Benjamin Klemann is a relic of a former time.
In his small shoemaking shop in central Hamburg he, his sons and a few employees sew custom shoes almost entirely by hand. Customers pay a minimum of 2,000 euros (2,720 dollars) for the first pair they buy.
Reorders cost a little less. Who pays that much money for shoes? “Most of my customers have difficult feet,” said Klemann. Others simply want to own their tailor-made, hand-finished dream shoe. There aren’t many shoemakers who can fulfil these demands.
There are about 3,300 businesses registered in Germany as shoemakers, but these are mostly shoe repair shops where customers have heels reattached and purses repaired. In Germany the central association for shoemakers in St Augustin near Cologne lists 100 workshops in the country where custom-made shoes are produced, according to the association’s president Helmut Farnschlaeder.
When searching for a shoemaker, customers should note the craftsman’s experience, said Helge Sternke of Bonn, author of a book about men’s shoes. Some simply take the measurements and then have the shoe sent out of the country to be produced by machine. Any shop offering tailor-made shoes for prices ranging from 500 to 700 euros can’t be a serious operation because each pair represents about 30 hours of handwork not including consultation and fitting.
It takes about 45 minutes just to provide an introduction to tailor-made shoes, said Klemann. The feet have to be measured, of course, by marking their outline on a piece of paper. In addition the foot’s contours are measured using a machine that makes a type of ink imprint. This helps easily recognize where the impact points are on the foot and any malpositions.
The shoemaker and customer then discuss how the shoe should look.
Most shoemakers begin their career by making a classic black Oxford or full brogue, known as wingtips in the US. They look just as well worn with a suit as with jeans.
The customer also has free choice of materials used. Eight of 10 pairs of shoes are made from calf leather. The customer who has everything can choose elephant hide, shark skin or crocodile leather.
Once all the selections are made, the actual work on the shoes begins.
The raw material must be cut to size, the insole tacked to it, the upper part of the shoe stamped out of the leather, pulled over the sole, smoothed and glued. Those are just the main steps to making a shoe. In three or four months and after many other steps the customer can go to the shop to try on a preliminary model.
“Many people think they should not be able to feel the shoe around their foot,” said Klemann. In fact the shoe must be snug at some points in the middle and back of the foot so that it can support it like a corset. That’s why close measurements are made at these points on the foot.
The shoemaker sews the sole on a frame, builds up the heel and cuts and files the shoe to the right size. Finally, cream is applied to the leather upper and the shoe is polished. Six months after the initial consultation the customer can pick up the handmade product.