Following the pointless resurrection of the Sulka brand with none of its former flair, the relaunch of a defunct shoe brand has driven me to seek comfort in an original. Fortunately, it was built for comfort: the Edward Green Harrow, an unlined round-toed loafer with beveled waist and truly hand-stitched front, and a nearly invisible toe seam carefully skin-stitched with a boar’s bristle.
In a former life, this shoe was known as the Wildsmith loafer, and, surprisingly given its casual appearance, widely celebrated by a previous generation of style writers. I write this post to describe two ways in which appearances can be deceiving: the way this shoe’s simple appearance belies both its great comfort and great craftsmanship, and how the reappearance of a new Wildsmith brand with a new version of the Wildsmith loafer only furthers the decline of a tarnished name.
Wildsmith was founded in 1847 by a couple who made and repaired boots for the Household Cavalry, the oldest regiment in the British Army, whose duties include serving as a the personal bodyguard of the king or queen. As the company prospered and moved to a fashionable address on Duke Street in the West End of London, it continued its connection with the British military, providing boots for the cast of my favorite movie Lawrence of Arabia (Hawkes of Savile Row, pre-merger with Gieves, did the army uniforms, while, surprisingly, Pall Mall shirtmaker Frank Foster made at least some of Peter O’Toole’s robes as Lawrence). I had a chance about a decade ago to ask the last Wildsmith in the firm, John Wildsmith, about his firm’s work on the movie. He fixed me with a rheumy eye and after a moment recalled, “Yes! We had to keep sending new boots out there! Kept wearing them out in the desert!” No wonder the historical Lawrence went around barefoot.
As one can imagine, with the contraction of British military and political power following World War II, various suppliers to the armed forces up and down scale alike either adapted to new roles or vanished. Wildsmith established itself as a civilian shoemaker and bootmaker in addition to its military work. By the early 1980s, according to Alan Flusser, it principally sold rebranded ready-made shoes of high quality, including the house loafer made by Edward Green and pictured above. Sadly, as time went by, this rather dour old firm lost ground: it retrenched to a small storefront in the dank Princes Arcade off Jermyn Street. No longer offering bespoke, it switched to cheaper suppliers for its ready-to-wear as well: except for the loafer model pictured, which continued to be made by Green until Wildsmith went out of business in 2006, most of its shoes appeared to be relabeled shoes made by Crockett & Jones, and not necessarily to that maker’s highest standard. All of its shoes continued to be sold at markups above what its suppliers were charging in their own shops around the corner. After closing his shop seven or eight years ago, John Wildsmith made a few last tours of the U.S. with the shirtmakers Hilditch & Key and then Wildsmith Shoes joined so many others betwixt Lethe and asphodel, or so we thought.
I have Wildsmith’s last “catalogue,” actually a brochure, from about a decade ago, in front of me. Among the various very conservative shoe models pictured one stands out: “the first slip-on shoe in London, the famous Wildsmith ‘Country House Shoe Model 98 for around the house and over the way.’” Wildsmith sold several different styles of loafer, but what it called the Model 98 was the “Wildsmith loafer” about which Alan Flusser and Jeremy Hackett waxed eloquent, the go-to shoe of Sloane Rangers according to Peter York, the one supposedly worn by Prince Charles. And the ready-to-wear version pictured in the old brochure was made by Edward Green, identically to that pictured here. As mentioned in a previous post , Green has a special expertise in skin-stitching the fronts and toe seams of certain shoe models, giving a recognizably distinct piecrust appearance to the front and a uniquely smooth join to the two pieces at the toe. Green sells this shoe nowadays as the “Harrow.” It used to sell a slightly longer-vamped version as the “Eton.” (Anyone looking to complete the trifecta of top-drawer British public school names will be gratified to know that Green also has a model called the “Westminster,” its own double monk-strapped shoe which is superior in design and proportion to the corresponding John Lobb ready-to-wear model.)
I found the Harrow deeply conventional in design, just another penny loafer, until the day I tried a pair on. I was lucky to find a pair that fit perfectly. Not only did they fit perfectly, they felt perfect. Because the Harrow is unlined, it’s exceptionally light. In a good fit, it’s also exceptionally comfortable, which felt like a blessing when my feet were hurting and sensitive from the pinch of a different new pair of shoes. Green makes the Harrow on its 61 last, a round-toed loafer last designed specifically for unlined loafers. (The 65 is the lined loafer last for the same toe shape.) Because it’s unlined, I sized down one half size, but kept the same width fitting as on my other Greens. I quickly came to like the roundness of the toe, which brings into greater relief the hand stitching at the toe. The quality of the soft leather is excellent, as to be expected from Green, while the sole, cut close to the waist of the shoe, makes the proportions of the Harrow elegant despite its prosaically round toe. Despite the simplicity of its design, the Edward Green Harrow is more than the sum of its parts.
Which makes the new loafer model from the relaunched Wildsmith rather puzzling, as is the fact of Wildsmith’s relaunch full stop. For better or for worse, few people remembered the old Wildsmith in its heyday or its decline, so why relaunch it? Marketing language focusing on the heritage (read: famous customers) of the old Wildsmith gives one hint. Although John Wildsmith’s grandson had once considered reviving the name, to my knowledge, no one from the Wildsmith family is involved with the relaunch. Wildsmith had only one famous model, so it is understandable that the relaunch began with a loafer, called the “Bloomsbury” and clearly intended to be a version of the Model 98. It’s an unlined loafer, but where the Edward Green-made version was more than meets the eye, the new Wildsmith loafer, made by someone else to a lower standard, resorts instead to a bit of trompe l’oeil. Its front is machine-stitched with a raised, gimped edge that from a distance looks a bit like the piecrust stitching of old. In this context, gimping has nothing to do with getting medieval on one’s shoe, but simply refers to putting a zigzag edge on a piece of leather. However, the toe seam of the new Wildsmith loafer is quite visibly machine-sewn at any distance. These cost-cutting measures may only affect esthetics. However, it’s telling that the old Wildsmith didn’t compromise on the quality and finishing of the one shoe model with which its identity was bound, while the new Wildsmith introduces an inferior version with fanfare trumpeting the clientele of its earlier incarnation.
My e-friends and I have different guesses as to who is making the new Wildsmith Bloomsbury. It’s not Edward Green, nor made to anything like the same quality as the Edward Green Harrow, the original Wildsmith loafer of style legend. The new Wildsmith Bloomsbury is being sold for less than Edward Green prices. But can the new Wildsmith stand on its own merits, or must it only evoke something it now clearly is not? For if you want the integrity of the ideal that the Model 98 embodied, Edward Green has maintained it in the Harrow. Just get your fit right – unlike their first illustrious devotee, King George VI, you’re not likely to wear them around the house as slippers over your shooting socks.
Photograph by Edward Green and words by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans