What you need to know before buying leather shoes, according to a Savile Row shoemaker

Updated on May 24 2018

The shoes maketh the man, so they say. Yet contrary to the popular proverb, many tend to focus on building their wardrobe from the top down. And even when one decides to dress from the bottom up, the catch-22 doesn’t end there. The quest for well-made, perfect-fitting leather shoes — or maybe for finding out what all that truly means — can be a painstaking struggle in and of itself.

So who better than Tony Gaziano — co-founder and creative director of Gaziano & Girling, one of London’s finest made-to-order and bespoke shoemakers — to break it down for us?

tony gaziano
Tony Gaziano at work in Gaziano & Girling’s studio.

When G&G launched in 2006, Gaziano and business partner Dean Girling aimed to slash the normal waiting time of 10 months for a bespoke order to just two to three months, while still keeping their feet firmly planted on the grounds of old-world artisanship. The secret to their success, though, is very much underpinned by a deft versatility to modern men’s needs. “The rules have changed over the years,” Gaziano says. “And we try not to appeal to one certain idea of a customer, we try to appeal to everybody’s taste.”

G&G is the first shoe shop to open within the world-class cluster of tailors on Savile Row. Under their belt are partnerships with Ermenegildo Zegna Couture and Ralph Lauren. Actors Henry Cavill and Jason Momoa, even French actress Léa Seydoux, are among those who have put their trust for “proper” custom-made footwear into the hands of G&G craftsmen.

Backed by years of expertise in the cobbler trade, below is Gaziano’s beginner’s guide to leather shoes, from why one should consider bespoke to the due dilligence of shoe care.

Gaziano & Girling’s ready-to-wear and made-to-order selections are available via Kevin Seah, its sole stockist in Southeast Asia.

(Main and featured images: Gaziano & Girling)

Most shoes don’t fit you? Try bespoke

Asian men tend to have wide, flat feet structures, which don’t always snuggle right into the chiselled shape of Western footwear designs. If that sounds too familiar of a plight, Gaziano suggests going for bespoke options: “You will never know how good a shoe can fit until you have a bespoke shoe. We can sculpture the shoes around particular angles of the feet, camouflage certain unattractive parts, enhance the shape and work around it.”

Invest in decent classics

Oxfords are the do-no-wrong shoes. “It’s a shoe that can be worn for business and any other occasions,” Gaziano affirms. The closed lace boosts a sleeker appearance, so a pair of black plain-toe oxfords should be your safest go-to dress shoes. For a more formal and polished look, get a pair of cap-toe oxfords, which will have you at home in any boardroom.

Experiment with materials

The risk-taking cognoscenti may want to go further beyond the safety of tried-and-tested classics. Gaziano recommends exploring the variety of materials rather than styles. “You can have a hundred designs of shoes but if they’re made in similar materials, they don’t really catch people’s eyes. But interesting leathers like kudu, which is African deer skin, or the grains of an alligator skin, do.”

Rubber vs. leather soles

“You’ll never get the same level of craftsmanship out of rubber soles,” says Gaziano. “For true craftsmanship to burgeon, you have to have leather soles.” After all, G&G takes pride in its almost-ornamental oak bark soles that take up to 12 months to tan. But despite lacking in artisan aesthetic, rubber soles do come in handy. “I keep at least one pair of semi-formal rubber-soled shoes,” Gaziano admits. “You know, for those rainy days when you need to look smart.”

Visualise before purchase

“It’s important to visualise what you’re going to wear before buying shoes,” tips Gaziano. “A good guideline is black for true formality — weddings, funerals, black-ties — but then for business, it’s good to go for darker colours like burgundies and dark browns. For weekends, maybe go into tans and lighter browns. All those mid-browns go well with jeans.”

Are shoe trees important?

Shoe trees are essential. Period. “Anytime the shoes aren’t worn, shoe trees should be inside them,” advises Gaziano. Why, you ask? “When you wear shoes, usually you perspire so the leather becomes malleable and soft, so what happens when you put the shoe trees in is they absorb some of that moisture and reset the shape of the shoes.” 

Preferably, your shoe trees should be made of birch, cedar or any porous wood formed in the same shape of the lasts of your shoes.

Practise shoe care, religiously

“There are two things you need to have: Good quality cream and polish,” says Gaziano. “You need both. They have different purposes. The cream moisturises the leather, keeping it supple and giving it longer life — and if it’s good cream, a silky smooth patina. Whereas a polish is like a protective topcoat — you’re supposed to spit and polish so that you’ll create a layer of protection for your shoes.”

Gaziano encourages polishing two to three times after wearing. Apply the cream once the polish comes off. A full renovation — which entails polishing and moisturising — should be done at least once a month if you regularly wear them out.