Handmade Vs Handcrafted Shoes | An Over-Exploited Buzzword in 2020

John Lobb Bespoke

Everything Is Handmade In 2020

These days, everything qualifies as “Handmade” or “Handcrafted“. This is especially true in the shoe industry but also extends to virtually everything. Everybody and their grandma in 2020 can make a pair of shoes and say it is Handmade or Bespoke. Today we are looking at a few very important and different things. First of all we will discuss the difference of “Handmade Vs Handcrafted Leather Shoes“.

Then the idea is to educate ourselves about these common buzzwords whose sole purpose is to create enthusiasm and credibility and drive sales. Because businesses are definitely counting on those emotions and associations with some words to sell you something not so accurate.

Let’s dive into this hot topic. Or better say hot potato!

Shoes Are A Refined Expression

One of the most important parts of a man’s wardrobe is his shoes. In this age where we walk and run all the time, it is important to do that in a good, comfortable pair of shoes. Good shoes support your feet and essentially your whole body weight and become better with time.

As we grow up and try out new things we evolve and so does our taste in shoes. Luckily, men have a wide variety to choose from with Brogues, Classic OxfordsChelsea Boots and Loafers among others. Many famous quotes associate shoes with success and class and even more say that women will always look at a man’s shoes first.

Ascot Vass Handmade vs Handcrafted Shoes
Gorgeous Alligator Vass Single Monks – Photo by Ascot Shoes

It becomes an artistic expression. But buying a pair of expensive shoes does not make you automatically a gentleman and the same goes for putting on a nice suit. This is why I attempt to educate others (and myself) about Shoe Construction or the Types of Shoe Leather.

Unfortunately, the lies in the industry have to stop (but they won’t) and 2020 is surely going to be the “Year of the Scammer“. Quite a controversial term but there are so many of them out there. Let’s do our best though and not buy 15$ Shoes from AliExpress.

Handmade Vs Handcrafted Shoes – Terminology

Terminology is often one of the most misunderstood or misinterpreted things in the world. For a good reason too. Both Handmade and Handcrafted sound extremely similar. However, the definitions are pretty clear when you think about it.

The word “Handmade” implies that something has been made by hand. Completely. Entirely. This is a shoe (or item for that matter) that is 100% made by hand without any use of  machinery.

On the other hand, we call “Handcrafted” something that is a mixture of the above and hand-operated machinery.

According to a very fascinating scientific article from the Technology Innovation Management Review (Source):

“Luxuries that are handmade using only traditional tools and techniques or that involve personal delivery by highly skilled individuals persist in their capacity to command high prices beyond the reach of the general population. Moreover, they might even become rarer as the skills required in their production become increasingly scarce.”
TIM Review, July 2015


This should already hint at the fact that real Handmade Shoes are extremely rare, laborious experiences that command the highest prices possible. Thinking about that, how could a shoe that costs a mere few hundred Dollars (say like Carmina) be Handmade? This is because they are Handcrafted instead.

Now, there is of course a reason for all of this. Time, effort and efficiency. With the advancements and precision of machinery it is now much easier and faster to make a decent shoe. Few people have the luxury to pay thousands of dollars for a bespoke shoe. Machinery allows you to still create a very high quality Handcrafted product which is the case for 99.9% of the shoes out there.

A room of re-usable lasts

This however does not mean that it is really easy or all end products are equal or quality. But it should also not take away from the fact that it takes a skilled craftsman to take some raw materials and produce something amazing.

There is a very fine line in a sense when it comes to Handmade Vs Handcrafted Shoes. When you look at the absolute term, almost everybody is lying. But would you call Saint Crispin’s, a shoe that is 95% Handmade with ancient traditional techniques a liar? Of course you wouldn’t!

This is more directed towards those that use the word in every opportunity to upsell a product. The same sadly happens with the word “Bespoke” that people throw around like candy nowadays. I challenge you to do a Google Search about “Bespoke Shoes” and see what comes up. Nike comes up and Undandy among others. The latter has at least the decency to say Handcrafted in their title.

The Three Tiers Of Shoemaking

There are a lot of details in a pair of good shoes and a ton of amazing brands out there. Simply check out the Under 400$ Best Shoes Article for an idea. However, you can divide them into 3 big categories. Let’s take a closer look.

Bespoke

Antonio-Meccariello-Italian-Shoe-Maker
One of the finest shoemakers – Antonio Meccariello by Bespoke Unit

A term that requires a lot of research and discussion, however is much simpler in essence. A Bespoke Shoe is a Fully Handmade Shoe specifically for you from the ground up. It uses a wooden last built to your exact specifications from scratch. Every single aspect of the shoe is by Hand such as the lasting, welting and even soling. It is a very long process that requires incredible precision and handiwork and how people used to make shoes a long time ago.

Bench-Grade

Most of the bigger companies use high quality re-usable plastic lasts and has a very interesting background. Essentially, shoemakers worked from a bench while making shoes with the aid of machinery. This is the most common category for many Goodyear Welted Brands around the world.

Best Men's Dress Shoes 2019 | Zeb Shoes Lasts
The 6 Different Lasts of Zeb Shoes

In more classic factories each machine has its own special operator that focuses on one shoe at a time (Thank you Sonya Glyn!).

