July 12, 2015 by Ville Raivio
VR: How do you see a great fit for shoes?
MW: Most people just think that fit is that you have enough room in the front of your longest toe and that is it. A truly good fit is so much more than that. Yes, you need to have room in front of your longest toe, and you should follow the rule of thumb (about one thumb nail width in front of your longest toe), but what is more important is that you feel for your heel to ball length. This is literally the length from the back of your foot to where you big toe joint bends. This is the most important fit for length because in a shoe your foot should bend at the same point as the shoe does.
In most well made shoes, there is a shank inside the shoe for stability of the shoe, and if your foot bends too early compared to the shoe, you can possibly feel that shank pushing into your foot. If your foot is too far past the shank, you are not getting the full support that the shoe can offer. This is not as large of a concern in cheap glued shoes, but having the proper heel to ball measurement with your shoes can help the longevity of the materials and the overall comfort.
To give a personal example, I am measured as a US 13 or so in length for dress shoes (dress shoe size is usually smaller than athletic sneaker size), but my heel to ball length is a US 14 in dress shoes. I have to wear a 14 as a starting point because a 13 just doesn’t fit around the shape of my foot. It is better to have a bit more room in front of the toes and have that heel to ball fit just right. When I was younger and was still wearing cheaply made shoes, I would commonly have to wear a 15 to get the same fit that I would need, so if you are not used to wearing higher quality shoes, be ready for a change from your normal size.
You can’t just go by what size you usually wear. Most companies have their own proprietary lasts, or molds that the shoes are built off of. They do not all fit the same in length and many have different shapes of the overall last as well, which is why certain people swear by certain brands for comfort over others. This is with all footwear and that is why some people with narrow, low volume feet seem to swear by Nike while people with wider feet usually love New Balance. The shapes are different even in the same size and even with the equivalent length of the shoe (on the athletic sneaker side, I wear the same size for New Balance, Asics, and Nike, but this is not true for everyone).
An example of this would be if two shoes were both 11.5 inches long (don’t worry about the actual size number from each brand), they still could fit differently because one pair may be wider by the ball of the foot and have a narrow heel, versus the other pair my be more equal from the front of the foot to the back of the heel. That is just like feet. Two people could have the same length feet and one person’s foot can be a narrow heel with wide front, while the other person could just have a straight foot with almost no shape at all. You just need to find the brands that work for your foot type.
Another part that is neglected is the width. Most brands don’t use widths anymore because they figure that about 85% of people are a medium width. The people may be a “medium” width by measurements but may not need a medium width in that brand’s shoe in their proper length. There are many people who need wide or narrow shoes, but don’t even know it. They are just used to wearing shoes that are too loose or too tight.
If shoes are too tight due to having wide feet, the person can start to develop sores on the feet as well as internal damage to the feet from the added pressure. It can aggravate other disorders like bunions, hammertoes, and neuromas as well. Some people with wide feet will actually buy shoes that are too long to accommodate the width, but then have to worry about problems with the rest of the proportions of the shoes not fitting, which can decrease longevity of the shoes. This also will alter the comfort factor as well. You can go to a shoe repair shop and ask to have the shoes stretched to a point, which can help a bit, but it can take away from the structural integrity of the shoes if done to an extreme. It is much easier to buy wide width sneakers now from brands like New Balance and Asics (due to the extreme increase in obesity around the world), but there are not too many dress shoe brands that offer this unless you stick with the very cheaply made glued “old man shoes” or move to the “higher end” brands like Crockett and Jones, Allen-Edmonds, Alden, etc. Then the really high-end brands offer widths as well.
If shoes are too loose, the person has to worry about extremely weird creasing in the shoes that will take away from the longevity of the shoes as well as the possibility of sliding around in a shoe so much that they get injured or develop calluses. If you are a narrow foot and can’t get a narrow shoe, you can get tongue pads or add insoles to take up some of that space. Some people even use thicker or double socks if needed. That is a much better option than getting a smaller and shorter size to accommodate the width, which can then cause problems to the toes from being too far forward. There are very few brands of sneakers and shoes that offer narrow widths because they are very uncommon foot types, but New Balance and Asics offer a small selection of styles. There also are a couple of dress shoe brands who offer narrow widths (Allen-Edmonds, Alden, Crockett and Jones, Church’s, Edward Green, Gaziano&Girling), but there usually is a premium on them, because that pair has to be Made to Order one at a time.
