The case for spending more money on shoes

If the shoe fits

A well-made pair of shoes is a beautiful thing, a piece of high craftsmanship.

You probably think you know a well-made pair of shoes. You’re probably wrong.

For years, I’ve owned Florsheims and other shoes like them – Aquilas, Rockports. My preferred make is a light brown brogue. They were sexy shoes. Sharp, sleek, and curvy. They cost me about $200 a pair, and I felt a million bucks.

The problem? They wore out. Like clockwork, they’d need to be replaced every two years.

The stitching on the Florsheims came off, and then the sole came off and my sock started poking out. The upper on the Rockports slowly separated from the sole at the front of the shoe, and eventually my foot got nice and wet.

I figured this was pretty normal for a shoe. Every shoe I’ve owned since primary school followed the same basic pattern, going to pieces – quite literally – after about two years of wear.

A better boot

But, as I discovered, there is a better way

Despite paying what I thought was a significant sum of money, $200 does not get you a lot of shoe where quality is concerned.

Before I replaced my shoes yet again, I set out to do some research on shoes. Here’s what I learned

  • Most shoes, right up to the $200 pair, have glued soles. This is a key weak-spot. More on this in a sec
  • On a proper pair of shoes, a worn out sole is an expected consequence of wear, and can be fixed – just like you might fix a car
  • Well-maintained, a pair of business shoes can go forever

$200 shoes have leather uppers glued to the sole. Over time, this glue fails and comes apart. When this happens, a cobbler can reglue the shoe, but it will be forever weaker than before, and will inevitably fail again.

A nicer pair of shoes, a seriously nice pair of shoes, has what is known as a Goodyear welt. These are expensive to make, requiring hand-stitching and careful workmanship. They are also the key feature behind a shoe that will last forever.

To the layman a Goodyear welt is identifiable by a line of double-stitching clearly visible on the sole of the shoe. This is known as the welt seam. I now judge my fellow businessmen by who is welt-seemed and who is not.

The welt lies between the upper and the sole of the shoe, firmly anchoring both together via stitching. When the sole wears out, as it inevitably will, the sole can be replaced and a new one reattached to the welt, without effecting the upper of the shoes.

In this manner, the upper can be preserved, theoretically forever, while the sole of the shoe can be replaced again and again. Shoes that never wear out.

Welt heeled

I decided to pick up a pair of Goodyear welt shoes from McCloud Shoes in Melbourne. These boys are the real deal. The shop smells delightfully of leather, in the way that fancy furniture shops smell of oil and wood.

You take a seat in a chair, and a salesman works with you one-on-one to find exactly the right pair for your feet. I spent a good hour with mine as he walked me through the intricacies of shoe-making. The customer service was almost worth the price of entry alone. After I bought the pair, McClouds reworked all the inner surfaces with foam and insoles to shape each shoe perfectly to my trotter. McClouds is a proper family operation; one of their shoes is even made by an entrepreneurial brother.

After doing my research, I settled on a Loake. This venerable company has been hand-stitching its shoes in England since 1880 and has won a deserved reputation for quality.  Each pair takes eight weeks to make (you can watch the whole process here). I went with a pair of Buckinghams in brown. They are objects of great beauty.

I have now been wearing them nearly every work day for a year. They are aging superbly, the leather softening and taking on a slight amount of personalised wear. The eyelets, often the first to go in a shoe, remain intact. Not a single stitch has slipped. If anything they look more beautiful than when I purchased them.

So far, I’m not ahead on my $600 investment, but I’m looking good. Come back to me in five years.