The idea of British craftsmanship has almost become a cliché nowadays, with the term often being over-used and abused. A rare exception to this is undoubtedly George Cleverley. The bespoke shoemaker, tucked away in the Royal Arcade in London, is widely regarded as one of the best in the world, with clients ranging from Fred Astaire to Tim Cook. During some downtime in between his busy trunk show schedule, we caught up with George Glasgow Jr. - the co-owner and CEO of the brand - from his West London home. From reminiscing about George Cleverley himself turning down Mick Jagger as a client, to discussing sneaker culture, we explored what it means to carry forward an artisanal, bespoke brand into the 21st century. Oh, and of course, we also got to peak at his watch collection.
So, tell me, what is it that makes George Cleverley shoes different?
Well, George Cleverley came from a family of shoemakers. His dad was a shoemaker, his nephew was a shoemaker, everyone in the family was involved in shoemaking in some way. There’s a few iconic styles and traditions which he pushed forward, for example, in the ‘40s and '50s, he introduced a suspiciously square toe, which people weren’t doing at all. English shoes had more of a rounded silhouette in those days and they were really quite heavy. If you look at a lot of other British shoes, they’re much heavier in actual weight and they appear more robust, a bit heavy looking on the toe.
As opposed to the slimmer silhouette?
Exactly, a Cleverley always had this sort of sharp, long silhouette that made your foot look more elegant. George always felt that it was the job of the shoemaker to make the best possible shoes that your feet could allow, so that when you went out and crossed your legs, say in one the old private members’ clubs from back in the days, people would see your shoes and notice. That silhouette and construction was the basis of what Cleverley founded his business on. And then he really just carried on. He was making shoes up to the day before he died.
It’s all about finding the perfect formula and keeping at it…
And that’s how people notice. Nowadays, there’s social media and it’s quite easy to find out about a company, but to find out about George Cleverley in the ‘50s and to attract Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, that is amazing. It makes you wonder, how did Humphrey Bogart ever find George Cleverley, tucked away in Cork Street in London? To me, that’s really a testament to the product, as well as the strength of word of mouth back then.
And I’m sure once the bug bites, they must come back quite often…
George never advertised his business, because the vast majority of his clients were repeat clients. You know, people like Alexis Baron De Redé, a prominent French banker and aristocrat, probably had 500 pairs of bespoke shoes, and George said, “I never, ever remember a day in my life not making shoes for him”. For many of the clients back then, and still today, it’s not a one-time purchase; they build a collection and that takes a bit of time.
Client for life…
Precisely – you know, retail’s having a tough time around the world, that’s evident, we all know that. Internally, we don’t have meetings about how much we’re going to make, or how many shoes we’re going to make, and how many things we do. We start every day to make the best possible shoes, give the best customer service and look after our clients. I think if you do that as a small family run business, or any business really, and you give your customers what they’re looking for, they’ll always come back. In good times and bad times. They might buy less, but they’ll always come back, and that’s something we’ve focused on.
George in front of his West London Home
Did Cleverley ever turn down clients?
All the time. It sounds odd, but George never wanted new clients.
Not a bad position to be in…
I’ll tell you a good one. One of our good customers and friends remembers coming in to see Cleverley with Mick Jagger. Mick asked him to make him some shoes and George refused, saying “I don’t want you jumping all over the stage in my shoes”.
My dad, who worked closely with George for a number of years, used to say to him, “I can’t believe you turned down Jagger,” and he’d be like, “Why? I can only make six pairs a week and I’ve got enough orders for 25, so his money is the same as that guy’s money”. For him, if he had a customer that lived in London, ordered every time he saw him, always paid, then he was a great customer. Why would he ever run the risk of putting this guy off for Mick Jagger? That’s sort of how George was.
I hope Mick doesn’t hold a grudge…
Oh no, we always joke about it. He wears Cleverley shoes on stage now, and my dad and I actually saw Mick at the Miami concert a few months back and he was joking about it again saying, “You know that whole thing with George back in the day is forgotten about”.
"It makes you wonder, how did Humphrey Bogart ever find George Cleverley, tucked away in Cork Street in London?"
Do you see clients go through a similar collecting journey?
