July 16, 2022 by Ville Raivio
July 3, 2022 by Ville Raivio
This new bit sees the Creative Director talk about his many years working in menswear, and how the business has changed in Japan for United Arrows.
May 30, 2022 by Ville Raivio
VR: Your age and occupation?
EL: I am 34 and I am a boot maker. I make traditional boots and shoes entirely by hand.
VR: Your educational background?
EL: I grew up in rural France, in what I later discovered was the place of my ancestors for many generations before. My father is French and my mother English, and from a young age I also sought to learn more about the English side of my identity. After going to a bilingual school in Bordeaux and living with my uncle and aunt for four years, I moved to England to study Anthropology & Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Following this, I returned to France briefly and then moved to London – more or less out of luck and desperation.
VR: Have you any children or spouse (and how do they relate to your shoe enthusiasm)?
EL: I am married and I have a daughter who is 11 months old at the time of writing. My wife is a lover of shoes, although she may not be forthright about it – and by far my best customer (four different pairs of lasts!). Time will tell where my daughter stands, but she has been crawling since a few months and I must constantly keep an eye as she goes to hunt out tools from my work bag or head for the corridor where shoes can be found.
VR: …and your parent’s and siblings’ reactions back when you decided to become a shoemaker?
EL: I did not decide to be a shoe and boot maker. It was more like contracting a severe illness, an obsession with no cure which drags me further and deeper down its abyss as time passes. So, no one around me really had a choice or was ever that surprised, the pull was gradual but irreversible. At times it is a passion in the true sense of the word, an uncontrolled presence in my mind and a torment, especially when it is not satisfied. All this being said, I’ve come to learn that I descend from people who are creative, who make use of their hands and are of resolute character. All of which you need to be a shoemaker. Within my direct family circle, my father is a chef, there are two illustrators, a seamstress, a stone carver and a carpenter. So perhaps I am simply carrying out what I’m predisposed to do.
Most of all, I learned from my dear grandmother some years ago that I had a great-great-grandfather who was a shoemaker in the city of La Réole, the place where I am born. Despite a colossal and unblemished memory well into her 90s, and an ability to talk about events several decades past as if they had happened yesterday – she only had this to say about him: his name was Capdeboscq and “Il a besogné toute sa vie” (He toiled his entire life). Capdebsocq is a name which comes from Gascony patois, broken down as cap de boy – ‘wooden head’. It denotes a particularly stubborn character, someone with ideas as fixed as a tree. Think of someone knocking their head with a fist – that’s where the gesture comes from.
She used the verb ‘besogner’ which was very striking to me; it expresses not just work, but particularly hard labour in French. It conjures a picture of a poor wretched donkey strapped to a mill walking endlessly in circles. True physical fatigue and hardship. Still, I felt a kindred attraction to this man and his life. I learnt that his name was André Capdeboscq (1855 – c. 1926), that he was born at the foothills of the Pyrenees in a village called Bernadets, one of about a dozen children. He left home around the age of 14-17 and would have walked the road of the transhumance traditionally taken by shepherds, about 200km north into the Landes. He ended up in the medieval city where he worked making shoes the rest of his life, where it finished and mine started. I like to think of it as my own John Lobb story. One thing is certain, he and I are connected by the craft – and I am sure that as family he would approve.
VR: What other hobbies or passions do you have besides footwear?
EL: Before shoemaking, I became well acquainted with the art world and the art trade of London, which is another very old and dusty environment and which eventually led me to bespoke shoemaking. If I had been born 50 years earlier, I could have made my life in this field, populated as it was with discoveries of mysterious Flemish paintings, well dressed, well mannered men, investigations led in old libraries, thick burgundy carpets and white tableclothed restaurants. A very traditional and secretive environment. Very exciting. Unfortunately, I came into that world as it was seeing its last days, the last connoisseurs were becoming extinct like dinosaurs and were being replaced by the nouveau riche, with their taste for Warhol and Banksy, NFTs etc. That’s simply not my cup of tea. I love Old Masters, the seventeenth century in particular. It has the power to transport you to different times and get into people’s heads, customs and life as it used to be.
My favourite school is French still life from the early 1600s, its painters dubbed ‘peintres de la vie silencieuse’. I suggest looking up Louise Moillon.
VR: How did you first become interested in shoes, and when did you turn your eyes towards artisanal shoemaking? Why classic models instead of fashion?
