A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"English Shoemaking At Its Most Refined" - An Interview with Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, Chairman, Foster & Son/Henry Maxwell Ltd. (Part I)

Foster & Son, the venerable boot and shoemakers, have been producing their exquisite works of art since 1840. Recently, Frank Clune at Foster & Son was kind enough to pass along a few questions to Chairman Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson. Here, then, are Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson's responses to my emailed questions, which offer his unique perspective on many topics, including the history of the company, the new MTO service, and the state of the industry. Many thanks to Mr. Clune and Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson for their time and consideration.

Tell us a little bit about the history of Foster & Son. Was Foster & Son
originally an entirely bespoke operation? Are bespoke shoes made entirely on the premises? When did the company first introduce ready-to-wear shoes?

Foster & Son was founded in 1840 and Henry Maxwell in 1750. Both companies have interesting histories. Foster & Son was always what one would now call a shoemaker, although, as I’m sure you know, the shoe, rather than the ankle-length boot was only widely worn from about 1910 onwards. Foster & Son was an entirely bespoke operation until 1965 when Terry Moore joined us. Our bespoke work is mainly done in our workshop at 83 Jermyn Street and, as is the case with the other London bespoke makers, we have an extended family of highly skilled outworkers.

Henry Maxwell was originally a spurrier and had a long list of military and Royal clients. We’re still looking at the archive to pinpoint the date that Henry Maxwell first started to make boots but we believe that it was around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, though Sassoon suggests 1870 or so.

Can you tell us a bit about how someone from Terry Moore's generation would have been trained to be a shoemaker? How does that differ from the ways in which one of your current apprentices is being trained? Is it a fairly similar process when comparing eras or have things changed

The actual training has hardly changed at all over the last 150 years and the fundamentals haven’t changed since the abandonment of straight lasts during the Regency period, which takes us back 200 years. We don’t use CAD, 3-D modelling or any modern technology and our people have been trained to use traditional tools for last making, clicking and so on, even making our own thread and the traditional pig’s bristle for bottom making. The major innovation of the last century or so has seen the introduction of the specialized electric sewing machine for closing work, replacing foot-powered machines.

It still takes many years to become an accomplished shoemaker, but the training is much more focused these days. Terry Moore trained at another well-known firm in the 1950s and was expected to learn the whole business, so he started in the wood turning factory, then spent his mornings recording details of orders, and afternoons running errands and packing parcels, and then spent a year blacking boots and polishing. Only then was he allowed to start with last alterations, and then last making. He was not allowed to see a customer until he had about 10 years’ training and made his first overseas trip after about 15 years. At Foster & Son we focus on one skill at a time and then the shoemaker branches out into other areas. People learn different skills at different speeds but we reckon you need to dedicate more than 5 years to be truly competent in one area and then you keep on learning.

Tell us about the current offerings available at Foster & Son? Is there essentially one ready-to-wear line available? Or are there tiers of ready-to-wear offerings? Is there an MTO program?

Our flagship offering is of course our fully bespoke service. As more people are looking for something totally unique, we find a lot of demand not only for shoes, ankle boots and long boots, but also other leather goods such as briefcases, portfolios and other articles made to the customer’s specifications.

Some of Foster & Son's offerings on the 337 last.

Our Goodyear welted ready-to-wear line reflects our long tradition of being a top quality house that is also accessible to customers on more limited budgets, so you can actually buy a Foster shoe for £365 and a Henry Maxwell country shoe or ankle boot at a similar price. Then our main bench made collection is constructed to a standard that might be called “hand grade” by other houses, and has a strong following.

Plain toe derbies on the 337 last.

As a bespoke house we are strong believers in the value of a fully bespoke shoe and we have not had a MTO offering for several years, but we have always done our best to accommodate special requests in our ready to wear line. As we introduce our Heritage Collection on a new set of lasts we also plan to include a MTO service. So if you care about shoes but can’t afford bespoke there should be something for you in our Foster & Son or Henry Maxwell offering.

Wingtip tassel loafers.

Recently, Foster & Son established an online presence at Style Forum. What was the motivation behind that effort?

Foster & Son historically has built its business almost entirely on personal recommendation, and has a strong “insider” following, but clearly it makes sense to move with the times. We are a very personal business and have been cautious about social media but we are hugely enthusiastic about our work and feel we have a fascinating story to tell, so Style Forum is an excellent way for us to reach out to a knowledgeable and enthusiastic group of people. We also hope that engaging with a group of this quality will keep us on our toes: there’s nothing healthier than honest feedback!

Based on some of the posts that I've read in your affiliate thread at Style Forum, there seems to be a healthy respect and maintenance of a vintage Foster & Son shoe collection, which is something you don't necessarily see at some of the other English shoemakers. How extensive are the archives? Can a prospective bespoke client have a look for inspiration when contemplating an order?

The archives are quite extensive, with paper records and shoe samples going back to the nineteenth century reflecting the high quality and global reach of the business. It is a challenge to effectively curate the material whilst running a business, but we are gradually turning the archive into a historical narrative. 

The vintage shoe collection is large and is an important historical and aesthetic resource. Some are in delicate condition, but we believe that they should be made available to give pleasure and inspiration rather than being locked away in a museum. We believe that shoe lovers know that the ‘feel’ of a shoe or boot is vitally important and will handle them with respect.

Our collection reflects our design strengths and fashion changes over the years and is very wide ranging, so when commissioning a new pair of shoes there is plenty of inspiration for creating a new twist on an old theme.  

The appeal of burnishing and patina on new shoes seems to have taken on a life of its own in the last few years. Can you tell us about Foster & Son's "fading" process (which looks magnificent, by the way)? Is that a fairly recent innovation? Is it available for all RTW models?

The Foster & Son burnishing process was originally developed in our Workshop a long time ago to replicate the patina acquired by our bespoke samples that had been exposed to sunlight in our South facing window in Duke of York Street before we moved to Jermyn Street in 1965.

Foster & Son's impressive "fading" technique on display.

With the development of our new Heritage collection we felt that it was time to make the fading available to a broader range of customers. Given that leather is a natural product that varies from skin to skin, and you do not want your shoes ruined, this is not a job for the amateur! Each shoe responds differently to the treatment and is therefore unique.

To Be Continued . . .

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