It’s quite interesting, you’ll get two types. You’ll get the customers who come in wanting a pair of classic Oxford shoes, that they’re sure they can use for the rest of their life. And then you’ll get the other type of customer that will come in and say, “I don’t want anyone else to have a pair of shoes like this, I would like purple stingray”.
Quite the statement!
Yeah, so different people will want different things, and sometimes their tastes evolve. We’ve got one client in Texas that is a judge, a really conservative sort of guy, and nowadays he’s got combinations of purples, blues, everything. You name it, he’s got it. When I come back from my trips, we sit down as a team and we go through all our customers, and my dad will be like, “He ordered what?” and I’ll just say, “Yeah, he wants sunrise alligator”. Inevitably, he’ll be shocked, and go, “No way! That guy would never buy anything but a black shoe from me, are you sure?”. He’s a prime example of how people’s tastes change and evolve.
George's own Cleverley shoes, made especially for his wedding day
George in his living room
Do you ever refuse a request?
Well, once we had someone ask for the heel of a shoe to be hollow, so that he could click it out, and we were a bit suspicious about that. We actually got contacted later by the authorities, asking us about that specific individual and whether we ever made shoes for him. We thought thank god we didn’t.
In less extreme cases, is it difficult to find the balance between maintaining the purity of the brand and accommodating clients’ diverse tastes?
I think it’s important to stay in business, to stay relevant, while not compromising your key principles. To reference watches for a moment, I greatly admire Patek Philippe for focusing on some of the stainless steel and sport models. I think they’ve done well in transitioning into that direction, because that is what the customers are really looking for nowadays, yet they’ve remained faithful to their core purpose. If you go into our shop, 90% of the stuff that we’re selling now is suedes and pigskins and more casual boots, things like that. You’ve got to offer that, you can’t just be like, “We’ve got black Oxford’s and brown Oxford’s”. It’s important to have a variety of people interested in your product because if you just have one type of demographic and that demographic goes away, you’re out of business.
"If he had a customer that lived in London, ordered every time he saw him, always paid, then he was a great customer. Why would he ever run the risk of putting this guy off for Mick Jagger? That’s sort of how George was."
I assume you’ve been asked countless times to make trainers?
We’ve had a lot of requests, and I’ll tell you, we’ve got a prototype we’ve worked on for ages, but it doesn’t feel quite right yet. Every few months we bring it back out and have a look at it again, to see if we can make it work for us and then it goes back in the box. You go into some other brands and their windows are littered with trainers. In our case, I think you have to be quite true to yourself and realise you’re not going to be everything to everyone. We don’t like losing a customer in the sense that we can’t fulfil all of their needs, but we understand that people are going to wear sneakers – and look, we don’t do that.
A gift from Sylvester Stallone: a pair of boxing glove cufflinks
An important part of your client base is American, right?
It is, yeah, and bespoke shoemaking is quite a new thing to a lot them. There’s a sort of fascination with the idea of bespoke items having existed for a long time in Europe and many of them love English tailor-made companies, from suits to shirts. If you go into most Savile Row tailors and say, “Who is your best customer?”, most of them, if not all, would say Americans.
"It’s important to have a variety of people interested in your product because if you just have one type of demographic and that demographic goes away, you’re out of business."
What do you think it is which attracts them?
There’s something about their culture, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, which is quite quick. For us, it takes six months to make a pair of bespoke shoes and I think they find that quite refreshing, because they are built to last. You know, we recently got back a pair for maintenance which was delivered to the client in 1968. That’s unbelievable to me. I mean, that’s cheap shoes.
[Laughs] I suppose it is!
How many things in your life, aside from a watch maybe, can you say, “I’ve had since the late ‘60s?”. Not many. And I think that’s always been captivating for a lot of our American clients.
George sitting by the fireplace
A drinks trolley - a gift from a close client
And you moved out there for a while, didn’t you?
I lived in Los Angeles for about ten years, yeah.
What was the thinking there?
Well, it seemed like everyone went to New York. Everyone. I always found that quite interesting because I’ve looked back at all of our old orders, gone over all these handwritten records, and it’s quite amazing to see that California has been a really important market for us historically. And so, I thought, well let’s go out there, and make a base in Beverley Hills. Nobody else is there.
And your intuition was right?
