When choosing shoes, the main consideration for most men is typically the style and design of the shoe. Do you want a loafer? Double monk? Cap-toe oxford? Then it’s a matter of finding the colour and type of leather that you want. This is the same for ready to wear, made-to-measure or bespoke, it’s just that with the latter two, you have the freedom of choice to find exactly what you want, rather than relying on luck for the manufacturer to have made something close enough to what you were looking for.
What’s often overlooked, though, is the last itself, which should be the first consideration as it has such a major influence over the look of the shoe on the person who’s wearing it. The last is effectively the entire frame around which the shoe is built, it’s something which shoemakers and designers agonise over and if its proportions and design aren’t complimentary to the wearer, no amount of other design and colour choices will make it look right.
To overlook the design influence of the last and assume that a cap-toe oxford is a cap-toe oxford, is equivalent to assuming that a Ferrari 458 Spider and an Mazda MX5 are aesthetically the same thing, because they’re both convertibles. Whilst they technically fall into the same category, they’re aesthetically poles apart and you’re not likely to get the two confused in a side by side comparison.
Finding or making a last which suits your style preferences and physical characteristics makes every subsequent purchase in that last so much more enjoyable and satisfying. It comes down to finding a balance between fit and aesthetics.
Fit: Has to be the first priority. If the last doesn’t hold your foot comfortably and securely then the shoe is useless. It’ll either go unworn, or rarely worn, due to discomfort, which can be a result of being both too tight and too loose. With ready to wear, this can take some time to find a maker who has a last which is well suited to the shape of your foot. Bespoke and made-to-measure are able to make a last specific to your foot, so your chances of getting the fit right are much higher, but don’t expect perfection on the first pair. Fortunately, the better makers in ready to wear have a diverse range of lasts, giving you a pretty good chance of finding something which will work. Gaziano and Girling, Carmina, Barbanera and Crockett and Jones all have lasts which fit me well and I have fairly hard to fit feet (narrow heel, wide forefoot, low instep). Interestingly, I’m yet to find a last which fits comfortably from two of my favourite makers Edward Green and John Lobb.
Aesthetics: As with tailoring, once fit is taken care of, aesthetics are the next consideration, which comes down to both proportion and personal preference. In regards to proportion, if you have feet which are proportionally smaller or larger than the rest of your body (more common than you’d think) it’s about using the right last to compensate for the proportional difference. In my case, my feet are about 1 size larger, proportionally, than the rest of me, meaning a good last will help to minimise the appearance of size. This is difficult to do because of my wide forefoot. A shoe which is wide enough to accommodate my forefoot typically tends to run too long in the toe, making my feet look even larger than they are. So for me, a good last comes to a more abrupt end at the toe box, in order to shorten the overall length. Part of the reason I like my Barbanera loafers so much is that they do this so well, rounding off quickly in the toe-box and bringing my feet back into better aesthetic proportion to the rest of my body. Crockett and Jones “Cavendish” loafer has the same effect.
We’re getting to the same point with my St. Crispin’s last (their “Classic” last), having made the first pair with a good amount of room, refining the second pair by a few millimetres and we’ll do the same again on my next pair, which should see them just about right for all future pairs to be made off.
The final point is then personal preference. Do you prefer a more square toe, something more classically rounded or somewhere in between? The finished shape and length of the toe will have a significant impact on the look of the shoe, more so than any other design element of the last and it’s something you have to really like.
As with most other things for men, we tend to wait until we find something we like, then stick with it for a long time (or for life), so when having future shoes made or buying ready to wear, get a thorough understanding of the last options available from the maker and ideally try the same design on in different lasts, before even thinking about the actual design of the upper.