Laced with love: Last man standing up for the dying art of cobbling

  • He spent more than three years in Italy learning his craft, but now Louis Smith tells Sarah Freeman why he has returned to Yorkshire to revive bespoke shoemaking.
0
Have your say

Had they known, the makers of the new Kingsman sequel could have found a ready-made set in Louis Smith’s new shop. Nestled in York’s warren of historic streets, there is no other way to describe Old Sole than a proper gentleman’s outfitters where Colin Firth’s character would have been very much at home. It’s all leather armchairs, rows of beautiful tailored shirts and cabinets of cufflinks and, lord, there’s even a decanter of whisky on the small coffee table, which will just take the edge off the usual city centre scrum outside. Even the music, a carefully selected vinyl playlist, is old school.

The creative force behind Old Sole is 26-year-old Louis who, as well as having an eye for style, also happens to be one of the country’s last bespoke shoemakers.

Louis Smith, bespoke shoemaker, in York. Picture: James Hardisty

Louis Smith, bespoke shoemaker, in York. Picture: James Hardisty

“I got to the point where I knew I had to settle on a career but I still wasn’t quite sure what it was I wanted to do,” says Louis, who grew up in York. “I’d grown up around retail, but I’d also flirted with being a scuba diving instructor and I guess I was at a bit of a crossroads. I ended up working for a designer in London and he introduced me to the craft of bespoke shoes and I suddenly thought: ‘This is it, I’ve found what I want to do’.”

Following that road to Damascus moment, Louis enrolled on a course with Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion. It was only an introduction to the intricate and painstaking art of shoemaking, but it confirmed that Louis had found his vocation.

“It was pretty intense. We went through the whole process from the initial pattern cutting to the final finish. The idea was that you went in with nothing and came out with a pair of shoes. I thought they were totally brilliant, the best thing I’d ever done. When I look at them now I realise they were pretty basic, but during that course I fell in love with the whole craft of shoemaking.”

While Louis was the proud owner of one pair of handmade shoes, he knew that if he was going to make a living from bespoke shoemaking he needed to secure an apprenticeship and set about drawing up a list of possible contacts. It wasn’t long.

Old Sole, Swinegate, York.

Old Sole, Swinegate, York.

In the 19th century, it was a craft that employed thousands and even with the dawn of mechanisation towns like Northampton still built their wealth on footwear. However, like many manufacturing industries, cheap foreign competition sounded the death knell for many of the big names in shoemaking and now just a handful of traditional companies survive.

“It was a bit of a catch 22 situation. Those that did get back to me said they wanted someone who could be immediately useful and told me to come back when I’d got a bit more experience. I could understand that, what I couldn’t understand was how to get more experience if no one was willing to take me on. I knocked on every door there was until there was none left.”

With all options in this country exhausted in those pre-Brexit days, Louis decided to widen his reach to Europe. “I found details for about 20 shoemakers and realised that four of them were in Florence. I sent letters to all of them, made appointments to see them all and then bought a plane ticket.”

The first name on the list was Roberto Ugolini. While Louis’ Italian didn’t stretch much beyond please, thank you, and the ability to order a beer, when he found himself outside Ugolini’s Via dei Michelozzi store he took a deep breath and made his introductions.

“I couldn’t believe it. I’d only been there about 15 minutes when he agreed to give me an apprenticeship. He basically said that if I was willing to learn he was willing to teach me. It wasn’t easy. They didn’t speak much English and my Italian wasn’t much to write home about, but I signed up for language classes and we found a way to communicate with each other.”

It turned out that Louis was learning from one of the best in the field. The Ugolini shoemaking tradition stretches back generations. Roberto’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all shoemakers and for more than 20 years he has focused exclusively on bespoke and custom shoes.

“For the first two or three months I was not allowed to touch anything,” laughs Louis. “My job was to just sit and watch every single process. Eventually, once I’d absorbed as much knowledge as I could, I was allowed to put the theory into practice and make what’s known as a fitting shoe. It’s good training as you get to build it piece by piece, but it’s still only a prototype, so if you get it wrong or if a measurement is out it’s not such a costly mistake.

“Those first few months in Roberto’s workshop were a steep learning curve, but I loved every minute. It really felt like I was being shared into some great big secret and I knew I had made the right decision to learn the trade in Italy.”

The first full pair of shoes that Louis made under Roberto’s watchful eye were standard Oxford brogues with cap toes, but even when the customer walked out a happy man he knew there was still much to learn. “Roberto wasn’t a man to hand out praise easily. Basically if he didn’t tell you you’d got it wrong that’s when you knew you were doing it right.

“After three and a half years in Florence I found myself at a crossroads. I was either going to have to become more involved in Roberto’s business or go it alone. I knew that what I really wanted was my own business, making shoes with my name on them.”

At around the same time Louis’ mother, who has run high-end York store Giselle Ladieswear for 30 years, noticed that the premises next door were coming up for rent and Old Sole was born.

The retail side of the business opened just before Christmas and Louis is hopeful the bespoke shoe operation will be up and running shortly. His tools are neatly laid out on a small wooden table and while the first pairs will be sent back to Florence for finishing, he hopes that he can eventually find a company closer to home so each pair can come with the Made in Yorkshire tag.

“A first pair of bespoke shoes starts at around £1,200. That might sound like a lot, but these are shoes for life. I think more and more people are willing to invest in quality items and from what I have seen since we opened the shop it definitely seems that there is a market for what I do in Yorkshire.”