Sebastian Tarek crafts bespoke shoes that are genuine works of functional art. His workshop and approach to his trade offer a distinct nod towards a bygone era, but prove that time is a precious commodity. We visited his place of work in Arnold Circus, east London.
So, is it correct to call you a cordwainer (a shoemaker)?
Traditionally a Cordwainer is someone who works with horse leather, making saddles and bags, though in a traditional sense they are still shoemakers. However, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about how to make a saddle…
How did you become a shoemaker?
At 19 I was bombing out of high school and came over to the UK from Sydney on a sports tour. I was watching Christmas TV at my family’s house in London and saw a Hans Chrsitian Andersen film and was inspired to become a shoemaker. I went back to Australia and took a vocational class. It was as I became more engrossed in learning the trade that my Grandmother told me my Great-Great-Grandfather had been a shoemaker and leather worker. I returned to London to study at Cordwainers, the leather working college, which is now part of LCF [London College of Fashion], and I became the most recent in nearly 18 generations of shoemakers from eastern Europe. I actually made a trip to Warsaw last year to the site of the workshop the last shoemaker descendant had. He vacated there around the turn of the 20th century. The first had been there since the 15th. It’s a pretty crazy history.
There are a lot of ‘artisans’ it seems these days, trying to ply traditional trades?
Yes, I think for many the true artisan thing isn’t actually a reality. All power to people who are working with their hands but I live and work here at my studio and it’s taken me a long time to learn what I do. It’s a multi generation thing that you can’t just pick up like a guitar. A lot of people suddenly decide they’re going to be a ‘craftsman’ but there’s a difference between being a professional and doing something vocationally. It takes a lot of time to master something like this, I don’t want to denigrate people who want to work with their hands though, it’s very gratifying.
You also teach shoemaking?
Yes but shoe design rather than shoemaking. I teach at the Royal College of Art, it’s the total antithesis to what I do here. Dealing with fashion students who have a very different idea of what the design of a shoe, or what a shoe is, to what I produce with my personal work. I’m a very traditional shoemaker and don’t use any of the tools that the footwear manufacturing industry uses to produce products. So when I teach we are looking at laser cut, 3D printed synthetics and materials for an entirely different approach. But that for me that is enlivening, a real escape from my usual work.
So what kind of tools do you use here in the workshop?
There are a number of permanent tools I have in the workshop that I’ve acquired over time, like edge finishing irons, lasting pinchers and my sewing machine. Knives, surforms and files are of course essential but they generally come and go. There are also a lot of traditional, specialist tools that aren’t manufactured so much anymore. For example I have to buy my rasps from Japan. 10 or so years ago you could go into any local DIY store and buy a horseshoe rasp.
There’s a lot of crossover with woodworking and shoemaking?
Well in that I work with wood and spend a lot of time finishing, yes.
What part of shoemaking is the most satisfying?
I love making lasts; creating something 3D, somewhat like sculpting, you know – creating that beautiful natural sweep of the foot. I love the process, getting lost in the act of making something that’s incredibly functional and beautiful. In the end I’m less concerned with the aesthetic of the shoe, I almost can’t see it anymore once the shoes are finished. I’m more focused on the finishing and construction, knowing that as long as these are right then it will look as it should. But it’s spending time if you want something simple yet unique; it’s a painstaking process.
What are the steps for constructing a pair of shoes?
I’ll measure the client’s feet, and then we’ll discuss what they want. Then I’ll carve the last and cut the pattern of the upper. This will then be fitted around the last and stitched together. The client will then come back for a fitting to make sure it’s a good match and then I’ll make any adjustments and finish the shoe by stitching the sole to the shoe itself.
You use some quite unique materials?
It depends on what clients want but I tend to work with a tannery in Northampton and one in Devon (that dates back to pre-Roman times) to source leathers for my shoes. I’ll use different types for different looks, textures, styles and finishes. I mostly use vegetable tanned leather but some of the more unusual breeds of leather can be French calf, German box calf and even stingray, although that is very hard to work with – I’ve actually resorted to having that laser cut rather than breaking multiple knives and needles.
You work for a lot of prestigious clients?
Bespoke footwear is very similar to Savile Row tailoring. There are a lot of freelancers all working for the same houses, each house with their own particular style. So when I work for other ‘brands’ I’m creating designs to their specifications.
And what about your own style?
My styling is pretty classic, but relaxed with understated colours. I try to make every pair unique to the previous and try different things like using an unfinished skin and polishing it into a very unique colour. I don’t like unnecessary details, like sometimes you’ll see 1001 one brogue punching holes (traditionally what defines a pair of brogues). A pair of my shoes will have my handwriting – a unique look – but will always be defined by the person I’m making the shoes for.