I am an extra narrow width and it can be very difficult to find options that really fit right well, so I sympathize with any of you who are also narrow.
VR: Starting today, what can we all do for the health of our feet?
MW: The first thing that everyone can do is to buy at least one or two nice pairs of shoes. Stay away from the cement “fashion” shoes. Try to get a welted pair of shoes, like Goodyear welted, Hand Welted or some other stitched constructions like Blake, Blake Rapid, etc. You will notice a difference because if a shoe is made with a nice construction, they should be using better materials overall, and be more stable and comfortable for the feet.
Wash and dry your feet everyday. Make sure to dry between your toes and if you sweat a lot, use powder or foot spray everyday. Make sure to wear nice socks.
If you start to feel some pains or notice changes in your feet, make sure to go to the doctor. It is better to get something minor corrected while it still is minor, than to have a major problem develop overtime that could need surgery. Many foot surgeries and even amputations could be avoided if people took notice of their feet and just would learn to get check-ups as needed.
VR: Finally, what’s your definition of a well-made shoe?
MW: Defining a well-made shoe is a tough and very detailed topic. I have had countless conversations with many top shoemakers and shoe enthusiasts around the world on just this topic and it entails a lot of back and forth. To keep it the most direct and to the point, there are a few things that are absolutely needed to make it “well-made” and then there are different levels of this “well-made” type of shoe.
First, a shoe must be made of some form of leather (calf, cow, exotic, etc.) that is of a non-corrected nature, which means that the leather is natural enough that it doesn’t have to be sanded down and have a film put onto it to make it look perfect. Good leather usually does not look absolutely perfect, because it is from a previously living animal. Yes it should not have major gashes or damages to it, but there most likely will be some imperfections if you look close enough.
There are different types of leather in terms of the grain used. This leather should be full grain, so there aren’t extra layers taken off of it, as is done in corrected grain leather and even top grain leather. Yes, Full grain is better than Top grain, even though most would think that top grain would be better by using the word “Top’. Top grain is sanded and slightly refinished to take away the imperfections. It is the most common used in the “high-end” leather good industry, but it is inferior to full grain. Full grain is the longest lasting and will get better looking with age if you take care of it. This is the type of leather that you see developing that natural antiquing look or patina.
Once you have a naturally good leather, there are various grades of that full grain leather quality that is based on how many imperfections there are on the entire hide, like gashes from injuries, too many lifted regions from large veins, areas that were not tanned equally, etc. Grade 1 is the best and the number increases as there are more imperfections. Most nice brands will mainly use grade 2 with some grade 1 at times, because grade 1 is extremely expensive to use exclusively. Most grade 1 is used for the top end shoes of the bespoke world and the tanneries are commonly owned by the high end luxury goods companies who will charge extremely expensive fees to get these types of hides. They usually use them for their highest level brands to keep them a step ahead.
The other part of leather that is important is where on the body it comes from, because the leather is the tightest if taken from the back and will be more loose if from the belly or neck areas. Most brands will use the entire hide, so nothing is wasted (they can get like 6-7 pairs from a hide in those cases), but some of the higher end makers will only use the best parts of the hide for the visible parts of the shoe, even if their yield for the leather is much lower. These top brands may only get 2-3 pairs of shoes for the entire hide, because they would only use those top quality spots. You do pay substantially extra for the brands that do that though and this is one factor in the price difference.
This shows how the central back is the best for the highest quality leathers because the leather is the tightest there and usually has the least imperfections.
Another part of leather that is very important is the tanning method. The most important parts are the type of tanning, like chrome versus vegetable tanning:
Vegetable tanning is basically using natural materials (tree bark, leaves, wood, roots, etc.) to add color to the leather that is being tanned to put oils back into the leather, add color to it, and to naturally preserve it for many years to come. It is not always the most consistent in color, but it is the most natural method and has been done for many years. I feel that it adds a lot of character to the leather, but there aren’t as many color options for this type of tanning. It is more common to find vegetable tanned lining of the shoe than the entire upper.
