The art and craft of shoes

June 19, 2015

I thought it was important to give shoe designers and shoe makers a voice, to let them talk about their visions and craft in the exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, and not only have their end products on show. How do you make shoes? How do you come up with new ideas for shape and decoration?

Shoes are extremely complex products, formed by dozens of different parts and using a variety of materials, ranging from leather and textiles to metal and wood components. Creating a pair of shoes involve many stages, and for handmade shoes, these might number up to 200 and involve a range of specialist craftspeople.  It still includes essential processes established hundreds of years ago.

Max triumph1
The Triumph of Maximilian I, woodblock print, Germany, 1512-19, V&A:13079:128

Before the invention of the ready-made shoe in the second half of the seventeenth century, all shoes were bespoke, in the sense that they were produced for a specific costumer – however, second-hand trade in shoes has always flourished and soldiers needed a constant supply of shoes.

A small number of shoemakers in England still offer the service of bespoke handmade shoes. These artisanal workshops create items for individual clients and produce high-quality shoes, which are in demand around the world.

Emiko last
Wall of wooden lasts, Foster and Son, January 2015

The crafting of handmade shoes is projected into the four apses of the Fashion Gallery’s dome. It shows the skill and many processes needed to create a bespoke pair of shoes. You will see shoemaker Emiko from Foster & Son, Jermyn Street, making a pair of shoes, beautifully and atmospherically filmed by Lightweight Media. She takes us through the carving of the last, the form around which the shoe will be shaped. Emiko then makes a paper pattern for the shoe’s upper, cut out the leather and then stitch everything together. Once the shoe is ready it is pounded into shape and the sole is trimmed. She finishes with polishing the shoes, and they are ready for collection. The whole process, from the first visit by the client (measuring the feet) to the final polishing, will take three to six months. Emiko of course for the case of the film, which took two days, did a Blue Peter – working on different shoes, to show the different stages.

It was wonderful to watch Emiko work away with her hands, indeed demonstrating the beauty of the craft.

Emiko filmed 1
Shoemaker Emiko making a pair of bespoke shoes at Foster and Son, while being filmed by Lightweight Media, January 2015

Bespoke shoes are for those who seek something exclusive – shoes that cannot just be found or bought off the shelf.

On the mezzanine of the exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain the visitor will also find a film screening, effectively set against a wall of shoe boxes. We interviewed five shoe designers and makers about their working process, their inspiration and future of shoes. The designers giving more insight into their working lives are Manolo Blahnik, Sandra Choi of Jimmy Choo, Caroline Groves, Marc Hare and Christian Louboutin. Keep an eye out for next blog….

About the author

June 19, 2015

Since January 2014 I have been based in the Research department, V&A, focussing on the Shoe exhibition and its accompanying publication. I also oversee the collection of Chinese textiles and...

More from Helen Persson
2 comments so far, view or add yours


My father was a shoemaker and during the last 10 years of his working life he worked on his own from home making ballroom dance shoes in beautiful gold and silver soft leathers, including sandles for the Latin American dances. Every Saturday it was my job to stick the labels on the shoe boxes whilst my mother would pack them and write the size on the label before dad would deliver them to the shop in Bounds Green.
Look forward to visiting the exhibition.

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Find inspiration in our incredible range of exclusive gifts, jewellery, books, fashion, prints & posters and much more...

Find out more