Interviews

Sole Man

For 31 years, Michel Raballand, has been making shoes at John Lobb’s workshop on the Rue de Mogador in Paris. We caught up with the master bootmaker in Dubai, to get the lowdown on leather, lasers and lasts.

Rob Chilton

John Lobb started out in London back in 1866. Over the years the company’s specialist boot making techniques were passed down from one expert to the other. There has been no revolution in making shoes. Most things are done by hand and as Michel Raballand is about to explain to us, despite the development in technology and machinery, boot-making fundamentals have remained the same.

Michel, what’s the first step?

The journey starts with sketching the foot with a pencil and paper – we take lots of measurements. From this we have enough information to make the last (the foot-shaped mould), which is made out of hornbeam wood. We use this hardwood as it doesn’t move or change shape, then we start to build the shoes.

Are the measurements accurate?

About 10-12 years ago we tried using a laser to measure the foot but we found there was only a millimetre difference between our manual measurements and the machine. My measuring tape allows me to get a feeling for the customer’s foot, the fit, the comfort and the leather. I can see if there’s a vein on the foot or if the customer feels any pain so that I can adjust the leather. Also, my tape measure is small and easier to carry around than a laser machine!

How big is your bespoke department?

We have fifteen men and women in the team and we’re a mixture of senior shoemakers and some younger apprentices. It takes around 10 years to become a good bootmaker. I’ve worked at John Lobb for 31 years, but I’ve been making shoes for 35 years.

Is it difficult work?

It’s hard on the back and knees, it’s very physical work. After making the last, our hands are black. My hands are ok now but when young bootmakers start it’s very tough and you get many pains in your hands. But your hands adapt and become harder.

Do you wear gloves?

We don’t wear gloves because we need to feel the leather. If we wear a glove it’s impossible to be precise. The eyes and the hands must work together at the same time. When we stitch the leather we wear a piece of leather to protect our hand.

Do feet change?

Feet measurements will change from your 20s to your 60s. Very often the foot gets half a size bigger because the foot flattens. And when you’re younger maybe you prefer a tighter, more elegant shoe but as you get older you might want more comfort.

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There are 190 stages in making a shoe – is that right?

Yes, for ready to wear shoes, it’s about 190 stages. But for bespoke shoes, it’s much more because there are extra detail and adjustments to be made, plus more tools are used. It takes time: a pair of shoes takes around 50 hours to make.

What is the difference between bespoke and ready to wear?

In ready to wear shoes you might wear a size nine for example, the same size as everybody else. But bespoke shoes are unique for you. After you wear them you can see and feel the difference.

We try to have the best leather on the market, plus we use the same tannery as Hermes, so we can make many colours and propose some large, special ideas.
Where do you source your materials?

We are part of the Hermes group and so we have the power to source the most beautiful materials. We try to have the best leather on the market, plus we use the same tannery as Hermes, so we can make many colours and propose some large, special ideas. I know customers who go to smaller bootmakers and they say it’s fine, but they don’t have as many leathers to choose from because they cannot buy many types in the first place.

What makes John Lobb special?

It’s an old brand with a long tradition. We have very good craftspeople in our workshop and we are very precise with details. One of my colleagues has been with John Lobb for 35 years. We try to pass the baton to the younger generation of bootmakers and give them our spirit and experience – that’s really important.