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Tucked away in district XV of the charming capital that is Budapest, the workshop of Vass is a thing of great beauty. When you first walk in, this beauty might be hard to spot. Greeted by the intense smell of leather and glue, what you see are leather scraps scattered all over the floor, worn workers’ hands gripping sharp needles and pulling strong twined linen string like their life depends on it.
How this results in beauty is a story in itself, that all starts in the early 60’s. In those days, Hungary went bent under communist regime, and the parents of Laszlo Vass, who is now known as the founder of Vass and co-author of the legendary book on handmade shoes ('Handmade shoes for men' by Laszlo Vass and Magda Molnar), worked in a government owned shoe manufactory, since then it was not allowed to own your own factory. They thought it would be a good job for young Mr. Vass as well, so of to work he went. During the 70’s however, comunist regime fell and suddenly it became possible to hire employees. So Mr. Vass, not shy of a bit of risk, did.
The company went through a lot of changes, and the premises grew along with it. However, the work, attention to detail, and the passion for the craft have remained the same. Mr. Vass told us he'd rather sell less shoes instead of more, just to keep the quality as high as possible.
The making of a pair of handmade shoes all starts with the selection of the best upper leather available today. For Jeeves, we source the leather ourselves from the most renowned tanneries in Europe, America and Africa.
It is then time for the clicker to cut out the different pieces that will form the upper. This is a crucial step, since only he knows how and where to cut the leather so it will stretch evenly and conform to the foot correctly.
The upper part, which is sewn together from several parts, is stretched on the last using wooden pegs, brass nails and a special pair of lasting pliers.
The welt, which serves as a bridge between the upper and the soles, is then sewn on by hand. This aspect of the shoe is a crucial difference between Vass and many other brands in the business. While the world of shoemaking shifted its focus to industrial manufacturing methods such as the Goodyear and Blake stitch, Vass has remained as one of the few genuinely hand made shoe manufacturers in the world today. Hand welting is a time consuming process where the shoemaker drives an awl through the sole, welt and upper, and pulls everything together tightly with waxed linen thread.
An important difference between hand welted shoes and Goodyear welted shoes is invisible from the outside of the shoe, but makes a world of difference when it comes to comfort. Since the thickness of the ridge, built up by the welt around the shoe, is thinner than on a machine made shoe, sheets of cork and leather can be used instead of fluid cork. Over time, fluid cork will creep away from under the pressure of the foot, leaving nothing between the foot and the leather sole. On the other hand, with a hand welted pair of shoes, the sheets of cork and leather will perfectly mould to the wearer's feet.
Soles are precisely carved out of leather from John Rendenbach. The soling leather is tanned in pits filled with oak bark in Germany. This process can take anywhere from 9 to 12 months, but ensures the best and most durable soling leather.
The shoemaker twists and waxes a long, continuous thread, and carefully stitches the outsole to the welt. At the side of the sole, the thread lies in a cut out channel, to protect the cord from water and wear. The channel is hammered close when stitching is complete, and the heel is built up from several pieces of leather and rubber.
Edges are set with a so-called edge iron, which is heated over a flame and rubbed against the edge of the sole. In combination with wax, this seals the soles from water penetrating into the leather. Edge setting is done along the sole and heel. The entire sole is then coated in multiple layers of wax.
The wooden last is pulled from the shoe, and the insole is finished. It is first hammered flat, and then a thin, full leather insole is glued in place.
When all is said and done, it is time to finish the shoes. Once can expect, after more than 200 different stages, and passing trough dozens of worker’s hands, the shoes need a thorough polishing job. First, the leather is conditioned and polished by hand, then the shoe is held in an open flame, so the wax can melt into the pores of the leather. The shoes are finished with a final layer of wax, to bring out the shine.