside suppliers, as the latter clearly know the economics of the business and resent their small slice of the ($2000) pie, and this resentment clearly influences the commitment to quality of some suppliers. Also rather discouraging was the apparent lack of quality control by at least several of the name firms. The firms are not run in a terribly efficient manner; there is no real production planning, and the management and scheduling of the outside suppliers is haphazard. A supplier shows up with his finished work for the firm, and they give him some more work, if they have it. When asked why it takes so long to get a pair of bespoke shoes from some of these firms, my friends had no good answer, other than tradition, lack of production coordination, and consequent inefficiency. It appears that a lot of what is done ends up being done at the last minute, when the customer calls and inquires as to status or states a need for the finished product. [Contrast the 4 month to 1 year lead-time for the British to the 9 weeks or so (including the Christmas/New Year holiday season) of Vass.] The system of training apprentices, aside from lastmakers, suffers from lack of commitment from the firms. My friend said that, when he was learning, his master got paid all of $50 a week to train him, so basically his master paid him almost no attention and gave very little guidance or training, since time given to training would reduce the master's own time spent doing the closing or making. So, it seems the system is not really helping any of the parties to it.... Two interesting areas of contrast between Vass and the British: Vass apparently modifies a stock last for their bespokes, whereas the British truly make the lasts from scratch. On the other hand, Vass employs the closers and makers in-house, whereas the British do not. Given that Vass also make their shoes for Ready to Wear, thereby having a larger and more predictable production volume, their approach makes sense for given their business model. The British approach makes more sense for pure bespoke makers, since their production volume is lower and less predictable; controlling the lastmaking makes it difficult for customers to do an end-run around the firm to work directly with the sub-contractors, while sub-contracting the other work reduces their fixed costs and lets them pit the subs against one another, keeping prices down. Still, it seems to me that from a quality-control and efficiency perspective the larger west-end firms would benefit from doing more in-house.
One other thing perhaps worth pointing out: I think I would describe the Vass bespoke offering as sort of an extension of the "stock custom" offering of Green et al, with the addition of a bespoke last. By this I mean that the British RTW companies will make up any style of shoe on any of their lasts in any of their leathers; the Vass offering is essentially to allow you to pick from their variety of models and leathers, and to have these made up on bespoke lasts. What the Vass offering does not include, and what I think the British bespoke makers offer, is the chance to truly design your own shoe. For example, I would love to have had my shoes made up with a hand-stitched center seam down the front, along perhaps with a skin-stitched apron (sound familiar to you Green fans out there?), and perhaps with a slightly more rounded and shorter toe, or alternatively with a bit more chiseled toe. These and other options were not discussed, and the conversation was basically one of which model in which color. This is not meant as a criticism, as I'm sure it is this approach which, in part, helps Vass keep its prices down. But, the difference in approach does remain.