An artisanal conversation with William Efe Laborde, Bespoke Shoemaker of Efe Laborde, London
Dear readers, March is the month about art, particularly in my city though, thanks to Art Basel and Art Central, which draws thousands of art patrons and even creative professionals to flock to the exhibition, it’s great to see the vibrancy and creative energy once again after the ease of pandemic. I find it admirable to see people who makes an effort to dress up to attend art events, not only it reflects one’s personal taste and style, but also echoing the beauty and effort of each artist made behind their artwork, and I find it very interesting that a London-based French bespoke shoemaker, Mr. William Efe Laborde, also has the similar kind of association over art to his own craft! Founder of Efe Laborde, a qualitative bespoke shoemaker in London which specializes in classic English shoes for gentlemen, William found himself fascinated with men’s style and refined menswear when he was working in one of the esteemed auction house in London; having a great grandfather as a shoemaker and his passion about men’s tailoring and the art of crafting, William starts to take up classes to learn about classic shoe-making while working with a day job, almost after a decade of being a shoemaker, this young French artisan has created some of the most exquisite classic men’s shoes, using the finest materials, and commits to create each pair of shoes with his own hands to show his dedication and precision of looking after his craft, just like a piece of remarkable painting done by a genuine and passionate artist; today, I am pleased to have this French shoemaker to talk about his craft, his passion about menswear and men’s style as well as art, and here we go:
My Modern Darcy: Hi William, a delight to have you with us today! You were born in a French town but decided to move to London which your atelier is now located, can you tell us what fascinates you so much about London?
William Laborde: Firstly, thank you very much for taking an interest in my work. It’s a pleasure to be able to share some thoughts with you and your readers.
I was first attracted to England because of my origins. Although I was born and brought up in France, my mother is English and I wanted to discover this half of my identity. In particular, I was interested to understand a little better the life of my English grandfather, George Vernon Stokes, who passed away at a young age and who I sadly never met. He was very present in my life as people often spoke of him, and did so in a particularly fond manner. He was a man who seemed to have led an adventurous and fascinating life; He was born at Victoria Hospital in Hong Kong, grew up and was educated in India at the foothills of the Himalayas, before the family was forced to moved back to the UK in 1947. As a young man, he worked on London’s Fleet Street as graphic artist, proudly owned a Jaguar XK120 with a soft top and always looked quite stylish in photos. Needlessly to say, I felt both a sense of pride and intrigue of my relation to this man, and moving to London was both a way of following in his footsteps and an attempt at being closer to him.
MMD: Your great grandfather is a shoemaker, but what makes you so passionate to become a bespoke shoemaker like him? Does his work or legacy have certain influence on you or else?
WL: That’s correct, I have an ancestor who was shoemaker on my French side, his name was André Capdeboscq but he was born in 1855 - so we are separated by two generations (he was my grandfather’s grandfather). He operated in the town of La Réole where I am born. I did not learn about him until a few years into my shoemaking journey, when my grandmother spoke to me about him, therefore, it is not possible to say that I was inspired to start shoemaking because of him - but I was fascinated to discover that I descend from someone who dedicated their life to the same craft. And so shoemaking also became a tool for me to be able to connect with my ancestor. I work in the certainty that he did so in the very same way, and it is a tremendous thing to be able to connect with people back in time like this. I own a French technical book on shoe-making printed in 1831, which corresponds to his generation, and all the steps described are familiar to my daily work. It gives me an important sense of well-being to know that I am connected to my origins in such a way.
MMD: In your opinion, what is/are the difference in between French shoe’s style, or even know-how, compare with the traditional English one?
