The above question comes from a friend of mine whose wife questioned the cost of what I’d consider a fairly good quality dress shoe that he purchased.
First, let me say that I understand the apprehension and balking at the price, because that was my initial reaction after learning the price of what some would consider “introductory” quality footwear, Allen Edmonds. “$300 a pair? The hell…?”
But while I’m not an expert on men’s footwear, I think it can basically be explained by a few things to put it in perspective.
Foremost, a decent shoe will have a Goodyear welt on it. The link explains the details nicely:
The benefit of a dress shoe which is made using the Goodyear welt construction is that the system allows for a constant flow of air through the shoe, which keeps the shoes ventilated, durable and strong.
The very nature of this shoe construction means that Goodyear welted dress shoes take much longer to manufacture than cheaper alternatives.
While the Goodyear welting process isn’t generally done by hand anymore except by extremely high-end shoemakers, it’s still more time consuming to do for a manufacturer. But why is it important to a shoe wearer? This blogger provides an explanation:
I see two principal advantages for Goodyear-welted shoes, both emanating from the same aspect of construction. First, they are relatively water-resistant. Because nothing goes through the face of the insole of the shoe, groundwater doesn’t have an easy path into the interior of the shoe. In contrast, with Blake construction, there is a row of stitching through the face of the insole connecting it to the outsole, which allows groundwater to wick into the interior of the shoe. Second, they are relatively comfortable (assuming that the last fits the wearer’s foot well) because there isn’t a row of stitching on the face of the insole to irritate the bottom of the wearer’s foot. In addition, most makers of ready-made shoes put a layer of cork amalgam in the void between the ribs on either side of the insole; and this cork amalgam molds to the bottom of the foot, which sometimes enhances comfort.
The Goodyear welting process alone is worth the cost of admission, in my opinion. You get a shoe that will fit you better, be more water resistant, allows the leather to breathe better, lasts longer, provides better comfort and most importantly can be easily resoled once the sole wears down — this allows the wearer to extend the life of the shoe, sometimes upward of a decade or more.
Cheap shoes won’t even bother with leather soles and will go with rubber instead. Or if they do use leather soles, they’ll fuse them together with glue and forgo the expensive stitching process. These shoes won’t last very long (maybe a year, if you’re lucky) and I’m not even sure if a cobbler can resole them — and it probably wouldn’t be worth the money, since the shoes were cheap to begin with.
Another important factor is the quality of leather being used in a shoe. As with any material, there are different qualities of leather used in shoes. Cheap shoes use cheap materials. These leathers wear out instead of getting better with age. Put This On has a great writeup on leather quality and why you should avoid cheap “corrected grain” leather shoes:
What is corrected grain leather? Well, most animal hides are imperfect. They have marks, scars, imperfections that make them unsuitable for use in shoes. You wouldn’t, after all, buy a shoe with a big scar on it. There are plenty of applications for leather which don’t require a perfect surface, but shoes do. So rather than use only the best portions of the hide for shoemaking, manufacturers literally sand off the surface of the hide. Then they build a new, chemical surface on top.
This works out fine for the cheap manufacturer, as the shoe looks good in the store to a consumer who’s just looking for “shiny leather,” but the disadvantages are numerous. Besides the tacky finish, corrected grain creases more severely (because of the added layer of plastic-y chemicals on top of the leather), breathes more poorly, and ages badly, as the finish can be damaged or can even flake off of the leather below. If you go to a thrift store, you’ll find many cheap Bostonian dress shoes with a finish that’s literally peeling off the shoe. So, in short, avoid corrected grain.
Instead, you want a shoe made of “full-grain leather,” which he says will last you through a dozen resolings and up to 20 years of wear. Again, the value here is undeniable on a more expensive pair of shoes: 20 years versus 2 (at the most).
And that perhaps brings me to what might be the best selling point of a good pair of shoes: recrafting. A fantastic example of recrafted shoes comes from You Have Broken The Internet’s before and after photos of a pair of Aldens he had restored — these were 20-year-old shoes!
But perhaps the most important part that ties all this together is the level of craftsmanship that it takes to create a good shoe. When you consider that a company is selling you a shoe for cheap, it’s probably made overseas — and I’m not talking England or Italy. They manufacture over there for a reason: cheap labor, no living wages, cheap materials, mass production that emphasizes volume over detail.
For those manufacturers, they need to turn a high output to sell us cheap shoes and make a profit. If they were to take the time to make a more expensive shoe, then they’d have to substantially raise prices, which means they’d also probably sell fewer of them since American consumers are used to bottom-level prices on footwear.
Can good shoes be made overseas? Sure (I’m reviewing one later this week), but they’re still going to cost more because of the time-intensive process, skillset and materials needed. Regardless, I’m doubtful that you can even get to the $100 mark at full retail for quality-constructed shoes. I just don’t think that’s possible.
For a good idea what goes into a good shoe, I think these videos will give a much better idea:
- Allen Edmonds factory tour
- Alden factory tour
- Red Wings Shoes factory tour
- John Lobb factory
- Put This On, Episode 2: Shoes
Like anything you buy, I think you should balance your spending in terms of quality and cost, but when it comes to menswear, I don’t think shoes are where you should cut corners.
You can get a cheaper suit and have it tailored for a better fit and look great. You can get away with a shirt that’s slightly unfitted if it’s under your jacket. You can wear cheaper neckties and pocket squares and still look put together. But you can’t wear cheap shoes and have it not look completely noticeable. Rubber soles are obvious on an “oxford” and look cheap and wear terribly. Bad leather not only hurts to wear, but wears badly. And you don’t really know the difference between a quality shoe sole and a bad shoe sole until you’ve broken in a pair of decent shoes that conforms to your feet.
I think a lot of people hate to wear their dress shoes because they claim it make their feet hurt. I think they’re just buying bad shoes to begin with, because if you have a good pair of dress shoes, you’ll want to wear them all the time. It’s like your baseball mitt for your feet — fits perfectly and gets better with age.
I’ll end with a bit of mathematics. If you’re debating the cost of a shoe and if it’s worth it, get a calculator and think of it in terms of how much it will cost to wear it over the course of the shoe’s life.
Take the total price, divide it by the number of years (on the very, very low end: 5-10, on the high end, 15-20). Add in some money for shoe polish and conditioner. Assume about $50 for each resoling in its life span.
For a shoe that retails at $300 at 15 years, with 7 resolings at $50 and $10 worth of shoe product per year for 15 years, you’ll spend $750 in that decade and a half. If you divide that out, the shoe only cost you $50 per year!
I’d say that’s a really cheap pair of shoes.
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