Some of my favorite shoes, all ordered online.
Perhaps, the most infectious of all sartorial pursuits. Unlike clothing, the inherent three dimensionality of a shoe means that it can provide visual entertainment, even when it’s sitting on a shelf. Not to mention that shining a pair up; be it brand new or worn; is an extremely pleasurable endeavor on its own.
The global pandemic has drastically changed the business models of several industries; and the shoe industry is no exception. Traditional brands that heavily relied on a brick and mortar experience had to quickly adopt a digital approach; with varying levels of success. However; this brought forth a new breed of entrepreneurs. The Digital First shoe brand. Brands that have very limited or no physical shopping presence and rely almost exclusively on e-commerce.
For these entrepreneurs, this approach has several advantages. Having negligible physical presence means that they don’t need to maintain extensive inventory. Cutting the middleman also means that they have less overheads; which means they can offer a higher quality product at any given price.
Conversely, this also translate to manna from the heavens for shoe enthusiasts. Features and finish levels; which until a few years ago were relegated to expensive, bespoke orders are now available to us at a very fair price. And in many cases, we could configure our next pair of shoes exactly how we want it with a few clicks of the mouse; and not be limited by what the shoe brand thinks we should be able to purchase. A win win, you say?
Just one small problem.
Unlike a suit or a watch, a shoe offers next to no adjustability post purchase. While a tongue pad/ sole insert can to an extent, make a larger shoe wearable; and a cobbler could slightly stretch a smaller shoe, an ill fitting shoe will never feel “Right” on your feet.
Which IS a problem when it comes to the digital shoe purchase experience. As mentioned before, most of these brands do not maintain a stock inventory, which means that your order will be made exclusively for you. Which means that returns; more often than not, are impossible, and you will be stuck with a paperweight if you get it wrong. Fortunately, there are some tips that can prevent you from making a very expensive mistake. Here goes:
1. Know your true UK size:
While shoe manufacturers around the world use several sizing standards (US, UK, EU, JP etc.) , the gold standard for shoe sizing is the UK sizing standard. Even if a shoe maker uses a different standard, they will know what their shoe sizes translate to in the UK standard.
Furthermore, most online shoe brands maintain an extensive repository of shoe sizes across brands compared to their own brand; either by their own research or through feedback from existing customers. Therefore, the first bit of homework you have to do is to know your size in a quintessential brand such as Crockett & Jones.
It is also important that you know the WIDTH of your feet as well. While some brands offer a variety of shoe widths, many don’t. A pair of shoes in the incorrect width can quickly become a very uncomfortable proposition, and you will soon find yourselves making excuses NOT to wear them.
In the UK system, an F width is considered as “Standard”, an E “Narrow”, a D “Extra narrow”, while G and H are “Wide” and “Extra wide” respectively.
Most UK shoe brands offer their ready to wear collections in either E (e.g. Crockett & Jones) or F (e.g. Cheaney) widths. If you have never owned a pair of dress shoes before, I highly recommend that you start with one of these brands (Whose standard collections have very attainable prices). Fortunately, these UK brands are available in a variety of brick & mortar stores worldwide, so you can really nail down your fit by trying on different sizes.
If you’d rather start your shoe journey with these brands digitally as well, talk to their respective customer service teams with information such as your typical sneaker size and length & width of your feet etc. and they would be glad to help you find your size. Fortunately, both brands mentioned above have comprehensive return policies, so if you do end up with the wrong size, you can easily exchange it for the right one. Make sure to remember which last (Shoe shape, to put it simply) the shoe is in, this will be important later.
Once you do end up with a well fitting pair of dress shoes, you are set to commence your exciting digital shoe adventure!
2. Learn to describe your feet well:
Your feet are unique, just like you are. While shoe size and width help you get an approximation of what might fit you reasonably well, to really nail the fit, you need to pay attention to the anatomy of your foot.
