Picture the scene in a men's shoe store: a wide mix of customers browse, both young and old. Upon overhearing some young men discuss whether it was worth their money to purchase a pair of hand-made English shoes, an older gentlemen chimes in, “when I was your age I was never rich enough to buy cheap shoes”.
It is a true story that Scott Lewis, the co-owner of South Melbourne shoe store Beggar Man Thief, likes retelling. For he and business partner Marc Godfrey, the anecdote goes a long way to summing up a philosophy they have espoused with great enthusiasm to a growing, and more knowledgeable customer base.
“We definitely feel that guys are showing a better understanding that a shoe is not a shoe is not a shoe," says Lewis. "The result is that a lot more guys are realising that you really do get what you pay for.”
And when it comes to value for money and quality, Lewis and Godfrey are firm believers that more Australian men should be dipping their toes into a pair of hand-made, calfskin English shoes.
“With the English shoemakers such as Loakes, Church's, Crockett and Jones, and Barker, you may be paying between $400 and $600 but what you are getting for that money is a pair of shoes that can be well worn, but just as importantly a shoe that can be repaired and if need be, completely rebuilt,” Lewis says.
The key design factor that separates many high-quality leather shoes from their inferior cousins is the welt, a strip of leather that both the shoe's upper and sole are stitched on to. Known as Goodyear welting after the inventor of the original welting machine, the process is crucial for the life of a shoe as it enables its sole to be replaced, which can make a pair of shoes last years, even decades if well looked after.
While the long-term value of a quality leather, Goodyear-welted shoe can be easily demonstrated, Lewis believes that too often Australian men are drawn to a price point around $200-250 which they believe represents good value, but ultimately doesn't deliver.
“This $200-250 price point that Australians love is really no-man's land because you don't get good calfskin, Goodyear-welted shoes for $250, you just don't. It can't happen for that price,” Lewis says.
“We've been beating the drum saying either come up or go down [in price] because $250 is far too much to pay for a shoe that is made in China, has a chipboard heel and a sole that's been bonded with adhesive. You should be paying between $150-$180 for that shoe.”
In stride with Lewis and Godfrey about improving the knowledge Australian men have of what they're putting on their feet is Sydney shoemaker Andrew McDonald.
McDonald, who operates a store in Sydney's Strand Arcade, believes that more and more men are not only questioning the quality of the shoes they're buying, but also the practices with which they're made.
“Essentially you have a generation of people out there in their late 20s or early 30s whose whole lives have been dominated by cheap imported shoes that don't last. I think in response to that they're starting to think more about lasting value and also about sustainability. Part of that is wanting to know about the process of how good quality shoes are made in contrast to shoes that are probably made in terrible working conditions and don't even fit that well,” McDonald says.
McDonald speaks of a change in his clientele over the last five or six years that reflects this change in attitudes.
“I've been making shoes for 20 years and when I first started my customers were generally 30-plus businessmen, who already had a strong awareness of quality footwear. But in the last five or six years I've had more and more young guys wanting to buy into the experience of owning high-quality leather shoes ... which I think is part of the whole movement of men wanting to dress better.”
And while there are plenty of items a man can have in his wardrobe which will show that he's got style, for Lewis nothing indicates it more clearly or is more versatile than a pair of quality hand-made leather shoes.
“My thinking is that a really nice, characterful pair of high-end shoes will soften up a really sharp suit – it doesn't make you look like you're fresh out of the oven. And the reverse is also true; that same pair of shoes will lift a pair of chinos, or a pair of jeans. You get three of them in your wardrobe and those three pairs of shoes will do so many things for you and cover so many bases.”
According to Lewis, for those who become steadfast admirers of quality hand-made shoes, the great thing is their appreciation will only get stronger as their shoes stand the test of time.
“There's no reason why you can't get 10 years out of a pair of Goodyear-welted leather shoes,” Lewis says. “That's what a great pair of shoes will do.”