The importance of a shoe last is one of the most overlooked aspects of buying and wearing men’s shoes.
When choosing new shoes, most men, even those with an interest in shoes, will focus mainly on the style of the shoe i.e. are they looking for an oxford, loafer, derby, brogue? etc, with a secondary consideration being the leather used.
So the process goes something like this; “I want a new pair of shoes to wear with jeans. I’d like dark brown suede because that works well with denim, and a cap toe derby with a medallion on the toe will add texture and surface interest.”
Once that criteria is decided upon, they’ll then set about finding a shoe which matches that criteria. But that process doesn’t consider the most crucial and most overlooked aspect of the shoe – the last.
The last is the shaped block of wood or plastic composite which a shoe is built around. Bespoke or made to measure typically uses a hand shaped wooden last, whereas anything on a production line generally uses a plastic composite.
The last does a couple of key things which make it so important. Primarily, fit and aesthetics. First and most obviously, in setting the unique shape of the shoe, the last determines how it will fit a given foot. In practical terms, what this means is that a size 8 isn’t a size 8. It might be a size 8 with a narrow heel, low instep, wide forefoot and long toe box, or the exact opposite.
From a fit point of view, this really matters. If you get it wrong, you’re going to wind up with a shoe which is technically the correct size, but is all over the place in terms of fit and comfort. This is why finding a last which fits your foot (either perfectly for well executed bespoke, or well for ready to wear) is so valuable.
Given the proclivity of men to find something they like (i.e. jeans, a suit block, shirt style or shoe), stick with it and then buy it repeatedly either when it wears out or in different colours or materials, you can see how finding the right last pays off over time.
Many men make the mistake of thinking that the main and best reason for having bespoke shoes made is the ability to choose all of the details (leathers, lining, personalised details etc) but it isn’t. It’s fit (in the same way I wrote about the most important thing in a suit a while ago). Bespoke shoes are valuable because of how well they fit. Being able to choose the details and personalise them is a secondary benefit. All of that is working on the assumption that the maker actually gets the fit right.
I know I harp on about St. Crispin’s made to measure offering, but it really is the best value for money product in the market, combing a personalised last, with all of the other freedoms of choice afforded to bespoke.
The second element of a lasts function is aesthetics. Whilst the dimensions of a shoe will affect its aesthetics insofar as having a narrow heel will look narrower at the back, for example, the aesthetics of a last tend to be most noticeable and unique in the toe-box.
It’s taken me years and buying a lot of shoes to understand the style of last I like and what my perfect shape is, that being a fairly classic English aesthetic of a semi-rounded, slightly a-symmetrical toe box. Classic and simple. My feet are slightly larger, proportionally, than the rest of my body, which means anything with a long toe box makes my feet look too big. So a short, rounded toe box which follows the line of my toes closely, and stops quickly, helps to keep everything in proportion and it just looks right.
When I had my bespoke Cleverley’s made a few years ago, I hadn’t really given any consideration to the shape of the toe-box as I didn’t yet understand how important it was or what shape I most liked. Cleverley are known for their “suspiciously square” toe and whilst I could have requested a rounded toe, I thought it would be a good idea to go with what they’re known for and see what a square toe would look like. In hindsight, maybe not the best decision to take a punt on a £3,000 pair of shoes.
I still love the shoes. They’re my first pair of bespoke shoes and so much about them makes me happy, but I’ve worn them maybe half a dozen times in the 3 or 4 years I’ve owned them because I just don’t like looking down at that square toe-box. Plus, they run a bit long, making my feet look too big. I’ll have this rectified by re-lasting them when I’m next in London, changing to a shape more in line with my preference, but it’s a costly error to make.
Crockett and Jones “Cavendish” loafer and Edward Greene’s “Belgravia” are my ideal loafers (and for many others as well, given their cult followings). They fit almost perfectly, and are so well balanced, visually, that they work with just anything else you wear (as long as they leather is the right match for the texture of your clothes). But that’s just me. You might not like them and you need to find a last which you feel at home in.
It all boils down to those two elements of fit and aesthetics. Once you’ve identified a last which fits well and is a good match for the natural proportions of your feet, then it’s a matter of making sure that they’re visually appealing (to you, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks). If you can find a last which can give you both of those things, you’ll have shoes that you look forward to wearing every day and can then go about building a collection which you love.