This is important because while a standard factory made shoe is designed to fit as many types of feet as possible, an online, made to order shoe brand will have more specialized shoe shapes (Lasts) that may fit one foot type really well, but fit others quite poorly. The first and foremost deciding factor being your instep and foot arch.
If you have a low foot arch and instep, a shoe designed for high arch and instep will leave extra room on the top of the shoe, which will lead to extensive creasing of the leather and an overall loose, uncomfortable fit. Conversely, if you have a high arch and instep and you end up with a shoe meant for the opposite end of the spectrum, the shoe will be painfully tight around the lacing area and will offer next to no arch support (Which could lead to foot pain and even injuries down the road). So, it’s vital that you know what your instep and arch is like, and convey this to the shoe brand.
Another important criteria is to know whether you have thick or thin heels. A well fitting shoe is meant to cup your heel very tightly, so if you have thin heels and you end up buying a shoe that had a very wide heel area, the shoe will continue to slip as you walk, and will lead to a very irritating experience.
Additionally, it is also helpful to describe other characteristics of your feet such as whether they are fleshy or bony, whether you have think or thin ankles, whether your toes are pointy or more squared off, whether you have long or short toes etc. Make sure to also take pictures of your feet from different angles (Top down, from the sides, from the back etc.) Convey all this information; together with your standard UK size to the shoe brand, and they will help find the right size for you. In my experience, all the brands I have dealt with are quite honest and if the shoe you’re interested in is a poor fit for your foot anatomy, they will tell you upfront.
3. Pay attention to the last:
Remember how we talked about the “Last” earlier? This also plays a very important role on how a shoe will fit you.
A last, in shoe parlance; is a piece of wood (Or synthetic materials in some cases), around which a shoe is constructed. The shape of the last gives the shoe its shape. The most obvious element being the shape of the toe. Some lasts are more rounded, some are more squared off and “Chiseled”. And depending on the anatomy of your feet, they will fit you VERY differently. We will talk about toes shapes in detail in a subsequent article.
If you have pointy feet like me, a rounded toe shape will lead to too much room up front, which will result in your feet “Swimming”. However, the rounded toe shape works well for shoes you intend to walk long distances in, because as your feet expands with extensive walking, the extra room ensures that your toes are comfortable and not in pain. On the other hand, if you have a more squared off foot, a chiseled last may not fit you at all. Additional considerations will include how conservative/ bold your wardrobe is. Round toes shapes are generally more conservative while chiseled toes are more fashion forward.
The last shape also determines other important factors such as arch support, instep, heel shape, etc. Talk extensively to the shoe brand to ensure that the last you’re interested in will work for your foot anatomy. Some brands may even offer to make your desired shoe design in a different last than advertised, to better suit your needs.
It is also important to know that some shoemakers have lasts that run a bit smaller or larger than the advertised UK size. This means that you will need to size up/ down as needed from your true UK size in these lasts. It is important that you clear this up with the shoe brand as well.
4. Test shoes:
Some brands (e.g. Norman Vilalta)offer an additional service, that can alleviate that last 1% of doubt. The test shoe.
For a small, refundable cost, the brands can send you two (Or more) single shoes in multiple sizes, so that you can test them out and nail your fit. Once you have decided on your size, you can send the test shoes back and place your order. I find this service wonderful and highly recommend that you utilize it, if available. Especially if you’re in between sizes and want to be 100% certain before you place an order.
5. Final words:
It is highly recommended that your first online-only shoe order be an oxford shoe. Oxford shoes, by their nature are the most “Inflexible” when it comes to fit, so if you nail your fit in one, you can be fairly confident that other shoe designs such as derbies will fit you well.
It is also recommended that once you find a shoe brand that has great customer service before and after the purchase, and a last that fits your feet well, that you stick with them; at least until you have your capsule collection of shoes in place. Building a long term relationship with a shoe brand/ maker is a wonderful experience in itself and will pay off in the future as you get more experienced and want to experiment with your shoe designs. With each new shoe brand that you encounter, you have to repeat all of the steps outlined above to find your right fit. But of course, it gets easier and easier, the more experience you gather.
