True bespoke: A sit down with Saint Crispin's Phillip Car
With the term 'bespoke' casually tossed around as often as it is these days — and sometimes even used as a synonym for made-to-order/made-to-measure — it does get a little tough taking it seriously. But rest assured, luxury shoemaker Saint Crispin's is the real deal.
Founded in 1985 out of Vienna, the company functions on a single pair order basis — their craftsmen work on each and every pair of shoes from their workrooms in the Carpathian Mountains. Their output of 1500 pairs of shoes per year may seem small by any standard, but that only comes with their uncompromising dedication to producing all their wares from scratch, and going above and beyond to cater to the requests of their clientele; which also happens to include actor Will Smith.
We sit down with Saint Crispin's owner Phillip Car to discuss the craft of shoemaking, its common misconceptions and, of course, style and comfort.
I would say the buzzwords in shoemaking are... comfort, support and design. You can have a comfortable pair of shoes that provide good support but looks like a pair of Crocs. Our shoes are beveled at the sides of the arch, providing great support, and they are made to keep you comfortable even when standing for long periods of time. People in Asia tend to have narrower heels, but are a little broader up top. This is something that we respond and adapt to by combining different types of widths for one pair of shoes instead of sticking to a standard width all around, which ensures comfort and a good fit for our customers.
My background in IT and consuling has definitely helped the business. For example, the ordering system that we have is one of the most modern and efficient, and I wrote the concept for that. We lose no time between the different stages from when the order comes, all the way to completion of the final product. It also provides a constant update on the status of the order. This is key to us delivering quickly, and it's how I apply my background to my craft now.
Our competitive advantage over other shoemakers is... our flexibility and short delivery time. We start from scratch for every single pair, even when it's an order from a retailer. Our retailers get to customise their stock to a degree as well, with some input from myself. We encourage them to do so because we want them to end up with a signature collection of their own; a special range that's unique to them. After all, they have the best knowledge and understanding of their clientele. As far as individual customers go, it's a collaborative process and we do let them get creative, which some of them are, extremely. We allow customisation right down to the very last detail.
The most interesting order I have received is... a request for a side zipper on a crocodile leather boot. In shoemaking, zips are always sewn into the upper, and if the zip breaks, the upper needs to be dismantled for the replacement of a new zip. On such an expensive shoe, you wouldn't want to take that chance. We ended up giving the customer what he wanted as he insisted, and we gave him due warning. Another interesting request was a customer bringing in a pair of his shoes from the 1960s, and getting us to craft a new pair in that exact design for him. You really don't see the design that he requested for around much nowadays.
It's important to invest in your shoes because a pair with great support and fit protects your knees and back
The common misconception about shoemaking is... that the colour should always be consistent, like a RAL colour code. They don't take into consideration the fact that each pair is handcrafted and hand-stained. A difference in grain and shade should be expected. Every pair is unique and that's the beauty in it.
People buy a pair of Saint Crispin's shoes because... we're unique and exclusive, producing only 1500 pairs of shoes a year. And we respond well to their needs. A great fit should also be guaranteed. That's one of the reasons why bespoke shoes are so expensive.
My fondest memory while wearing a pair of Saint Crispin's is... the feeling of comfort despite walking for hours on end. And also the compliments that I receive on them.
Looking back, the greatest challenge for the company so far... was the crisis in 2008. We didn't have as broad a customer base at that time, and we had two big retailers carrying our shoes. Both of them nearly stopped ordering from us during that period. Now we have nearly 20 retailers worldwide, as it is important for us to spread our small output correctly. It makes no sense to limit ourselves geographically. It's uninteresting, and not in our nature to do so. We like to share.
The best way to look after your shoes is... by using shoetrees and wax. Never let the leather dry out, and don't wear the same pair of shoes everyday. Once in three days is fine. Rotate your shoes. Maintenance is so important if you want a pair to last you decades. Of course, you need to get them re-soled from time to time, as that comes with wear and tear.
It's important to invest in your shoes because... a pair with great support and fit protects your knees and back. Plus you'll look good all the time, and it's never a bad thing to look good.
Saint Crispin's is available at Leong T (in Sultans of Shave), 11 North Canal Road