EL: I worked for an old family business on Bond Street. I made my way to work by foot, ran around all day, going to restorers, framers, auction houses, fancy houses and so forth, and then walked back home in the evening. I would do this in a nice suit but very poor quality leather shoes, five or six days a week. My feet would swell in the summer and I suffered terribly. I kept thinking people had been doing the same for the last few centuries and that there must be a solution to this pain. After much reading, I resolved to invest in my first pair of Edward Green shoes. I learned my feet were quite wide at the fitting and for best fit, I would need to get Made to Order at a premium. I had the sensation of jumping off a cliff that day when placing my first order. It represented so much money: the gent in the shop looked at me and asked me if I was happy with everything, as I must have looked slightly pale and faint.
The result was immediate and within two years, I owned three pairs of black shoes and two pairs of brown shoes – weekdays and weekends – which to this day still serve me faithfully (In fact, I’ve never bought any other shoes since!)
Still, a glass ceiling was hanging above my head. I passed John Lobb Ltd. twice every day, I saw the beautiful window at Foster’s on Jermyn street all the time, and Cleverley’s in the Prince’s Arcade. I was in awe at the displays, the smell, the atmosphere of the shop and envious of the people making something with their hands inside. Those type of people always have something of a satisfaction about them. I was also painfully reminded twice a day that I was not wearing bespoke shoes. I could experience their beauty and aura in my hands, but the comfort and the experience of having them made, having my own – I couldn’t afford it.
The only way I was ever going to be able to get this was by learning to do it myself. Then, surely enough, little by little, that tiny seed, that insane idea took root – and as I explained above, I could never stop thinking about it.
VR: How have you gathered your knowledge of the gentle craft — from books, in-house training, workshops or somewhere else?
EL: After having to be patient a year or two, I changed to a job position that allowed me to take evening courses. I went to learn the basics from Deborah Carré and James Ducker in their workshop near Holborn. 6 – 9pm every Monday for 9 months. Before I had completed my first pair, I began to make a second to go over the steps again and memorise everything.
I was very impatient to get past the basics and start feeling comfortable with the techniques. I would make shoes in my tiny kitchen after work, until 1am or 2am, hammering away. Clearing up the leather dust after was incredibly time consuming, perhaps another hour. After a while, my friend Oliver, who is a painter, kindly agreed to let me make shoes in his studio. Again, I would go after work, working late into the night, making shoes for everyone I knew who fancied a pair. For a long time I felt very frustrated by my limitations and I started to go bother all the West End makers for tips.
I became friends with Parham Alizadeh who was a young closer at Lobb. I can’t remember the circumstances, it all happened quite naturally, but I would go visit Sebastian Tarek at Arnold Circus, visit Jason Amesbury and talk lasts over coffee. Jim McCormack invited me to visit him a few times. Eventually I went to learn last making and pattern making with Dominic Casey. Then I returned to see Jim who taught me pump making. The way he went about things made a huge impression on me, and ‘the Gentle Craft’ took a whole new meaning. This took place over perhaps four or five years. Everyone was generous with their time and to them I give my humility and thanks. These are my masters. Simultaneously, I started researching literature on shoemaking and collected books, building my library. I registered and went to the British Library to look at very old volumes, going back to the 1700s. It was a wonderful feeling to open these books and understand that the technique had barely changed. I would read the recipes. Anyone and anything that had some knowledge to dispense, I went knocking to!
I would take all this back with me and spend hours lying awake at night thinking about what I had been told. I had to try it all on my own back at the workshop… It certainly wasn’t the easy route because I rarely had someone standing behind me to check the work. But the benefit is that I don’t do things simply ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’, which tends to be the traditional way of learning – I have had to figure out the cause and reason behind every single detail – the hard way.
VR: When did you found your own company, and how would you describe the House Style of Laborde shoes?
EL: I am still in the process of founding my own business, Efe Laborde Bootmaker. I make shoes under my name and also take outwork from other shoemakers for specific clients. One particular royal customer has been entrusted to me, which keeps me busy and I think I will look back on this opportunity as a big stepping stone.
My making is defined by an interest in style and history. For that, you have to look at the work coming from London or Paris between the 1850s to the 1930s, which I consider the epitome. The shoe was made to fit a purpose and occasion – and this was the first concern in mind. Therefore, when I begin to make a shoe, I question how they would have conceived it back then and how I can remain true to that spirit. The purpose informs everything, the pattern, the choice of leather, the fit, the lines, the shape of the last. When all of this is considered carefully, the hope is to reach a shoe that evokes something.
