Shoes maketh the man

With the arrival of new shoe labels ranging from the ultra-upscale to everyday office Oxfords, men have no excuse not to step out in style.

Marilyn Monroe once said: "Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world."

Man, was she halfway right.

Through the decades, plenty of men have been equally empowered (or distinguished) by their choice of footwear: From the legendary tale of Andy Warhol walking away in a pair of bespoke Berluti loafers bearing the damaged hide of a wayward cow, to Pope Benedict XVI's controversial red shoes.

And it seems that more Singaporean men than ever before have come to believe in the pull of a perfectly crafted pair of shoes - at least judging by the spike in new brands and retailers dedicated to shoes for blokes.

"We know Singapore is well on the way to establishing itself as the fashion mecca of South-east Asia," says Steven Rogers, founding director of The Blind Cobbler, a new multi-label men's shoe boutique on Club Street.

"With that we have seen men's shopping habits change; they are becoming hungrier for fashion, more at ease with shopping and using their disposable income to support that change."

The store stocks formal, casual and contemporary footwear from brands like Grenson, Hudson and Swear London.

The Blind Cobbler comes from a turn of phrase, "like a blind cobblers thumb", which Mr Rogers' father - a footwear aficionado - used to describe anyone with a big red nose.

His reasoning was a blind cobbler would repeatedly hit his thumb, hence swell and turn red.

Another gentleman recognising that footwear is a stepping stone to sartorial heights is Jonathan Chiang, owner of bespoke tailoring outfit Leong T.

Having taken over and revived his grand-uncle's 40-year-old tailoring business, the 30-year-old's vision is to create a one-stop emporium stocked with wares for discerning men.

Next month, he will host the debut trunk show for Saint Crispin's, a Viennese-based luxury shoemaker, at his new outlet located in North Canal Road luxury barbershop Sultans of Shave.

"Since coming back from Shanghai to take over the family tailoring business, and being at it for the past year and a half, I have definitely noticed a huge change in the industry, in terms of more high end shoe shops and number of men wanting to own these shoes," says Mr Chiang, who came across the brand in a men's lifestyle magazine.

"Singaporean men are more discerning, and simply want to look good. Even looking good, they want to portray a certain character, style and charisma in the things they own, understated in design, but rich in history, culture and workmanship."

With each pair of bespoke shoes costing from S$2,200, Mr Chiang believes that men are willing to shell out for top-shelf kicks.

And he isn't alone in sensing the rise in men who seek out moccasins, loafers, Oxfords and brogues, but obsess over the nonpareil comfort and longevity of impeccably made shoes.

Even department store Robinsons is tapping on the trend, recently introducing brands like 142-year-old British shoemaker Sanders, and Italian labels Rolando Sturlini, Italo Carli, and Massimo Moda. Meanwhile, local shoe brand Ed Et Al has also become somewhat of a household name among male footwear aesthetes.

"In the past, shoes were always an afterthought, something to be decided only when the rest of the outfit has been assembled," says Edwin Neo, owner of Ed Et Al which also offers bespoke services.

"Nowadays, it seems to be the other way around. The shoes decide the outfit and image that the man wants to portray."

Since the launch of his off-the-rack collection in 2011, he has rolled out over 50 designs and unveiled a flagship store at Millenia Walk last year.

"Shoes are also one of the few areas where men can express their personality," observes Mr Neo, who underwent an apprenticeship with a master shoemaker in Budapest before launching his brand.

"Although there are many more accessory options for men nowadays, the classic trio of a watch, belt, and shoes remains important elements to showcase a man's tastes."

And while women might buy a new pair of shoes, or several, as the runways dictate the platform, stiletto or even sporty sneaker as the shoe of the season, men tend to geek out over an assiduously-crafted detail or brand that boasts the most impressive pedigree.

"A man researches the leathers, construction, heritage of the company, craftsmen making the shoes, and even technical details such as toe spring," says Mr Neo. "I think most men start out wanting to invest in a few pairs of very high quality shoes, then quickly progress to wanting more."

According to research conducted by the owners of The Blind Cobbler of nearly 100 men in Singapore, shopping is a less emotional task for men who are generally more pragmatic.

But it should be noted that the gap is closing - men are definitely behaving more like women in the fashion context. The choice of styles, shopping environment and a good price range are important considerations that enable customers to make sartorially-led buying decisions.

One particular client of Mr Rogers' owns 100 pairs of shoes but never purchased a pair in Singapore, except for footwear by Italian brand Tod's.

And as much as a bloke's shoe-shopping mentality may deviate from that of a woman's, make no mistake, a modern dandy is never content with a modest collection of footwear.

"A customer that I remember fondly wanted to create a pair of bespoke shoes," reveals Mr Neo.

"He was very particular about the way that his shoes should fit and look, and he was prepared to spend a fair amount of time with me to refine the fit and design.

When we finally delivered the finished product to him, he put them on, walked around the store a few times, then promptly placed an order for seven more pairs in different colours and materials."

After all, if the shoes fit, you've just got to buy them.

Why should women have all the fun with a multitude of style options?

"I think men are finally starting to see the benefit of dressing up outfits and making everyday attire stand out by accessorising," says Mr Rogers.

"Women are the masters of it, but when a man does it well and doesn't go over the top, he can look pretty damn cool."

This article was first published on May 11, 2015.
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