Clients ranging from Saudi princes to NHS patients have trodden a path to shoemaker Peter Schweiger's door. But feet are nothing if not great levellers, he tells Chris Arnot.
The call came from a member of Crown Prince Abdullah's procurement agency. "We found you in the Yellow Pages," he told bespoke shoemaker Peter Schweiger. "Could you be in Saudi Arabia by Friday?" Oh, yeah? Assuming that it was a hoax, Schweiger said he'd check his diary and call back. When he did, he was put through to a number in nearby Baker Street, London W1.
But it was no hoax. His work visa arrived the following day and, just over 72 hours later, he was preparing to measure the royal feet. This was 1979 and the prince was not yet outright ruler. Powerful enough, mind you. "There I was, a Christian, of Jewish origin, on my knees before a Muslim and conscious that we were in a kingdom where you could have your hands chopped off for misdemeanours," Schweiger, now 63, muses with a characteristically whimsical smile. "But then," he adds, "I'm on my knees to everyone."
Most of his customers are prepared to wait a couple of months after the initial measuring. New leather has to dry out and settle down. Adjustments have to be made after the first fitting. But princes don't like to be kept waiting. Abdullah expected four pairs within a fortnight in the latest Italian style. If they proved satisfactory, he would order another 10.
Schweiger could have been forgiven for feeling a little edgy as he travelled to and fro between London and Jeddah. And, sure enough, his worst fears came to pass. "They were all too big at the back of the heel," he recalls. "So we made another batch and they were too tight over the instep. In the end, the prince cancelled the order. A right royal misfit, you might call it." An expensive one, I should imagine. "Well, he paid half of the cost, so we weren't out of pocket."
Thirty years on and we're in the top room of a rambling building, just off Marylebone High Street, looking out over some of the most highly priced rooftops in central London. Depressed property market or not, the estate agent next door has a two-bedroom apartment for just under £2m advertised in its window. However, the window of James Taylor and Son, "bespoke shoemakers since 1857", is altogether more distinctive. It's the kind of traditional English shop frontage that John Betjeman would have recognised and approved of.
"My father moved here in 1954," Schweiger explains. "In the years after the war, it was not a good idea to trade under a German name." Even, it seems, if you happened to be a German-Jew who fled your native land in the 1930s after your brother had been murdered by the Nazis. He bought the business from the grandson of James Taylor, a shoemaker with evident faith in his own products. In 1857, he walked to London from his native Norfolk and set up a shop in Great Portland Street.
"I was nine when we moved across town," Schweiger goes on. "Luckily, my father had the foresight to buy the freehold." Just three families had occupied the building since the end of the 18th century and two of them were shoemakers. The first was one Robert Bell, who moved in around 1790. "If he could come back today," says the current owner, "I sometimes think that the only innovation he'd notice would be the electric lights."
Certainly the setting below stairs is rather like descending into a scene from pre-industrial London, when shoemaking provided employment for a large percentage of the population. In one particularly atmospheric room, redolent of leather and glue, sits a man with half-moon specs perched on the end of his nose, several nails between his lips and a half-completed shoe clenched between his aproned knees. "It gives him more control than using a bench," Schweiger explains.
But this is towards the end of a production process that begins with the making of a wooden "last" from the dimensions of the initial measurement. Thousands of lasts line every wall. Robert Bell's original fireplace is festooned with them, albeit with a gap directly above the mantelpiece to accommodate a poster illustrated with the bone structure of the foot.
Each last is named and numbered for repeat orders. But that doesn't mean that all those lasts belong to current customers. Some have long gone. Others, alas, don't live long enough to pick up their finished footwear. Among the sale items in that handsome front window are what might be termed "dead men's shoes". Women's as well, as around half the customers are female.
Schweiger knows how to do every step in the production process, from last making to first fitting. "I went to the Cordwainers' College when it was in Hackney," he says, "and did day release with a retired shoemaker in Purley." So there's not much you can tell him about pattern making or clicking or closing - designing the shape, cutting out the leather and fitting it around the last, in other words. Not to mention all the delicate refining work that goes on afterwards. "Yes, I could make you a pair of shoes on my own," he concedes. "But they wouldn't be quite as good as they are when individual craftsmen bring their talents to bear on each process."
He has nine employees, some of them surprisingly young. But then the Cordwainers' College is part of the London College of Fashion these days and sited in the West End. "So, no, I don't need to do everything myself," Schweiger concludes. "It would be too much of a balancing act." He pauses before adding: "But I can juggle."
He can, too. We move back upstairs into the shop and he gives a demonstration with three clubs under the mounted head of an emperor stag, covered from nose to antlers in brown leather. Juggling, apparently, helps to keep bored children amused while their parents are thumbing through swatches of leather.
A keen swimmer and cyclist as well, Schweiger is also a prominent figure in local church affairs. (His father converted to Christianity after Quakers helped to ease his entry into Britain.) The family home is a 1930s house in Amersham, classic Betjeman metro-land, and the shoemaker cycles in from Marylebone station every morning. As we pass through the hall, he points out his bike. For some reason, it is suspended from the ceiling.
"There were 25 people living in this house in the 1880s," he says, leading the way back to his office on the top floor. Today there are none, but plenty of potential customers live in the bijou houses and luxury apartments nearby, including several Russian plutocrats.
Other clients travel from much further afield. Regular orders come from an artist who sprinkles his own blood on to the insole, puts the shoes on show and then sells them on at a profit. Not Damien Hirst? "No, this artist comes from Germany." Another customer flew in from Nigeria requesting a pair in crocodile skin.
But by no means all of those seeking bespoke shoes are wealthy. Some 80% are there for orthopaedic reasons. They have problems with their "plates", in other words, that make buying shoes off the shelf a non-starter. "We had a National Health Service contract until 1990," Schweiger recalls. "It was wonderful to see the super-rich sitting next to people down on their uppers and saying with equal vehemence: 'Ooh, my feet are killing me'." Great levellers, feet. "But the NHS was taking longer and longer to pay, and kept introducing all kinds of regulations. We'd have gone bust." As it is, prices start at £1,495 plus VAT.
My visit coincides with that of a woman from Cambridge with a ruptured ankle tendon. "I won't be able to afford a holiday this year," she confides. After all, few of us have the bottomless pockets of oil-rich Russians, Nigerians and Saudis.
Pay: A shoemaker employed by James Taylor and Son earns about £18,000 a year.
Hours: 9am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday and alternate Saturday mornings.
Work-life balance: "About right. When I came back into the family business after a brief foray into forestry, I didn't want to be another Mr Clark. I wanted a comfortable living that allowed me time with the family [he has a wife and two children] and chance to pursue my other interests."
Best thing: "Seeing people who've had painful feet dancing round the shop when they find shoes that fit perfectly. It happens fairly frequently."
Worst thing: "Those rare occasions when a lot of time and effort goes to waste. Something doesn't quite click or the customer doesn't pick up the final product - and the bill - for one reason or another."