March 12, 2015 by Ville Raivio
László Vass is a Hungarian artisanal shoe workshop set up in Budapest in 1978. In his old interview with Keikari, the founder tells us that his journey in shoemaking began at the age of 14, and nine years later he felt ready for the master level. Shoes have been his trade and life, and the work has been good to him. The workshop currently has two retail stores in Budapest, and around 20 craftsmen who take two-dimensional leathers and give them life as shoes by hand. While most Goodyear-welted shoe factories market their goods as handmades, they are machine-mades instead. At Vass, machines are only used to join the upper and lining leathers. All pairs are clicked, joined, welted, sewn, and brogue holes struck by Hungarian hands in Budapest.
For uppers, Vass uses French box calf and American shell cordovan, while exotics come from Italian leather merchants. Leather soles and welts are soaked in oak bark liquors in the German Rendenbach tannery. Beech wood shoe trees are made in Hungary to compliment the nine lasts the company uses. The shoes are lined with European calfskin. The upper leathers are somewhat thicker, the welts wider, and the soles heftier than what most Italian makers use. These Hungarian characteristics lead to sturdy, solid, and long-lasting shoes. Most Internet Gentlemen also know the Vass Bible of shoemaking, Handmade Shoes for Men, that shows the arduous, long, and thorough process of making footwear by hand. It is one of the finest books on the topic, and should be owned by any shoe enthusiast.
While each pair takes a few dozen hours to make, Vass shoe prices begin at some 400 euros. This is thanks to the Forint and Hungarian price levels. While there are likely more economical options somewhere, I don’t know another maker with the same price-quality level in Europe. Similar materials and level of make usually lead to end prices of around 1000 euros. The workshop completes only a few thousand pairs each year as they’ve turned their backs on machines. There are a few limits, of course, as Vass only offers 11 smooth leather colours, 10 grained ones, 5 exotics, 3 suedes, and 6 cordovans. For special orders, they also have 6 smooth, Italian calfskins with an antique patina effect. Readymade pairs are limited to nine last models:
– the Budapest is roomy, with a high toe
– the New Peter is rounded, mild, and fairly English
– the Peter last is rounded and roomier than New Peter
– the P3 is wider than the other Peters
– the 3636 is roomy, somewhat shorter, and has a higher toe
– the R-last is plump, rounded, and roomy
– the F-last is close-fitting, sculpted, and has a round toe
– the U-last is very close-fitting, with a pointy Italian toe
– the K-last has the most aggressive and pointy shape
Most of these lasts also have a higher-than-average instep, and the K and U will likely fit better when taken a half size larger than what the customer usually goes for. Special orders begin at a hundred euros more than the RTW pairs, shoe trees are around 30 euros, though it’s best to contact the maker directly for pricing. Belts can be found in the same leather as the shoes, and leather bags are the newest addition. The most thorough and helpful buyer’s guide to Vass shoes can be found on Shoegazing’s excellent shoe site.
As a peek of a Vass shoe, the pictured collaboration pair is a made to order Balmoral boot in the F-last, with a double-to-single leather sole. The model is not shown on the company homepage, but I found a photo of the store’s sample pairs and liked what I saw. While traditional Balmorals have some nine eyelets, this Keikari pair only has five. It’s faster to get on and off, though there’s no pull tab, and the shaft is shorter than usual. The so-called HAF-sole has two stacks of sole leather below the ball of the foot, tapering to a single one below the waist. With this peculiar construction, the sole will last longer and the waist looks lighter, and more formal. For a touch of vintage, I asked the makers at Vass to leave the top of the welt undyed, and sew the welt with a white thread. This detail was more common still around the 1940s, even on black shoes, as it made them look a bit lighter, and the white stitch showed the skill and patience of the shoemaker.
The F-last is rounded and form-fitting, though I wouldn’t say it has a high instep like most Vass lasts have. The shaft top has a circumference of only 23 cm in size 42, and fits very close and well. The upper leather looks clean, smooth, lustrous, and fine, but the shaft leather seems to be cut from a different part of the hide. When worn, this difference is not visible though it won’t go away either. The upper stitching is very dense and straight. Despite the heavier soles, the boots feel light, and also come with a wonderful beechy smell. Life’s a beech, as the carpenters say. The shoe trees proved troublesome as the large knobs couldn’t be pulled when put inside, so I replaced the original trees with a generic model. The leather soles have a nicely beveled waist, and the welt disappears under the shoe at the waist and heel. The shoe trees are smooth and fill the last well. In sum, the boots look very clean and formal, just like a Balmoral should, and feel pleasant when worn. The pictures show what my words may miss.