Chrome tanning is using a chemical (chromium sulfate or other chromium salts) to preserve and prep the leather, which makes it turn blue. This is commonly called “wet blue.” That leather is then put into a drum with various oils and preservatives to penetrate the leather and add the color to it. This is the most common method for higher end leather uppers and gives a lot of options for the colors.
From these two basic types of tanning methods, some use full tanning, where the hide sits in the tub for many hours. This allows the dyes to fully penetrate the leather so when you look at it, the entire hide will be that new color. This is the top quality method, but is substantially more expensive. Most people won’t ever see that middle of the leather, but when all of the oils and preservatives are full impregnated into the leather, that hide will have the capability to last for many years longer, with good care.
Many companies use partial tanning, where the leather is only tanned for a short amount of time. This still gives the color to the outside and inside of the leather, but the middle of the hide will still have a different color, because the process wasn’t done long enough to allow full penetration.
Shoe Construction Method:
Most normal shoes that people buy today are cement construction. This is just that the shoe is cemented to the sole and that is it. They are poorly made and are just for wearing a short period of time until they break down. Some shoe repair places will try to fix them by adding new soles, but most of the time, the other materials used in that production of the shoe are also poor.
What you want is a welted or at least stitched shoe construction. There are many types of shoe constructions, but I will just keep to the few most common types:
Blake Stitch (also known as McKay stitch) is where they attach the leather upper directly to the insole and outsole so it is generally closer cut and thinner than other constructions. It is the “standard” of many Italian shoe brands. It is lightweight, but depending if the maker places an extra insole over the standard leather insole, you can see the stitching from the inside of the shoe. Some people can feel this and don’t like the feeling of those stitches. I haven’t heard too many people complain about this because the socks will help cover this up and some brands also apply an extra leather or cushioned insole on top, so you won’t even know that it is there.
The main concern or possible problem is that since the stitch comes into the shoe, if you step in water, it could technically wick itself into your shoe and touch your foot. That wouldn’t happen immediately, but it is possible. I don’t have problems with any of the usually discussed problems that I have mentioned above. My problem is that since they are so thin under the foot, I feel everything that I walk on and prefer more cushion in my step that I can get with other construction methods. I have a very thin foot with very little fat, so I need the cushion. Many people probably don’t have this problem though. If you are considering this type of construction, I just recommend that you try a pair on in person before buying them.
Blake/Rapid has a mid-sole (usually leather) under and attached too the upper/insole stitching. The midsole comes out on all sides of the insole, so another stitch is used to attach the outside edges of the midsole to the outsole. This makes the shoe slightly more bulky on the edges as well as thicker in the sole, but by using two separate stitches, it basically prevents the water wicking through. These are usually seen as the “happy medium” between Blake and Goodyear, because they don’t have the water wicking problem from Blake but usually are not as bulky on the edges as Goodyear. They do still have a set of stitching that you can feel inside if it isn’t covered. I have one pair in this construction and it does have the stitching visible, but it does not bother me at all. This is usually considered an upgrade in many of the nicer Italian shoemakers. They are very comfortable and also durable.
Take note of the mid-sole being used to take the Blake stitch. This is like the outsole in a normal Blake shoe. The outsole then is connected to the extended part of the mid-sole to act more like the outside stitch in Goodyear or hand-welted shoes, which gives a more sturdy seal and makes it easier to resole.
Goodyear is the standard of high quality RTW/MTO shoes from the US and UK. This is on offer from some of the top Italian shoe brands as their top line construction method as well, if this helps at all in understanding the quality name that it has received. It has the upper attached to the insole and a welt, which is a strip of leather to keep the parts together. Some makers sew these parts directly together and some use what is called gemming.
Gemming is where there is a material like canvas used between the welt and the upper/insole. You can read up on the arguments about this in a few different threads online like on StyleForum, but the main difference is that the canvas gemming can rot over many years, which would cause a problem in resoling the shoe at that point. If the gemming fails in that way, when the sole is removed, the shoe can lose its shape unless it is put back on the original last from the factory. This is why some makers that use gemming will offer a refurbishing or recraft instead of a standard resoling, and then they would replace the gemming if it is rotted. I have seen pictures of a rotted gemming, but I don’t expect it to be a problem in the lifetime of a shoe for most people.
