Built To Last
From Sir Laurence Olivier to Mr Alexander McQueen, an array of wooden shoe lasts reflect the illustrious roll-call of George Cleverley clients
We spent an afternoon at George Cleverley, a Mayfair shoemaker where many a 20th-century style icon has left his famous footprint.
When a man visits George Cleverley for a pair of custom-made shoes, the first step is the last. The measurements of his feet are taken, and two models are carved out of wood to form a sort of three-dimensional blueprint for his shoes. When the shoes are complete, these wooden models – known as lasts – are archived for future use in a room above the workshop in London’s Royal Arcade. This last room is a peculiar place; cramped, dark and heady with the scent of cedarwood and leather. Everywhere you look, wooden replicas of the feet of customers past and present dangle from the walls like strange fruit. Each pair is carefully labelled, and as you push deeper into the room you might bump into one of the brand’s illustrious roll-call of former clients.
The reputation of Mr George Cleverley as a shoemaker to the great and the good is well documented. Having learnt his craft at the renowned Mayfair shoemaker Tuczek of Clifford Street, Mr Cleverley opened his own business in 1958, working until his death in 1991. Many a star of stage and screen has passed through these doors over the past half a century, not to mention politicians and even royalty. If you were so inclined, you could probably find the footprints of many of the same men in the cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. But this room is no museum, and its contents are treated with little veneration. As Mr George Glasgow, 64, the managing director of George Cleverley puts it, “These are practical objects. They’re made to serve a purpose.” In reality, though, the practical purpose of many of these lasts expired a long time ago – often along with the customers themselves. Mr Glasgow admits that many of them even pre-date him, and he joined the company in the 1970s.
With space in central London at a premium, many of the older, disused lasts are currently being shipped out of the city. With no archival process to speak of, they face the likely prospect of slipping into obscurity or being lost altogether. According to Mr Glasgow, the lasts of men such as Sir Winston Churchill have already been placed in storage. With that in mind, we thought it might be an excellent time to have a look around and see what we could find. We’re not sentimental at MR PORTER; we just like a good story. As luck would have it, Mr Glasgow has a few of those up his sleeve.
MR ALEXANDER MCQUEEN (1969-2010)
Mr Lee Alexander McQueen asked George Cleverley to make him a pair of ghillie boots, which he wore with a traditional Highland outfit when receiving his CBE in 2003. Mr McQueen photograph by Mr Derrick Santini / Camera Press London
The word “meteoric” could have been invented to describe the life and career of Mr Lee Alexander McQueen, a man who shone brilliantly, burned out suddenly and left a trail of savage beauty in his wake. He was often referred to as the l'enfant terrible of the fashion world, but that didn’t stop the establishment from loving him. He was named Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council a record four times, and in 2003 he was honoured by the Council of Fashion Designers of America with the International Designer of the Year award. In that same year, he was also awarded the title of Commander of the British Empire.
He received his honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace in full Highland dress, which included a pair of ghillie boots (traditional cut-out boots worn over white socks) that were custom-made for him by George Cleverley. The original cutting patterns of the boots can be seen alongside Mr McQueen’s lasts, which, as their relatively untarnished condition suggests, were very rarely used. “I think he might have had one or two other pairs made, but that’s it,” says Mr Glasgow, who remembers Mr McQueen as a quiet, unprepossessing man. “It was an unusual request, that’s for sure. Have we made a pair of them since? No. Will we ever make another pair? Who knows?”
BARON ALEXIS DE REDÉ (1922-2004)
Baron Alexis de Redé sacrificed comfort for chic as he had his shoes cut very close. Baron de Redé photograph © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
The wealthy socialite Baron Alexis de Redé was very likely Cleverley’s best customer. Mr Glasgow, recalling a conversation that he once had with Mr Cleverley himself, estimates that the Baron ordered some 400 to 500 pairs of shoes over the course of his lifetime.
“Apparently, when the Baron was in London, he’d stay around the corner at Claridge’s and take a car here. ‘What have you got ready for me today?’ he’d say. ‘Well, Baron, we’ve got a pair of pigskin loafers, some evening pumps and a pair of black patent Oxfords.’ ‘Fine,’ he’d say. “Could you have them sent over to Claridge’s and make them again?’” (His last, above, was very rarely out of use.)
One of the aforementioned pigskin loafers can also be seen in this picture, above and to the left of the last. It’s difficult to judge the scale from a photograph alone, but believe us when we say that the shoe is exceedingly small, a UK size 6 (EU size 40/ US size 7). Not only was the Baron a slight man, but when it came to his shoes he was also willing to sacrifice comfort in favour of looks. “He’d always ask for them to be cut very close,” recalls Mr Glasgow. “Of course, his lifestyle allowed for this. He wasn’t the sort of man to walk very far, or for very long.”