WL: Broadly speaking, French and English shoe-making share a very similar technique and know-how. This is because the French and English have always shared both friendship and rivalry in many different domains throughout history. The existence and history of a firm like John Lobb Paris exemplifies this well. There is also a book printed in 1838 written by an Englishman called James Devlin titled “the Boot and Shoe Trade of France” - which gives an idea just how far back the two countries have taken an interest in each other’s work. Technically speaking, they can be differentiated by the order in which certain steps are carried out, or which style of stitch is used in certain steps - such as the internal seat of the shoe for example. Ultimately, the main difference is down to style: proportions and choice of leather. There is also the important influence of weather and culture. Due to climate, English shoes have always leant towards slightly more practical looks: sturdy derby shoes, boots and black shoes required at formal events. French shoes (Parisian shoes) are less constrained as the weather is more clement - therefore footwear of lighter or more colourful materials is always more available to choice, along with a hint of originality - the French are very attached to freedom, and conformity is not always seen as a positive attribute.
MMD: Let’s tell us a bit of your shoe-making establishment – Efe Laborde, you have a strong commitment about keeping the tradition rather than innovation, can you elaborate more why is that matter to you? Also, what is the house style of ‘Efe Laborde’?
WL: Shoe-making is an incredibly rich and broad craft. It is very ancient but if it has one flaw it is that it has always been transmitted by word and not by print, therefore, a lot of information has been lost along the way - and for the maker wishing to excel at his craft, it is a constant investigation in excavating the secrets and the techniques which have already been established but left aside in the passing of time. Contrary to many other domains of contemporary life, it is not necessary to create new solutions in shoe-making - the answer to most questions have already been established and it is a matter of being capable of finding them. One good example of this is the Turn-shoe, this construction method is oldest amongst all, at very least 700 years old and much more ancient than the welted construction. The pinnacle in craftsmanship of this technique was reached not so long ago, perhaps around the 1900s and it was commonly used for women’s shoes to create incredibly elegant and light footwear, yet it went rapidly out of use because of the two consecutive world wars and the demand for field boots, made in the welted construction. As a consequence, only a very basic method of this technique is now well known - but the craftsmen who would still know how to make a Turn-shoe in the method it was made in London in the 1900s would number less than the fingers on one hand nowadays. With this in consideration, I have always held a lot of reverence for the craftsmen of the past and the style of their work. So perhaps, the word ‘reverence’ is what informs and defines the house style of Efe Laborde, if I can define it in such a way.
MMD: Throughout your shoe-making journey, what are the most challenging things that you have encountered? And how did you overcome them?
WL: The most challenging thing in shoe-making is when you are lacking the skill or knowledge to achieve your vision, every shoemaker is forever looking to improve their skill. As my friend and mentor the late Jason Amesbury recently told me: “That’s the great thing about shoe-making, it never ends!". At the beginning, it can be as simple and essential as knowing how to sharpen your knife well - or stitching technique, I think the first shoe I ever welted took about three-days work, now it takes 80 minutes. Most often the solution to overcome is to learn the causality of things and perseverance.
MMD: OK let’s talk about shoes, how did you define a pair of well-made shoes?
WL: I apologies but I have difficulty answering this question in brief words. It’s a long and extensive list of many things. One thing is certain, it should please the eye of the beholder and afford comfort to the foot.
MMD: I realized that you have an appreciation about art as well, so how did you compare bespoke shoemaking with painting by master painter or artist? What is the value lies behind the work and the finished product itself?
WL: Here is an interesting consideration for your readers. Within the context of Western art, and this is true of painting in particular - signing a work only came into practice around the second half of the 1500s. The great early names of painting such as Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Titian never signed their work. This is mainly due to the idea that painting at that period was still considered a craft carried out by skilled artisans working to order, either alone or in workshops, following rigorously prescribed and defined techniques. Even materials were very codified and regulated - and this helps art historians nowadays to identify the origin of unattributed Old Master paintings. The type of pigment, the type of wood for panels, for example, oak was usually employed by Flemish and Dutch painters, poplar wood in South Germany and Italy. As time passed and members of this trade were given more freedom from regulation, individual style and specialty emerged and the craftsman became ‘artist’, signing his name to each work. A similar observation can now be made about traditional shoemaking; the old model of big workshops like John Lobb, George Cleverley, Foster & Son, Rudolf Scheer & Sohne is slowly giving way to individual masters, now you can buy shoes made by Emiko Matsuda, Dominique Casey, Daniel Wegan, Sebastian Tarek, Akiyoshi Nishiyama (Ann Shoemaker), Patrick Frei or Efe Laborde - and at each of these addresses the shoes are made by one person only, the name of the maker is signed on the shoe and it is so full of individual character that you cannot obtain the same anywhere else; so perhaps traditional shoe-making is doing what painting did 500 years ago and craft is shifting to ‘art’ ? The thing which ties both disciplines is that they are artificial, they are hand made by humans, often times you stand and contemplate these works, the mind begins to travel, one is filled with a variety of emotions and concludes by wondering if it is possible that this is indeed hand made. I enjoy this sense of wonder.