After that step of upper, insole, welt (gemming if used) are stitched together, then there is a cork/glue layer that is “spread” into the open area between the welt. This adds another layer of insulation and cushion, but it also gives out in area of more pressure overtime, so a custom foot-bed is formed. Then the outsole is stitched onto the welt. By doing it this way, resoling is very easy because the cobbler or maker only need to remove the outsole and re-stitch a new sole to the welt. This construction also keeps water out better by having a separate stitch that connects the sole to the shoe. The inner stitching from the first step also does not go inside of the shoe (it is attached under the insole) so the wearer will not see or feel stitching where their foot is. This shoe is more “bulky” than the others from most makers, but it does have a sturdier feel with more cushioning. I personally prefer the feel of the cushioning and added protection under the foot. The problem that some people have is that it takes longer to “work in” the shoe because of the thicker shoe and the cork that has to mold to the foot, but once “worked in” they feel much more comfortable.
Cork is applied to the shoe to help the foot-bed form and the wooden shank under the heel area helps give stability and support to the foot/arch when worn.
There also is a Hand-welted construction, which is very similar to Goodyear, except that NO gemming is used, and it takes much more time to do. The advantage is that a trained person can make a hand welted shoe more sleek than Goodyear (they can rival some of the thinner constructions like some Blake) because they can stitch closer to the upper than a machine can go without getting caught on the leather and damaging it. They also can possibly have more stitches per square inch (SPI), which is a way to show “quality” or artistry to shoe snobs who care about these things, like myself. I think it shows who the masters are, but it really has no functional benefit with the tighter stitching, because the sole should wear out before worrying about the stitches breaking. Most hand-welted shoes are extremely expensive and usually are bespoke only. (Awl and Sundry does sell hand-welted shoes for only $350 as Made to order shoes and you can customize a lot. I really recommend giving them a try, especially if you want to try out a totally “out there” shoe or for something casual. They don’t put in the heavy finishing of the uppers for polishing, but you can do that yourself if you care about those things.)
Hand Welted shoe by Ramon Cuberta Bespoke in Barcelona. Notice how tight he is able to make that waist and give so much shape to the shoe. How many machines can do things like that?
There are other construction types, but most are just for showing off technical ability of the bespoke shoemakers. Some do have a purpose, like being almost water locked and there are variations with the same general purpose, but with different names and looks. Norvegese, Norwegian welt (not to be confused with Norwegian Split toe by Alden), Goyser, Bentivegna, etc. are a few if you are interested in looking into them.
There are a variety of types of shoe soles from different types of rubber to crepe to leather soles. Truthfully, every quality shoe brand that offers a good construction of shoes seems to offer various options for shoe soles and they all are of fine quality. There definitely is a hierarchy of quality, but most are fine by this level. If a brand puts the time into a good construction, it would be a waist if they wouldn’t use at least a decent sole.
In terms of rubber soles, which I personally don’t wear much, but do keep a few here and there for bad weather or for pairs that I know I will use for longer walks in the city.
Vibram makes some excellent soft yet durable clean-cut soles that you may not notice as not being leather from the side view. Dainite is another brand (from the UK) that makes excellent rubber soles that are extremely durable and work well in wet weather. They are very easy to clean too. Ridgeway soles are a little more bulky but great for durable more casual shoes/boots. Lug or Commando soles may be a viable option to consider for really poor weather.
Variety of Soles on offer by Gaziano&Girling
Then, of course, there is the leather sole. Leather soles have a huge variety in quality from the basic ones in entry level welted shoes to the high end oak bark tanned soles by J. Rendenbach of Germany or Baker and Co. of England, which are tanned over many months and last for a substantially longer period of time, while actually giving a greater level of comfort.