Mass Production

Cheap materials, low quality plastic lasts, cemented construction and quantity over quality is the name of the game here. From the sneaker industry to the fast fashion produced brands that aim to take the least amount of time to make the maximum amount of shoes possible.

Many Sneakers
Sneakers are a prime example of mass production

These are the ones that you should definitely avoid no matter what.

But Is There Really Such A Thing As Fully Handmade?

Theoretically, yes. Technically, no! Even Bespoke Shoemaking actually uses a machine to stitch the uppers together. It makes absolutely no sense for them to stitch it by hand unless we are talking for an apron for example. Justin pointed this out a few years ago in one of his articles. It is just better to use a sewing machine for that.

Saint-Crispins-shoe-trees
Saint Crispin’s Hollow Lasted Shoe Trees – Picture by Permanent Style

So a real Bespoke Artisan relies solely on his tools, which is hammers, awls, pliers and some gloves to name a few to make a fully handmade shoe. There are also some that use tools such as sanding machines and it also makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t make it less handmade in my eyes. But you see how fine a line is to consider something handmade. I sure do! The problem arises when everyone else uses it just to falsify their promotion.

Saint Crispin’s, one of the best shoes in the world is 95% handmade. With a small production of about 1500 shoes per year, they only use an antique hand-driven machine to attach the sole.

Hungarian Vass on the other hand is 100% Handmade which is a herculean feat for these times. Both Justin and my friend Bojan confirmed to me that they even do the sole by hand.

Handmade Vs Handcrafted - Norman Vilalta 1202
Handmade Vs Handcrafted – Fully Handmade Norman Vilalta 1202 for The Parisian Gentleman

Norman Vilalta, the ingenious lawyer-turned-shoemaker made a very special Fully Handmade Limited Edition Shoe for the Parisian Gentleman.

So Most Of The Brands Are Not…

Yes! Berluti, John Lobb, Carlos Santos, Carmina, Tricker’s, Crockett & Jones and any of those pesky luxury brands like Prada are not Handmade unless we are talking about their Bespoke Department.

Take Edward Green for example. In a recent description of The Rake it says:

“Today the high standards remain with each pair of Edward Green shoes being mostly handmade, using only the finest quality calfskin.”

Kudos to that! They are upfront about it, because they know that their shoes are fantastic anyways.

The Phillip 2 by John Lobb
The Phillip 2 by John Lobb

John Lobb on the other hand had a description saying that you have a truly handmade product. Unless it is talking about the Bespoke, then that is technically not correct. Would I still consider John Lobb Handmade? Probably because of the quality, tradition, materials and craftsmanship.

Another fun fact is that any shoe that is not Hand-Welted is NOT Handmade but not every Hand-Welted Shoe is Handmade. Do not confuse those terms! It is how they market them plain and simple. As good as a Carmina, Carlos Santos, Edward Green or Gaziano Girling Shoes are, if they are Goodyear Welted they are not Handmade by nature!

Meermin says “Handmade Goodyear Shoes” which is not valid due to the above sentence. Myrqvist proclaims “Handgjorda i Portugal” (Handmade in Portugal in Swedish). Justin himself is not afraid to write that his own brand is NOT Handmade. You get the point.

Myrqvist Review - Smögen Penny Loafers
Myrqvist – Good Value Shoes but not Handmade

The problem arises when you have pesky little weasels looking to profit off those buzzwords. If you remember the November Shoe News, I talked about Ike Bahar which sources shoes from Bespoke Factory. They dare call them Handmade when they go through a fast lane production process.

The latest culprit I saw of this trend is a Swiss Brand called Merrimium. They also use Bespoke Factory and advertise as Handmade. But the biggest fun happens in ridiculous shady places like Alibaba, AliExpress, Ebay Listings, Etsy and any place where a Nigerian Prince could pop up.

PS. For those that did not get the last reference, it is a joke about spam emails.

Handmade Vs Handcrafted Shoes – A Big Discussion

After reading this article, you should have the capability to understand the difference between Handmade and Handcrafted. It can be pretty frustrating for some, but it also serves as a good reminder that educating ourselves helps make more rational decisions. The fact that a shoe is not Fully Handmade should not deter you from buying it if you know it is a good shoe. However, you should NOT buy a shoe just because someone said is Handmade.

This is something I intended to write a long time ago, but only recently had the time to pen. It is more about understanding and not to frown upon “regular” shoes. If anything most of the RTW Goodyear Welted Shoes on the market are remarkably good.

Armed with such knowledge, I have now covered most of the important topics in shoemaking. Next week, I will see if I can tackle properly how a Suit should Fit since I finally have first hand knowledge about it. And the week after, we will take a trip together to the Carlos Santos Factory! Until that, Subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!

Thank you for reading,

Kostas Mandilaris,
Misiu Academy

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Comments (4)

Very great article.
You can have a look at Maftei Vienna and Rozsnyai Budapest, one is the rival to Saint Crispin’s, the other Vass.

Thank you Pei!

I know about Maftei, the other one I was not familiar with. However I don’t have first hands experience with them yet!

Great article, Kostas! Educating buyers on having the right understanding is the need of the hour.

Thanks Joshua! Agreed!

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