Just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace is Jermyn Street. The many small shops in this side street have specialized above all in exclusive men’s garments. Number 83 is home to the shop and workshop of Foster & Son, the UK’s oldest made-to-measure shoe shop. High-quality shoes and excellent boots have been made to measure since 1840. Even the tools and materials used have remained essentially the same in over 170 years.
Behind the glass door, a world awaits us that completely conceals the hectic pace of London. The thick, soft carpet absorbs all the sounds, the beguiling fragrance of leather and beeswax fills the room, and Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, Managing Director of Foster & Son, welcomes us with his warm Oxford English and a mischievous smile. Even though the company is no longer family-owned due to the turmoil of the Second World War, Foster & Son is not giant multi-national corporation without sensitivity. British tradition and traditional craftsmanship form the backbone of the world-famous company with its small shop.
Behind a hidden door a small, narrow staircase leads to the upper floor. Hundreds of wooden lasts are on the shelves, carefully labeled with names and numbers. Climbing up through the company’s well-kept archives, we encounter perfect templates for all the custom-made shoes and boots that Foster & Son is famous for. From above, the typical noises of a shoemaker’s workshop sound down softly and accompany the gentle creaking of the wooden steps under our feet.
In the anteroom of the workshop a handwritten document of the British royal family is hanging on the wall. It was signed by King George V., one of the very few customers whose name is revealed at Foster & Son. Normally there is absolute discretion on this subject. The rich and powerful of the world have always been part of the clientele of the house and it is part of the good fortune that all further details remain under a cloak of silence. The fragrance of leather blends with the smell of glue, accompanied by the omnipresent spirit of tradition and a sense of reverence for the master craftsmen’s great work.
The three highly focused made-to-measure shoemakers sweep aside every cliché. They are young, don’t look a bit old-fashioned and know their craft perfectly. While Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson summarizes the individual work steps, the three briefly and concisely show the different stages of the shoes in progress. Everything seems pleasantly quiet and calm, accompanied by the wonderful feeling that a centuries-old craft is cultivated here with passion. It takes at least ten months before you receive a pair of handmade custom-made shoes from Foster & Son. In addition to the well-filled order books, leather in particular has a major influence on this waiting time, as the natural material must be brought into its final form with a great deal of patience.
Back in the shop we listen to some of the great anecdotes, which fit perfectly to the overall picture of the traditional company. For example, there was a customer from Eastern Europe who did not yet have his own lasts but had a busy schedule. One of the three shoemakers was flown in to take measurements. Due to the customer’s never-ending deadlines, measurements were postponed from one day to the next. In between, they even flew to France, including the patient shoemaker, until after a week they finally found enough time to take the measurements of the last. Of course, food and lodging were the customer’s responsibility.
In addition to custom-made shoes and boots, there is now also a small but carefully assembled collection of ready to wear shoes in standard sizes. In addition, there is a selection of fine bags and suitcases as well as wallets and, of course, belts matching the shoes. Thus the small company goes elegantly with the times, without throwing its own history overboard or even forgetting the tradition. Foster & Son proves impressively that classical craftsmanship is not yet extinct and still has a rosy future.