‘A shoe has something sensual – you’re selling a piece of temptation’
– Wopke Grobben.
As old, if not older than the ark, shoes have been around in many forms throughout the ages, the oldest known pair of shoes being sandals and dating from 8000 to 7000 BC. With the rise of wealth in Europe in the Middle Ages, shoes left the realms of being made solely as a protection for the foot and became status symbols, often with over-exaggerated features. By 1800, a sew-on-sole had appeared and shoes consisted of a left and right foot, as opposed to “straights” where both shoes were identical.
Since the mid-20th Century, with modern day techniques, machinery and the added use of synthetic materials, most people nowadays possess at least one pair of shoes. Mass production, has led to the time honoured craft of the shoemaker, like so many things, becoming a dying art.
It is with this in mind, and a curiosity as to how a good quality pair of shoes are made that I decided to pay Wopke Grobben’s studio a visit. The shop, is one that I have passed many times, so it was a treat to finally set foot inside. Tools lined the walls, machines both antiquated (his favourite a German Pfaff) and modern, were waiting for action, whilst a portfolio of finished shoes lined the walls, each waiting for the appropriate wearer to come and claim them. As I entered, Wopke, sporting a Dali-esque mustache, greeted me and we sat down at the enormous central wooden worktable with steaming cups of tea.
I asked him what made him become a shoe designer. It seems that ten years ago, unable to find a particular style of pointed boots he decided to take matters into his own hands and learn how to make his own. There followed a period of study where he learnt not only the trade, but the business side too. A stint as a trainee with a court supplier meant that he learnt his trade literally from the basics up. This included the mundane sharpening of tools and sewing of paper patterns. This he says was an invaluable lesson, and has enabled him to produce a perfect end product.
To make a shoe, a ‘last’ (wooden shoe form) has to be made from a casting of the wearer’s feet. This is carved and shaped until it is a perfect blueprint and can be used time and time again. Combine this with details about the wearer and the success of the shoes is assured. ‘Shoes compliment the person’ says Wopke. He explains that everyone has their own tone colour and personal palette, which when combined with lifestyle details, and not forgetting the time honoured principle of the golden ratio, results in the creation of the perfect pair of shoes. This sounds like a magical formula reminiscent of a fairytale, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ by The Grimm Brothers.
Wopke says he has no shortage of ideas of what to make, it’s a question of which he would like to make next! For inspiration, he looks to the era of Louis XV, the 1940’s, books and films. Colour he said, he has had to learn. Materials and leathers, he acquires from a supplier who brings him sample pieces from Italy. One by one the shoes and boots are brought to the table and shown to me to illustrate points of style and how the same shoe can look in different materials. Shoes where he has used the horns of a cow for the heels, a radical pair of red and black boots (perfect for a party), a shoe whose design consists of one continuous line and (my personal favourite), a beautiful pair of purple high-heeled court shoes with Marie Antoinette heels, where every gold-coloured tack is visible on the soles. The latter I held, and can only say that not only is the workmanship perfect, but these shoes have a real weight to them, unlike their commercially produced counterparts.
With at least a hundred man hours in the making, it’s no wonder that you may pay a little more for these, but the advantage of handmade shoes is that they fit the foot perfectly, improve with age, last considerably longer and have been made for no one else but you!