It worked really well for us. People assume that because it’s sunny out there, people aren’t walking around with formal shoes, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We have good clients in Silicon Valley, which you wouldn’t expect would be where you would find traditional George Cleverley clients. The truth is they’re not always walking around in sneakers, they all wear Chelsea boots or loafers, so there’s a market for that more casual style. I go up to Google and Apple and do trunk shows right in their office, and it’s quite remarkable. They’re all there with their buddies, getting excited.
A handwritten letter of thanks from Daniel Day-Lewis
George in his living room
Any other trunk shows in unexpected locations?
Funnily enough, we do a lot of trunk shows at American football teams and basketball teams, which have been really good for us. It proved to be quite organic because quite often the owner or General Manager of the team would be a client, and they would say, “Show the players this stuff, they’d love it”. I’ll never forget the first time we did the LA Clippers: it was amazing. We went into the players’ lounge, where the guys would come in after training. We were trying to figure out where to put the samples and the General Manager said, “Put them all over the pool table ‘cause that’s what they’ll all want to do, they’ll want to play pool, so you’ll get their attention”
That’s certainly one method…
And then, when the guys came in, they lost their minds. They thought it was amazing, going through all the skins, saying, “So I could get that in that?” “Yeah,” “How quick?” “Well not quick, quick, but six months quick” [laughs]
[Laughs] Must’ve been quite the surprise…
We were there one afternoon, three or four hours, and by volume it’s probably the most successful trunk show we’ve done. Following that, this one time I was sitting courtside at one of the games and the General Manager came over with the whole team, and they presented me with the official jersey for the team, which they’d all signed. It was quite a touching moment.
"I go up to Google and Apple and do trunk shows right in their office, and it’s quite remarkable. They’re all there with their buddies, getting excited."
Being high-performance athletes, they must’ve instantly connected with the idea of tailor-made shoes I imagine?
Oh, they just got it. One thing about those guys is they’ve got to look after their feet. The reason a lot of them wear sneakers with suits is actually because they can’t buy good quality, comfortable shoes. When they put on dress shoes, they can’t risk running around with blisters the next day. When I started making them shoes, it was all about comfort, comfort and comfort. I’ll never forget the time one player put some on and went, “They feel like trainers”. It’s those moments when it’s really satisfying to feel like you’re meeting people’s needs.
The Clippers jersey, signed and gifted by the team
Speaking of people’s needs, you collect watches, don’t you?
[Laughs] Yes, I’ve always been into watches and it’s been quite an interesting journey for me. One of the first watches I properly committed to was this rectangular Bulgari watch, with diamonds around it.
Quite the statement piece…
I used to wear it all the time, probably too much. My tastes have changed now; I find it too flashy, so my wife wears it. But I’ve never sold any of my watches because they mark steps along the journey, it shows where you’ve gone. When I look at this diamond-encrusted watch I think, “Jesus, what did people think of me?” [laughs]
A few of George's Patek Philippe watches
George's Patek Philippe Wordltime
Where did you go from there?
More recently, I got into Rolex and Patek Philippe. More specifically, Patek Philippe is a brand I really admire. I like the fact that they’re family-run and respect a lot of what they do. There’s actually quite a funny story about how I got my Nautilus 5711.
Ah, so you're the one who did!
[Laughs] Exactly, lucky me. I was looking to buy my engagement ring for my wife on Bond Street, so I told Jason Statham, who’s a good friend of mine, “Let’s go around and have a try on”. So, we’re going around Bond Street, and we went into the store and I’m looking for a 5711 and Jason wanted the 40th Anniversary Nautilus. By some miracle, the guy there basically said he could make it happen very quickly, so we sort out all the details there and then. We leave the store, no engagement ring but with two watches.
[Laughs] Oh dear…
Yeah, didn’t quite go as planned.
"I’ve never sold any of my watches because they mark steps along the journey, it shows where you’ve gone."
Anything else you’ve got your eyes on?
It’s funny, when I got the Nautilus, I was like, “That’s it, I’m done with watches”. And then, you see another one and think “Ohhhh that’s so good”. I must admit I’m scared the journey won’t end here for me…
Thank you to George for speaking with us
Photography by James Barrett and Vicky Nixon