This is a very personal view, but I believe a beautifully made Oxford should remind you of walking down St. James’s, the clubs and old London. A certain type of derby should remind you of going to race days and old men wearing raincoats and smoking cigars around a paddock. A black patent slipper with a silver buckle should remind you of cold stone floors, the echo of great halls or bells – but if it is fitted with a grosgrain bow then it should remind you of deep carpets, fireplaces and black tie dinners. Things you may have never experienced – but when you see that shoe, if it is well made, it should conjure those thoughts and feelings, that collective memory in you. Bespoke shoes can have that power. Or better said, that is the ideal I pursue when I make a pair of shoes.
VR: Do you have a favourite shoe model (eg. monk, derby, oxford, balmoral boot) and leather type?
EL: I don’t have a favourite model but I have favourite examples of a model by specific makers. I keep a library of these things on my computer for reference. The way they have interpreted that style so perfectly makes it hard to imagine how it could be improved. Generally, my taste leans for work which came out of West End firms. They were in such concentration at one stage, competing with each other and this yielded great work as a result. All you must do is know the old West End firms: Anthony Cleverley, Nikolaus Tuczek, Henry Maxwell, Foster’s, John Lobb, Peal & Co., Codner, Coombs & Dobbie, Smith, Hook & Knowles, Alan McAffee, Atloff & Norman, Charles Moykopff – and countless more to be learned about. They all produced fabulous-looking footwear back then and I always keep an eye out to find examples of their work to inspire my own.
VR: There are dozens of fine shoemakers in England — why should my readers try you?
EL: I suspect that would be determined by the style of shoe they are seeking and by the type of maker they seek to establish a relationship with.
I think about it this way: much like any other craft or art, you cannot get away from your own style. However hard you may try, what we make can only be of its time and maker. It is defined by mentality, materials, everything. Just as it is incredibly hard to copy somebody else’s handwriting or reproduce a painting from a different era (nigh impossible in my esteem), so too it’s impossible to make anything that resembles anything other than your own work.
The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck signed his paintings ‘Als ich can’ (As I can) which frames the idea well. I interpret it as, “only as I can and within those limitations, I do my best”. As for me, that would be English shoes made in London. A taste for bespoke suits, an understanding and love for ‘old London’. With that in mind, my approach is to take great concern in remaining true to the craft and making the very best. I consider everything down to the ink which I make myself – and I want to offer everything a classic gentleman’s wardrobe might require: slippers, shoes, boots, evening wear and riding boots if they wish to order them.
If someone is attracted to that, it’s probable that we share tastes, ideals, etc. From those mutual points of connection we begin a conversation. I listen, I consider, I research, I suggest. Together we build an idea and then I set about trying to create what the client and I have imagined together. It’s very exciting to receive someone who is like minded and wishes to make something with you – possibly the best part of the work.
VR: Who or what inspires you?
EL: There is so much substance in the past. As a young person, I was very excited about the future and what would come next. As I grew older, my taste for ‘conjecture’ shifted to a taste for investigation. The future is made of ideas whereas the past holds both ideas and tangible traces you can hold and admire with your eyes. I find it so much richer when you look into it. Shoemaking is an oral craft and has lost a lot of knowledge with this form of transmission. I am inspired by digging up those old secrets, old knowledge and old pieces of experience. I inform my work with them, I try to improve my skills. You can do it through an infinite number of ways, and holding old tools in your hands, which were held by all those people before you, is an example. You can study the way it is made and carefully considered, and what you can infer from it. Everything about it has a reason. Someone has held that tool, made the shoes and now you are doing the same and through that process you are connected. Then you can dream, you can imagine how they led their lives and perhaps, if it seems wise, you can apply it to your life. Those thoughts inspire me.
VR: Finally, what is your definition of a “good” shoe?
EL: Ultimately it’s a question of both style and fit. I can’t answer it properly in a few short sentences, if perhaps by the expression: it needs to ‘look proper’. For construction, it requires a lot of factors to be taken to account: last shape, length and proportion, pattern proportions, lines and curves, upper stitching, balance of the overall make, choice of leather, shape and lines of the sole, of the heel, the choice of finishing, of edge colours, choice of laces. Etc, etc. A well conceived shoe.
Further to this, and more importantly, is it made for the wearer? Does it provide him or her comfort? Does it complement their morphology and style of dress? It’s very possible to make an absolutely stunning shoe on the last, but if one has failed to take to consideration the build of the wearer, the foot shape and fitting requirements – it’s likely that all the work falls apart when it goes on the foot.
Therefore, it requires all the elements to come together and concord with one another. If the shoe makes ‘sense’ as a whole, only then can it be a good shoe.
Pictures: Efe Laborde
Copyright © 2013 Ville Raivio