When it comes to ethical and sustainable fashion, shoes, for me, are tricky. I don’t want to purchase shoes from a company that sources leather from poorly treated cows, and I want to know that the leather was a by-product of the beef industry so as to avoid waste. I don’t want to support just any beef industry though, I try to only eat locally raised, grain-fed beef, you know, from happy cows who were treated with respect in life and in death. It’s this too much to ask!?
It’s difficult to find shoes made out of such leather. There are some great online shops that sell high-quality, vegetable-tanned leather shoes, Mallorca-based Coclico being one of my fave, but most other eco-shoe brands are vegan, so they use “pleather” or plastic leather and this material has its own environmental issues.
Many people will argue that I shouldn’t buy leather shoes at all, and a part of me agrees. Why do animals have to be killed at all? We don’t really need meat and we certainly don’t need to wear their skin or their fur. But from a sustainability perspective, many argue that leather is better than plastic. And so long as cows are killed for their meat, might as well use their skins to minimize waste.
This is an entirely separate post, one that I’ve wanted to write for a while now on leather vs. pleather. Until I tackle that beast, I thought I’d approach shoe buying from one type of sustainability, one that involves craftsmanship, quality, durability and timeless design. I turned to shoe designer, Zoe Lee, for a simple how-to guide on buying quality shoes.
Zoe is a rising star in high-end shoe design who opened up a shoe boutique in the Marais quarter of Paris in 2014. She studied at the prestigious Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art and then went on collaborate with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Erdem and Vivienne Westwood before she went rogue and launched Zoe Lee Shoes in April 2011. The Zoe Lee Shoe is not your average shoe, nor your average high-fashion shoe either, as we’ll soon find out. Zoe sources from the highest quality leathers and works with a family-run shoe factory that has been in business for many years.
Side note: Now that she has her own shop, Zoe is soon launching a bag collection made out of scrap leather from factory floors, a great way to reduce waste. If they’re anything like her shoes, I’ll have to put one on my “save for” wish list.
Zoe Lee Shoes are just like Zoe, straight-forward, exotic, understated, no-fuss and beautiful. If you want to see what a quality shoe looks like, dissect one of her shoes. But instead of sacrificing one of her creations, I worked with the talented and adorable illustrator, Becky Murphy of Chipper Things, to break it down for you here (see below).
EF Magazine (EF): What are the basic parts of a shoe?
Zoe Lee (ZL): The upper, insole, shank and heel.
EF: What are the conventional materials used for those parts?
ZL: Leather for the upper, insole and shank. Suede is so fragile, so you wouldn’t want to wear it as an upper. The top part of the heel as well as the rubber on the tip of the heel, they’d be cork filled on the inside. The insole board, which is what the sole goes onto, is usually made out of a very dense, cardboard-like paper, almost papier-mâché. The front part of the insole is made of the same material but less dense. Built into this sole is a metal shank that goes throughout the shoe. A shank is primarily just in heels and anything over two inches. Men’s shoes have a metal shank in them too.
EF: What should buyers look for in a good shoe?
ZL: Good fit, comfort, made of leather, leather-soled and stitching. Different designers use different shapes. If you find a designer who’s shape you like, the likelihood is that the designer’s other shoes will fit you as well. Certain bits have to be glued but there shouldn’t be much gluing either.
There is a good amount of craftsmanship that goes into a good shoe. High-end fashion shoes are seasonal, they’re not investments. They’re more frivolous. So my advise is to buy something classic. Trendy shoes date quickly no matter the quality. Go for what you like as opposed to styles that you’ve seen in magazines. I like to wear my own shoes.
EF: What makes a bad shoe?
ZL: A shoe that’s trying to be something that it’s not. Trying to look expensive when it’s cheap. Something that looks cheap when it’s actually very expensive. Bad stitching, poor quality leather, resin, plastic soles instead of leather soles.
EF: Does price reflect quality?
ZL: Fashion shoes, no matter how high-quality and expensive have a lot of glue in them because most women who buy high-end shoes don’t care about the actual craft of shoe making. Women’s high-end shoes are most often than not, a bad example of quality.
They are no comparison to high-end men’s shoes. Price wise, high-end men’s shoes are more expensive than women’s high-end shoes. A man’s well-made shoe will start at 2,000 pounds (more than $3,800 CAD).
EF: How long does it take to produce one of your collections?
ZL: Each shoe has a different process for production. It depends on the factory’s capacity too. Some can produce thousands of shoes a day. Italian, family-run factories produce 200-500 pairs a day, but that is at full capacity and with just one style of shoe.
Most small factories produce 600 pairs a season, across 25 styles. My production is longer because the factory I work with has to change the factory line for each style of shoe. One shoe might be white so they have to use white paint, etc. You can’t mix stuff up too much because it’s damaging to the materials.
You put shoes through various processes by hand and by machines and you have to set the machines to the particular style, heel height and width and some times this take a few hours to setup. I work with one factory in Italy. It’s quite small but they’ve done shoes for different brands, big shoe labels too for generations.
EF: Why is Italy the shoe capital of the world?
ZL: Italy has a good history of shoe making in the sense that it has tanneries and everyone who supplies all of the shoes parts have all been making and delivering those parts for a long time. It’s more about the communication and logistics really. Italian factories and suppliers all know each other and this makes planning the execution of a shoe a lot easier.
When making a shoe, everyone has to know what they’re doing and it all has to come together and if you’re, for instance, working with a shoe factory in China, the likelihood is that the factory doesn’t have the history of working with its suppliers and they don’t have the infrastructure so you, as a shoe designer, have to organize more on your end to make sure that you order the right material for your design and that everything comes together properly and on time.
In my case, organizing isn’t my specialty. My factory (located in the Venice area of Italy) knows which supplier produces wider cloths, etc. This is so important because if one thing doesn’t fit, nothing fits. You’re starting from scratch if you work with China and there’s no knowledge of what makes up a shoe. Large, Chinese factories don’t develop, they like to copy.
EF: Who is your favourite shoe designer?
ZL: I like Robert Clergerie and a designer, Kisa Takada, from Japan. She died a while ago but she made some really nice shoes in the 70’s and 80’s. I don’t really like very many shoes that are out there. I don’t shop, I’m not a consumer. I’m more interested in making shoes than buying them.
EF: What kind of shoe would you never wear?
ZL: An elevated platform, I think they’re ugly and cheap looking.
EF: Fun fact?
ZL: My shoes are named after towns and cities in Louisiana. They’re not masculine or feminine, sometimes European and there are so many, more than 10,000 so there’s no risk of me running out of collection names.