John Lobb’s Philip II’s (MSRP $1,650)
This is exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to see when I first started doing this series. If I look at quality as a function of cost, then mathematically I know that a $1,500 shoe should be 10X better than a $150 shoe, but what about the actual shoe is 10x better?! I’ve already seen a pair of Allen Edmonds that I could pretty much guarantee aren’t going to fall apart on you in your lifetime and could be resoled over and over again, and they only cost $350. So what’s the big difference?
This was the question that I found myself asking over and over as I dissected this shoe and I feel like by the end of it I had a much better grasp of the relationship between price and quality.
Just to give you a better glimpse of this shoe’s unique shape. The narrow waist is pretty characteristic of a high quality, handmade shoe (from what I understand). Primarily because the welt pretty much vanishes under the arch, making it impossible to sew on the sole with a machine.
The man himself.
Pretty narrow waist.
Often times a shoemaker will hammer in the heel nails in a certain pattern that becomes characteristic of his brand. Mr. Lobb didn’t seem to be too interested in this.
This was cool. I’ve heard, and seen videos of, people cutting back a slice of the sole around where it’s stitched on to the welt, then folding it back over the seam in order to protect it. I’d never actually seen this in real life until now. Definitely stands out.
The heel came off with about the same ease as an AE or Johnston & Murphy but had about 1,000 more nails. This is just one layer. From what I could tell, this didn’t affect the quality of the joint between heel and sole. I think that the quantity of nails is an accident of this construction method.
What I mean is that this heel was build by hand, layer upon layer, starting with the horseshoe piece called the rand. This requires a lot of nails because each layer has to be secured separately… with nails.
A different angle to give you a better idea of their (varying) lengths. As I took the heel apart I set the nails aside and sorted them by height, there were at least 5 different shapes and sizes.
Cartain layers of nails were entirely embedded within the heel and only revealed themselves as I took it apart.
The nails pretty much stayed put as I took the heel apart so you can see how each layer was nailed.
A few of the layers had this mark on them. A signature? Maybe this was quality control? I could understand if each heel was inspected after it was complete but these would have to have been signed as the shoe was being made. Either that or they were all signed beforehand, which would seem to suggest that it isn’t quality control. Your guess is as good as mine.
The fully disassembled heel. Exactly 50 nails.
The sole came off pretty easily but MAN was this thing dusty. I could see clearly defined columns of light coming from my lamps because of all the dust in the air. I don’t know if these things just weren’t cared for or if they’re just that old, but they were in worse shape than any shoe I’ve seen so far. The welt was so dry and cracked that I’d imagine they could barely hold up to a re-soling.
About 20 more nails held the quarter in place under the heel and the middle was filled out with leather rather than cork or foam.
I was hoping for this. At this point you can tell that they’d been hand welted. You can see the curved strip of leather that runs along the inside of the ball/ toe area, which fills in the cavity just inside the feather.
Everything on the inside of this shoe was made of leather and formed by hand.
Peeling back that curved strip of leather I mentioned earlier reveals the inside edge of the feather; the raised strip of leather to which the upper is welted. If you’ve ever wondered what handmade looks like, this is a perfect example. You can see little channels where the shoemaker’s awl rubbed against the insole as he was lasting.
The welt stops just before the heel (270 welt).
Again, more signs of the craftsman’s hand. You can see the pencil lines where he marked off the heel and stopped cutting the feather. This picture also gives you a better angle on the little awl channels I mentioned earlier.
Here are some tiny vestiges of the construction method; little nail holes speckle almost the entire circumference of the insole because this shoe was hand lasted. The shoemaker stretched the upper over the last and tacked it in place (rather than using the modern method of staple side lasting, where the upper is pulled and stapled to a canvas rib) leaving behind dozens of little nail holes once they’ve all been removed.
The toe puff is beautifully sculpted. It didn’t show up very well in this picture but you can see the scrape marks along the sides where the shoemaker formed the leather into the shape he wanted. This isn’t your standard heat-set toe puff, where cloth/ epoxy mesh is laid over the toe and chemically hardened into the shape of the last. Each one of these is going to be just a little different.
Also you can see the alignment marks made in pen at the top.
Looking at the inside, you can see just how bad of shape this thing was in. It’s yellowing and cracking all over. Leather from the upper was flaking off in my hand and the lining was falling apart.
Hadn’t seen this before: there was an extra piece of leather underneath the whole upper part of the vamp/ eyelet area. It extended pretty far back and I’d imagine it gave extra support to the shape of the upper.
I tried to pull off the topbeading but it just broke apart whenever I touched it.
Here’s the upper with the outermost layer removed. Pretty much just lining and one enormous heel counter. That part running from the heel to the black reinforcing bits might look like a lining but it’s actually a huge heel counter. Then there’s a slightly lighter counter/ reinforcing piece that runs even further, almost to the toe. These are the most structure-centric shoes I’ve ever seen.
Here’s a better perspective on the same thing; seen from the side, without the black bit. If I’d left the toe puff in place you could see that there is structural reinforcement running along the entire side of this shoe, and the black pieces would fill out the rest up to the top. The only un-reinforced place on these things is a narrow sliver just above the toes; not coincidentally, where the shoe needs to bend the most.
I didn’t realize it until I saw this picture, but these things are built like tanks.
Ok so maybe if these things are actually 100 years old or if they spent the last 20 years in a dry attic somewhere in New Mexico then they’ll get a pass. Regardless, their condition raises an interesting and often overlooked point about the relationship between price and quality. At a certain point even the finest materials and construction methods will break down. That is, quality can really only increase up to a point.
Quality seems to increase commensurately with price up ’til about the $300-$400 mark and then pretty much levels off. After that I’d have to say that it’s more about psychology than quality. It’s about the way you feel in the shoes, not the way the shoes feel on you. A pair of $1,500 shoes aren’t 10x the quality of a $150 pair, but they’ll probably make you feel 10x more successful, confident, etc.
That said and, if I’m perfectly honest, these were not of some fantastic or marvelous quality. Don’t get me wrong, they’re beautiful and more complex and made with more of a human touch than anything I’ve seen but they aren’t any higher quality in terms of structural soundness, resoleability, or the condition of the upper than a pair of AE’s. Or, to put it another way, I don’t see any evidence that the hand made construction of this shoe has contributed anything physically to its quality or condition. Aesthetics? Absolutely, but not quality.
At a certain point you’re buying art. Which is fine with me, I think John Lobbs are beautiful. But somewhere along the line your metric changes from quality (which is what you’re looking at between $1 and $400) to art (which, I’d venture to say, encompasses almost everything $400+). But hey, how else are you going to get that unmistakable feeling of success that can only come from walking on art?