Leather Shoe sole with open channel stitching (you can see the stitching) on Chruch’s custom grade shoes
Closed channel (can’t see stitching) J. Rendenbach soles on a shoe by Vass of Budapest
Closed Channel Baker and Co. sole with a fiddleback waist by Gaziano&Girling
The quality of the sole can make a huge difference. To give an example, I have a few pairs of the same style shoe by the same brand (Leeds by Allen Edmonds) that just have different soles to them. My pair that has Rendenbach leather soles is more comfortable than my standard leather soles that Allen Edmonds provides and it feels soft like my rubber soled versions while still having that stability and that “click-clack” when walking that I love from leather soles. The Rendenbach has the durability of the rubber soles too!
The sole is actually a way that you can improve upon the quality of a shoe that you love. Some shoe repair places will give an option to add Rendenbach or Bakers soles when having a shoe resoled (for a premium, but well worth it for the amount of time that they last). Some will even give the option of open or closed channels. Truthfully, in terms of overall quality, the channel doesn’t really matter, but I prefer closed for the aesthetics.
The last part of what is most important in a quality shoe is the Last:
The last is the mold that the shape of the shoe is based off of. The leather upper is wrapped around the last until that leather can start to mold to the shape of the last. All shoes have this done to get the shape, but the time on the last will vary greatly. In higher end shoes, this is a much longer process, which allows the leather to more fully mold to the shape of the last.
Each company owns its own lasts and that is why even when two brands make the same basic style of shoe in the same color, they can still look very different. Some people love how a certain brand looks and don’t even realize that it is usually due to the last shape. The last is what makes up the toe shape from round to pointy to square, but it also is what determines the shape of everything else like the heel height, heel width, and overall tightness of the shoe to the shape of your foot.
Plain Cap Toe oxford by Allen-Edmonds is basically the standard for entry to quality shoes in a classic professional style
Plain Cap Toe Oxford by Gaziano&Girling — just look at how much curve there is to the last like a human foot and how sculpted it is overall
Some people love how a good shoe can feel like it hugs your foot and the last is why that can happen. The fit is changed by the last just as much as the look of the shoe. This is also why certain people swear that certain shoe brands fit like it was made for them. That specific last that is used is more like their foot shape. Many of the upper level brands actually have multiple lasts that fit quite differently, so they are more available to a variety of people on a made to order basis for a minimal up-charge.
Most cheap shoes are made with very basic lasts that are just bulbous so they can have a general fit for as many people as possible. These brands know that many people are from medium to wide widths and they want to accommodate as many of those people without having to make shoes in multiple widths. Many of these brands will also make almost all of their shoes on just one or two lasts so the shoes will all fit the same. Then they occasionally change the toe shape to make the shoe look different. This is a cheap and easy way for the brands to keep their profit margins high because the shoe factories just have the same few pairs made over and over again in different sizes. It takes much more work and time to use a variety of lasts because the leather uppers have different patterns cut for each last to keep the proportions in order.
A standard plastic last used in mass-produced footwear — notice how it is very straight overall and how flat the bottom is
Look how much shape there is to this bespoke last that is still being shaped out of wood; it has the natural curve of the foot and you can see the arch
A wooden bespoke last is the polar opposite of the plastic last for mass produced footwear, but I feel that it really shows how dramatic of a difference it can be just from the mold for the shoe. In any of the quality shoe brands, they will have some shape to them and you will learn overtime that certain brands and specific lasts from each brand will fit you much better than others. Some people have fat flat feet and need shoes from a brand that offers lasts like that, whereas some have the opposite with narrow boney feet with high arches. There are a lot of quality shoe brands out there right now, so fit should be the most important factor and there are enough brands out there that you should be able to find at least one who can accommodate you. Once you find the brand or brands, you will be able to get just about any style that you would want because this part of the industry is rapidly expanding, especially in the entry to middle level of quality shoes.
You don’t have to go for Edward Green, Gaziano & Girling, John Lobb level shoes to get great quality shoes. I actually would recommend trying out the entry to middle level first because there are so many great options out there between $200-$500 US. Then if you really start to love shoes, you can consider moving up to the higher range and you will appreciate it so much more for the smaller details that I have mentioned before. I do have to say that if you do have the opportunity and funds, you should at give a pair of these work of art type shoes (EG, G&G, JL) a shot at some point in your life, but be warned if you do, you may not ever want to go back. It happened to me and now I’m stuck on that side with a very expensive passion!
Photos: various sources under Fair Use etc.