Made to measure: how family-run footwear boutique John Lobb has stood the test of time
Tempus speaks with fifth-generation family member Jonathan Lobb about the brand's shoemaking tradition
In a world of mass consumerism, multi-generational artisans in Mayfair are keeping the crafts of their ancestors alive. Away from the high gloss of the corporate-owned window displays, with all their conceptual gilded animatronics and operatic set designs, there is an older world of classic bespoke and other craft, much of it still in the hands of the families that founded their businesses one or two centuries ago. There are workshops and archives that have survived world wars and developed a gorgeous patina from the everyday craft that they facilitate.
To walk into the hallways of shelves decked with hundreds of individually carved wooden lasts at bespoke shoemaker John Lobb is like entering into an alchemist’s library. Everything here is created and repaired by hand, in an environment that is dramatically different from the meticulous shop floors nearby. The double Royal Warrant holder has been hand-crafting made-to-measure shoes since 1849. Tempus speaks with fifth-generation family member Jonathan Lobb about maintaining the bespoke footwear company at the heart of the John Lobb brand.
What’s the current family dynamic at the company?
John Lobb has always been owned and run by the Lobb family. My brothers, William and Nicholas, and I have distinct managing roles and our father is chairman. William and I have worked for the firm for the last 25 years. Nicholas – the new kid on the block – was a practising solicitor before joining us four years ago. While I trained initially as a last (wooden shoe mold) maker, William was trained firstly as a clicker, dealing with all the leathers and materials, and subsequently, he also learnt the craft of last making.
What does being a family-run business bring to the company that you wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise?
I think it brings a certain degree of security. We’re not planning to leave, which is important, not only for the brand, but for our craftspeople and customers. We’re looking at the longevity of the business – we take a long view as we want to protect and improve the brand for our customers, craftspeople and the next generation.
What do you think defines the aesthetic of John Lobb?
Our work is underpinned by a belief in the importance of making the best and most beautiful shoes and accessories we possibly can – and doing this in an authentic and sustainable way. We achieve this by remaining true to the identity and principles of the original John Lobb and maintaining the best traditions of the craft, which is a culmination of skills and techniques handed down through generations of dedicated master shoemakers. I was trained by my father and he was trained by his father. I now train our last makers and like to serve customers personally when I can, and so John Lobb continues. >>
Was there ever a period when this business model looked perilous, or have you always had a buoyant clientele?
We’ve had to weather numerous recessions and the two World Wars. Inevitably these have an impact. However we and our forebears all share, literally, the DNA of the original John Lobb. He started as a penniless farmer and only through sheer bloody- minded determination established our brand. We will inevitably face challenges in order to protect the company, which we will face as our ancestors did.
What do customers engage with when visiting the boutique?
Our customers are engaging with an authentic British brand, built by a man who was a truly exceptional individual. Customers can best experience John Lobb when they visit us in St James’s. Over time customers build up relationships with the fitters. Some craftsmen and women have worked here for more than 30 years, so customers can always rely on that continuity.
As a heritage British brand with a loyal clientele, how do appeal to a new audience?
New customers are increasingly looking for an authentic experience. Our customer experience is very real – clients deal directly with skilled craftsmen and women and enjoy that personal interaction and service. As part of this service, they not only see examples of the leather their shoes will be made of, they can choose the exact piece of leather they will be cut from, too. We offer a highly personalised authentic experience which is timeless and appreciated by all generations – something that’s becoming increasingly rare. Another unique factor is that members of our family are still active and serving customers directly around the world.
Words and photography by Mark C O'Flaherty