MMD: let’s move on to men’s style, I realized that you are fascinated with men’s tailoring as well! Like the first Anderson & Sheppard suit that you got at the beginning of your career, can you share with us what makes you so interested in men’s tailoring and style? And how does it relate to your work and even your personal life?
WL: There are many elements of tailoring which naturally speak to me, my upbringing took place in a large family, with many cousins, uncles and aunts - and due to this ‘good manners’ were always instilled by our grandparents as something important, especially at the dinner table - otherwise family life would be a chaos; coupled with my English roots and notion of the gentleman, these elements of my childhood drew me towards tailoring. I think an important element of tailoring is a search to dress well and this is a form of courtesy, of politeness and good manners to others. You want present your best self, to appear kind and offer respect to others, in occasions where many people observe this initiative together, it tends to greatly enhance the moments of life; weddings are a good example of this. I particularly like the English style drape cut suit because the softness and generosity of the way the cloth is cut is like a metaphor for the person wearing the garment, kindness and generosity are appealing attributes.
MMD: Can you tell us your personal style? What is your favorite outfit for the day?
WL: My style is classic; overtime I’ve grown very fond of the comfort of tailored clothing, and I hardly buy anything in shops - so most of my clothing is bespoke. During the week, if I’m wearing a suit it will be navy or grey with a discreet detail in the cloth such as herringbone or Prince of Wales check, odd jackets and tweed are usually paired with a grey worsted or cavalry twill trouser; on other days and at weekends, I enjoy wool or cotton collared polo with a cardigan, or Scottish cashmere jumper and tailored trousers, usually a heavy cloth with a nice drape, 14oz, flannel in winter and high twist fresco starting from spring, so comfort and functionality are my main interest when choosing clothing.
MMD: If you have 3 items in your wardrobe that you can’t live without, what are they and why?
WL: 1.) My navy topcoat, made in 18 or 21oz cloth - I wear it from October to March. I’ve owned it for over 10 years and people still give me compliments on it;
2.) My tweed jacket, again heavy 18oz, made in Johnstons of Elgin biscuit coloured estate tweed - just a stunning cloth and can be worn in many different ways; &
3.) One of my Scottish jumpers from Berk - fantastic knitwear, sturdy and ages gracefully. I’ve worn these on walking trips in the countryside or in town and they never fail to provide comfort.
MMD: in your opinion, besides dressing well, what are the qualities that a modern gentleman should have?
WL: As I perceive it, it’s mostly common sense. Courtesy and kindness make life much more enjoyable, being polite is also a rarefied quality. But most importantly, and again I speak from personal opinion, a person should be as good as their word; in contemporary life people seem to experience difficulty in focusing, or simply being true to their word, this can have many negative and destructive consequences. “Dictum meum pactum” goes the old latin saying - my word is my bond. If I say I will do something, you can consider it done, no need for a second thought, that is an attractive quality to anyone I should think, I have little time for a person who betrays their words.
MMD: if someone comes to you one day, and ask you how to become a good bespoke shoemaker, what are your advice for him/her?
WL: Every shoemaker I have met seems to come at it from a different perspective and aspiration. Just follow your ambition and let the craft be your test.
Special thanks to Mr. William Efe-Laborde
Image courtesy of Efe Laborde, London