Home Fashion A London Shoe Shop Says Custom Work Can Be Speedy

A London Shoe Shop Says Custom Work Can Be Speedy

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About two years ago, a new tenant moved into Savile Row, the London street known as a center of men’s tailoring for more than 200 years.

Rather than custom-made wool trousers and silk-lined jackets, however, Arthur Sleep sells bespoke shoes for men, women and children, crafted by hand in as few as five hours by shoemakers working in the store’s basement.

And what says love for Valentine’s Day more than a pair of handmade shoes?

“We give you that experience where you are actually meeting a maker,” said Jahangir Azam, 37, who founded the company in 2013 with a college friend, Christopher Boadle, 38. “We’re measuring you, and you’re going through a process where you can have something completely bespoke. I don’t think anybody else does this on the planet, where you can have something in this time frame.”

The founders were sitting in the small office that they share, down the hall from a workroom where one shoemaker was hand-cutting suede tassels for a pair of loafers while another was stretching leather over a last — the industry term for a foot-shaped mold — to create a men’s dress shoe.

Upstairs, in a large space that Arthur Sleep shares with the men’s wear brand Cad & The Dandy, were sample shoes: evening slippers in velvet and cashmere, detailed with initials and illustrations embroidered in bright silk thread; slip-on loafers; refined sneakers; women’s flats; children’s slippers adorned with images of teddy bears and elephants. The footwear is offered in black and brown leather, of course, but there also is periwinkle blue suede, wool tweed and colorfully patterned pieces of vintage Turkish kilim.

In general, the styles are more casual than what is available from the nearby stores founded by venerable custom shoemakers, such as John Lobb and George Cleverley — which ordinarily would not be making shoes from the swatches of leopard print and orange nubuck in Arthur Sleep’s bright and airy boutique-style showroom.

Mr. Boadle said that, before starting the business, he and Mr. Azam had found that men’s footwear “was always very uninspiring to us as younger guys. We wanted to inject all the different colors, and the fabrics, and the essences of the designs.”

The sensibility, and myriad options, seems to be resonating with customers: Mr. Azam declined to disclose the annual revenue for the privately owned company, but he said that about 70 percent of its customers come back for at least a second pair. Prices range from 350 pounds ($444) for a pair of children’s velvet loafers to £1,750 for a pair of men’s suede mountain boots with snow grips.

Elena Caslini, who works at an art gallery in Milan, bought a pair of brown crocodile-print patent leather flats in October during a business trip to London. “Because there were just so many different types of colors that you could combine, I thought buying the shoes was sort of a creative process, and fun thing to do,” she said. “I didn’t see it as an old-fashioned, posh thing to do.”

And then there was the proximity of the business’s five shoemakers.

“As a shopper, it’s very satisfying to be able to go in and see somebody actually making them,” said Nicholas Coleridge, the provost elect of Eton College and a former president of Condé Nast International, who owns three pairs of Arthur Sleep slippers with custom embroidery.

“It makes it feel much more authentic,” he said, “to know that they’re being made by people that you can actually see in the basement sewing away and doing it.”

Mr. Azam and Mr. Boadle have been friends since they met on their first day as undergraduates at the University of Kent in Canterbury, about 60 miles southeast of the brand’s Mayfair headquarters. In 2007, they both earned degrees in business with focuses on finance and economics.

For about five years after graduating, Mr. Azam worked as a junior financial analyst for the British investment bank Standard Chartered, while Mr. Boadle worked with friends to establish an educational consulting business.

In 2011, as they were setting up a meat distribution company, the men were invited to a friend’s black-tie wedding. Mr. Azam couldn’t find suitable slippers for his outfit so he searched online for shoemakers in Northampton, the English town known as a hub for footwear manufacturing. They decided to take a road trip there, a couple of hours north of London, and ordered custom-made shoes. A shared love of craftsmanship, along with the compliments they received at the wedding, led them to shift from meat to their own shoe brand.

Arthur Sleep was introduced in 2013, initially selling shoes online that were made by contracted shoemakers, including several in Northampton who had been lured out of retirement by the men. (At the beginning, the business only offered evening slippers, which inspired its name — Cockney slang for “half asleep.”)

Five years later, the business moved into an 850-square-foot manufacturing facility in the Lea Valley, northeast of central London, to focus solely on custom-made footwear. It still has the space, now used as a storage site.

Today, buying Arthur Sleep shoes at the Mayfair shop begins with two measurements: imprints of both feet in a box lined with biodegradable foam and images of the feet made with a 3-D scanner. From those impressions, a heat-resistant plastic resin last is made on the premises within an hour, and the craftspeople downstairs get to work.

(Depending on the shoe, customers who prefer ordering online are sent a kit that includes foam-filled boxes for impressions.)

Men’s shoes make up 65 percent of Arthur Sleep’s business, Mr. Boadle said, while a quarter of its sales are women’s and the remaining 10 percent are children’s shoes.

About half of the in-person clientele, they said, are visitors from the United States; 40 percent are from Britain and the remainder from other countries. Handwritten gift certificates have proved to be popular, especially for occasions like anniversaries and Valentine’s Day. Same day orders are common, but the typical turnaround time is three to four days.

Being on Savile Row is good for foot traffic — pun intended — but also helps position the brand, experts say.

“Savile Row is the epicenter of men’s fashion, the mother ship,” said Michael Macko, a men’s stylist and editor-at-large at MR, an online magazine focused on men’s fashion.

“That’s why people pay premium rent to be on Madison Avenue, or to be on Prince Street in SoHo,” he added, referring to two high-end retail streets in New York City. “You’re in the right neighborhood, you’re with the right people, you’re getting the right customers coming in.”

Or, as Mr. Azam put it, “Where better to bring in a new concept of shoemaking than the home of bespoke?”

He added that the brand was considering opening stores in New York or Miami, but finding a location as ideal as Savile Row is a challenge. “That’s the pain-point we’re in at the moment.”



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