There’s an elite clan of J.M Weston connoisseurs known as Le Club Des Cloches, who identify themselves by a “W” inside a bell, inscribed by a cobbler on the shoe’s sole. Only those who have earned the right to return their shoes to the J.M. Weston factory bear this insignia. “We are so pleased when we see a pair come back to us 10 years later for a new bottom,” a factory manager says in Mr Didier Van Cauwelaert’s 2011 book, J.M. Weston, written to celebrate the shoemaker’s 125th anniversary. “The condition it arrives in tells us what kind of life it has led.”
There are plenty of stories to be told. Some include customers, immobile in old age, returning their J.M. Westons with a note attached, expressing their desire that a stranger inherit them. Mr Van Cauwelaert begins his book describing how, after being promised his uncle’s black Demi Chasse J.M. Weston Derbies as a child, he walks the streets of Nice hoping to spot the person that picked them up from the charity shop they were donated to. “To me, they were halfway between Cinderella’s slippers and seven-league boots,” he says. “The primary quality of a pair of Westons is to take you off and away. The secondary characteristic is their ability to make time stand still.”
An awareness of the history and processes behind these high-quality, handmade shoes allows us to understand the close relationship the brand enjoys with its customers. Founded in 1891 by Mr Edouard Blanchard, the first boutique opened on 98 Boulevard de Courcelles in Paris in 1927. More of a gentlemen’s club than a shop, it was a social hub where Paris’ fashionable set could relax. Six years previously, Mr Blanchard had met his business partner – a Parisian dandy with whom he formed the company’s values of entrepreneurship, tradition and flair. When combined with the American Goodyear welt construction that Mr Blanchard’s son learnt in Weston, a Boston suburb which lent its name to the company, it was a solid basis on which to build.
Since then, J.M. Weston has been adopted by everyone from cultural tribes (the dapper “sapeurs” of Africa are firm fans) to French presidents. Perhaps more famously, the brand’s most iconic shoe, the 180 Moccasin loafer, was adored by the Bande du Drugstore, a 1960s post-beatnik Parisian tribe who frequented the iconic Publicis Drugstore venue on the Champs-Élysées. They would park their Mini Coopers outside, sockless feet planted in Weston moccasins: bourgeoisie youths who appropriated trends from their parents while attempting to rebel against them. Many a French president has walked the floors of the Élysée Palace in J.M. Weston shoes: President François Mitterrand was known to own 30 identical pairs of the Blake loafers in kidskin, and President Jacques Chirac wore the same style in calfskin.
From the first cut to the final inspection, J.M. Westons will go through almost 200 construction processes in the brand’s Limoges factory. One year is required to make their leather soles alone, and it is the only shoe brand to own its own sole tannery, based in Saint-Léonardde-Noblat. The shoe hides are cut by laser for pinpoint accuracy and the brand is known for welcoming other contemporary methods. The appointment of creative director Mr Michel Perry in 2001 has seen forward-thinking collaborations with the likes of British tailor Mr Charlie Casely-Hayford.
Tradition and quality is the constant ethos, however. Some of the machinery dates back to WWII (slower, yes – but more precise) and steam is diffused into the leather workshop after 5pm to get grease out of the leather. The light whistling of the humidifier is taken up by the skinner’s lips to guide concentration – known as the “craftsmen’s song”. “J.M. Weston is a fairly traditional brand with an English side to it,” Mr Perry has said. “It is made with a man in mind who is quite English, quite ‘turn of the century’, refined, elegant and dandy, where the mentality is alive, like Oscar Wilde.”
If you’re looking to join the illustrious line-up of J.M. Weston fans, or even Le Club Des Cloches – like all quality shoes the first obstacle is breaking them in (it takes around two months, apparently). If you don’t quite have the capital to employ a footman with similar-sized feet to your own (some well-connected shoe aficionados do – trust us), wear your blisters like a badge of honour and always keep playwright Mr Sacha Guitry’s very Gallic advice in mind: “Shoes are like women: if they don’t hurt you from the start they always leave you very soon.”
Proud to be the first online retailer offering this historic brand – whether it’s the classic 180 Moccasin or the elegant Flore Oxford – take a look at our select edit from their enticing range of styles.
180 MOCASSIN LOAFER – BLACK CALF
An integral part of the brand’s history, if you were aiming to start your J.M. Weston collection with a more laid-back style, here is a good place to start. Perhaps the most iconic and well-made loafers money can buy, they remain a signature J.M. Weston shoe and a symbol of 1960s French heritage with the Bande du Drugstore connection. They are handcrafted using methods unchanged since 1946.
402 FLORE OXFORD – BLACK CALF
There are few more elegant shoes that a man can own than a whole-cut Oxford. What’s more, the J.M. Weston leather sole – which takes one year to complete – has been hand-beaten. With a seven-eyelet lace-up facing, this is a sophisticated take on the classic wingtip.
531 MONK STRAP – BLACK CALF
A style conceived more than 50 years ago, these Derbies have been updated over the years to keep them contemporary while constantly referencing the brand’s traditional values. An engraved buckle fastener, monk strap and arched upper keeps what is a less formal dress shoe looking elegant and stylish.
598 DEMI CHASSE DERBY
Entirely handmade using the traditional Norwegian welt technique, artisans in J.M. Weston’s workshop painstakingly repeat the original 20th-century methods used to create these Derbies. They have a robust, outdoor feel, yet exude finesse – typical of J.M. Weston footwear. With a fine-stitch seam on the apron, this is a classic example of J.M. Weston’s range, and a timeless investment.