This penchant for tight-fitting footwear got the better of him in his later years, when his feet began to swell and he found himself no longer able to fit into his beloved shoes. “He was clearly very distraught,” says Mr Glasgow. “We provided him with a pair of regular, ready-to-wear shoes instead. ‘They are far more comfortable, I’ll admit,’ said the Baron, glumly. ‘I shall just have to remember not to look down.’”
SIR NOEL COWARD (1899-1973)
Sir Noël Coward commissioned a pair of embroidered slippers from George Cleverley but never got to wear them. Sir Noël Coward photograph by Mr Loomis Dean / The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The famously flamboyant playwright, actor and director Sir Noël Coward was well-known for his debonair personal style, which typically consisted of an elaborate silk dressing gown, a long cigarette holder and, more often than not, a pair of velvet slippers. He was introduced to George Cleverley later in life by his long-term partner, the actor Mr Graham Payn.
“He’d commissioned us to make a pair of embroidered slippers. They had NÖEL on one foot and COWARD on the other,” remembers Mr Glasgow. “The initial stages had been completed in our London workshop, and the slippers were off with one of our external craftsmen.” (Some of George Cleverley’s employees work from home, typically from a converted shed at the end of their garden.)
“He was halfway through attaching the sole of the slipper to the upper when he heard the announcement of Sir Coward’s death over the radio. He phoned up straight away and said, ‘Well, what do you want me to do with these?’ We asked him to finish them off, of course.” Mr Glasgow doesn’t recall what happened to the finished slippers, though he assumes that they were eventually picked up by Mr Payn, who acted as executor of the Coward Estate until his own death in 2005.
MR HUBERT DE GIVENCHY (1927- )
Fittingly the fashion legend Mr Hubert de Givenchy has a shoe named after him at George Cleverley. Mr de Givenchy photograph by Condé Nast Archive / Corbis
Mr Hubert de Givenchy founded his namesake fashion house in 1952 at the tender age of 25. A year later, he met Ms Audrey Hepburn in his salon while she was preparing for the lead role in Sabrina. Although he is said to have designed the costumes for the movie, it was Paramount’s lead costume designer, Ms Edith Head, who controversially took away the Oscar for Best Costume Design, one of a record eight that she won over the course of her career.
Nevertheless, Sabrina marked the start of a lifelong friendship between Mr Givenchy and Ms Hepburn, who would go on to collaborate on a further seven movies, including 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mr Glasgow doesn’t personally recall Mr Givenchy, but thinks that it might have been Ms Hepburn who first introduced him to Mr Cleverley, while the shoemaker was serving his apprenticeship at Tuczek.
“She used to come in with [Sabrina co-star] Humphrey Bogart,” says Mr Glasgow. “She’d take a great deal of interest in his shoes, and would make changes to his orders. This colour, that leather. He was a gentleman, of course, so he’d acquiesce. Later, though, George would receive a call from the hotel. ‘Mr Cleverley? It’s Humphrey. Could you possibly change the shoes back to the way I had them before?’”
As for Mr Givenchy, he retired from the fashion industry in 1995. But his presence is still felt, and not just in the global megabrand that he left behind. At George Cleverley, he is honoured in the form of the “de Givenchy” model, bench-made Derbies from the “Anthony” range.
SIR LAURENCE OLIVIER (1907-1989)
Sir Laurence Olivier was one of Mr George Cleverley’s customers from his days at Mayfair shoemaker Tuczek. Sir Laurence Olivier photograph courtesy Everett Collection / REX Shutterstock
Anecdotes aplenty surround Sir Laurence Olivier, the raffish star of stage and screen whose patronage of George Cleverley predates Mr Glasgow’s era. Among the most well-known is an exchange with Mr Dustin Hoffman that is alleged to have taken place in 1975 on the set of Marathon Man. Mr Hoffman, ever the Method actor, had stayed up for three days and three nights in advance of a scene that required him to appear sleep-deprived. “My dear boy,” said Sir Olivier on seeing his co-star’s haggard appearance. “Why don’t you just try acting?”
In light of this story, it’s doubtful that Mr Kenneth Branagh would have gone to such extreme lengths to get into character when he took on the role of Sir Olivier himself in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn. Surely, you can’t apply the Method to the man who so witheringly shot it down? As it turns out, though, Mr Branagh did do one thing. He slipped on a pair of bespoke George Cleverley shoes.
According to a 2011 interview with Collider magazine, Mr Branagh had recently purchased a pair of custom-made shoes on the recommendation of his friend and fellow actor, Mr Terence Stamp. After going through the long, drawn-out process of having them made, though, he found that he was rather reluctant to actually put them on. It was only after discovering that Sir Olivier was a fellow customer – one of Mr Cleverley’s original customers at Tuczek, in fact – that he decided to wear them, for the first time, on-screen. The director, Mr Simon Curtis, was apparently so pleased that he gave the shoes a close-up. Mr Branagh’s lasts are still in storage on Old Bond Street, a few feet away – literally – from those of Sir Olivier.