6. Getting started:
With all that said, let’s look at a few brands across a variety of budgets that you could explore: (Pricings are for a typical oxford shoe from the brands named, at the time of writing. Prices listed are inclusive of European VAT unless explained otherwise. If you reside outside the EU, the prices could be 19–21% cheaper. Please check with the brands directly for more accurate pricing.)
Nailing your UK size:
- Crockett & Jones Jones : EUR 450+ . The quintessential well made, British shoe. C&J has a variety of conservative and modern lasts and has something for pretty much anyone.
- Cheaney : GBP 300+ (Excluding VAT). Coming in cheaper than C&J, Cheaney is an excellent gateway into the world of quality shoes and was my personal starting point as well.
On a budget:
- Meermin : EUR 180 + . No personal experience, but generally well liked in the online communities for the price. Designed in Spain and made in China. I have heard reports that their shoes might be hard to break-in though
- Herring shoes: EUR 150+ excluding discounts and VAT. Herring is a UK based retailer who sells shoes under their own brand as well as from other english and european brands. Herring can also be an alternative to find your UK size as their customer service is excellent and have a comprehensive return/ exchange policy.
- Cru Nonpareil: USD 260+. Trinidad based Cru Non Pareil is a brand that offers a curated collection of mostly made to order shoes and caters to those with very wide or large feet.
- Carlos Santos (Reviews coming soon) : Best purchased via The Noble Shoe : EUR 300 + . While portugal based Carlos Santos has their own e-commerce site, I highly recommend the Noble Shoe for a vastly superior customer experience and sizing advice. Carlos Santos shoes offer unique hand painted patinas and very good build quality for the price.
- TLB Mallorca: (Reviews coming soon) EUR 350+ .Spanish company TLB has been one of the rising stars of the post pandemic online shoe shopping boom. Offering extremely high quality leathers from world renowned tanneries and beautiful, timeless designs, TLB is one of my favorites in this price category. They also offer extensive customization capabilities. The customer service is first class as well, which is sometimes handled by the owner; Toni himself!
- Carmina: EUR 345 + .Carmina is the number 1 shoe brand in Spain and has a cult like following online. But in my personal experience, the quality and customer service were not on par with the other brands in this category. Others might have a different experience. Carmina does have a great 3D configuration tool that helps you design your dream pair very easily.
It is highly recommend that you only jump into the higher end of the spectrum once you have gathered sufficient experience, even if your wallet can afford it. You will be faced with a myriad of options which might be overwhelming to the novice. At this price range, I usually spend days and weeks discussing with the brands on the exact makeup I want, before placing an order.
- Antonio Meccariello (Reviews coming soon): EUR 550+ for “Argentum ready to wear” line: Napoli based Antonio Meccariello offers basically endless customization, most of which cannot be found on the website. It is recommended that one starts with a ready to wear shoe (Which still takes about 2–4 weeks to be finished), and only branch out further once one understands the brand and the make himself a bit better. Antonio’s shoes are impeccably built from the finest materials and are built to last a lifetime.
- Paolo Scafora (Reviews coming soon): EUR 1100+: Another Neapolitan, family owned shoemaker, Paolo Scafora is the go-to option if you cherish Norwegian braided construction in your shoes. Scafora offers an easy to use, online configuration tool with which one can build their dream shoe with a few clicks. The customer service is first class as well.
- Norman Vilalta (Reviews coming soon): EUR 1100 + : Argentina born; Barcelona based Norman Vilalta has taken the high end shoe making world by storm with his innovative takes on classic designs and incredible patina work. Norman offers a variety of shoes as Ready To Wear on his website, but any of his current and historic designs can be made-to-order in custom makeups, after consultation with the team.
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