The big luxury fashion houses often get a lot of criticism from us in “menswear” and classic shoes. Sometimes well deserved, but they also do a lot of good. In fact, as things stand today, we probably would have had significantly fewer really good shoes in the world without them.
Of course, one could argue that everything was better in the past, around the turn of the 1900s or so, when the quality of both materials and craftsmanship was soaring and “everyone” walked around in what we today refer to as traditionally constructed quality shoes. You could buy them from anything from any local cobbler who made it yourself, or from any major manufacturer, domestic or international. But much has happened in the world since then, and it would have been naïve to think that a majority of the population today could or would like to spend the money on handmade or “even” Goodyear welted shoes.
Today, several brands that make welted shoes are owned by the luxury fashion houses. For example, we have Hermès who owns John Lobb Paris, LVMH (Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton) owns Berluti and RM Williams (and in fact also 20% of Hermès, so co-owner of JLP), and Church’s is owned by Prada. Sure, it has not been unproblematic in all situations, I myself have bashed on, for example, how Prada just chose to develop a fashion shoe side of Church’s and left the production of classic welted shoe to a complete standstill. But overall, these owners have provided stability and made sure to develop the companies’ core business, although they’ve made many other things of the brands as well.
Find three quality shoe brands, in this map showing what a huge player LVMH is. Picture: Seeking Alpha
Take Berluti as an example, even though it has become more of a comprehensive luxury fashion brand where Antoine Arnault, son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, was given a playhouse, they have continued to invest in the bespoke business with a large workshop in Paris with 15 employees and now also a second workshop with several employees out at Anthony Delos. In addition, they invested in a new state-of-the-art factory in Italy to manufacture their RTW. Something similar is the case with John Lobb Paris, they have 15+ employees in their workshop in Paris, and the factory in Northampton that makes JLP RTW had not existed without Hermès (indirectly, JLP is likely important for the “original business”, the independent John Lobb Bootmaker in London which only makes bespoke, as royalty payments from Hermès are supposedly a good income for the Lobb family). Also worth mentioning is that these French in-house bespoke shoemakers both earn relatively well and have regular working hours.
When it comes to the bespoke part, you can draw parallels with how the fashion houses look on Haute Couture, it’s nothing that you make money on nowadays, but they are extremely important for how the companies see themselves and their image (not least when it comes to the French houses), so they are happy invest in them and only make sure they don’t bleed money, in a larger perspective they are still seen as profitable.
In addition to owning the actual shoe companies, the luxury fashion houses have also been expansive when it comes to the tannery industry, and a large part of the best tanneries in the world are now owned by the fashion giants. There have been some problems with this, but in many cases it has provided stability and security for the future. It’s true that the owner companies take a lot of the best leather (not least for example for bags and other acessories, which they still earn significantly more money on than the shoes), but many of these tanneries might not have existed without these owners, and then the lack of high quality leather might have been even greater than it is today.
Thus, there are clear advantages, at least in some aspects, of the fashion houses’ entrance as owners of manufacturers of classic shoes. Compared to the family-owned companies, you generally see increased stability and the opportunity to broaden both customer base and production level, without necessarily thumping quality (for example, the general quality level of the bespoke shoes made at for example John Lobb Paris and Berluti is considered to be considerably more even, especially looking at the lowest level, than from many of the London bespoke companies). When compared with the venture capital-owned companies, you also see a clearer long-term perspective and less focus on cutting costs, you can take the American brand Allen Edmonds as an example, which has been thrown between different venture capital companies in recent decades, which meant that the direction have changes and there’s been some up and downs for the business.
The fashion houses are not heroes who save the world, they are in it for the money, of course. But that does not mean that they cannot do much good for an industry such as manufacturers of quality shoes.