Hoi An has got a bit of a reputation as a place to shop, and one area it excels in is shoes. Cobblers are lined back to back just outside the old town, each one displaying an arousing selection of dusty, dirty, badly glued pumps and sneakers, sandals and the odd bejewelled, eight-inch stacked heeled number — a few hours here and suddenly a pair of Louboutin rip-offs become top of your must-have list for six months trekking through Southeast Asia. How to get them?
There is no denying that there are many better places to buy leather goods (it’s usually cheaper to buy them back in the West), but if getting bespoke shoes is something you just have to do — you’ve already seen a tailor, right? — then being armed with a walk-through guide to getting the best out of your cobbler will set you on the right path.
Firstly, find a cobbler with whom you can communicate. Completely ignore their displays, which are usually made up of bulk bought ready-made footwear and are no indication of the quality produced by the shop’s craftspeople. Ask to see any customer orders they have awaiting pick-up to determine quality. Then go straight for the leather selection they have available – by that we don’t mean the little swatches — we mean going into the store and picking out the actual piece of leather that suits your needs and asking for an off-cut so that you can check that this is the leather used on the final product.
For the design, throw away all those little cutout pages from Vogue and internet printouts – it’s rare for a tailor to be able to replicate a shoe from an image. Your best bet is to give them a favourite shoe to copy, even if it’s one from their display. This is when you ask for the price (expect to start off at around the $60 mark for leather lined work shoes or $25 for a pair of sandals), which you then need to smilingly barter over until you are happy — the general rule is to knock it down by a third. If by the end of this your relationship with the sales assistant is still good, it’s time to measure.
The measuring technique of choice in Hoi An is a rather confidence inspiring process of drawing around your foot on an old A4 bit of paper, adding a few tape measurements for foot width. For this you must stand with your feet hip width apart and balance your weight evenly or the measurements will be completely out (if this bit goes wrong it’s impossible to rectify later).
Now all that is left is to agree on the finish. Choose buckles — avoid zips unless they have YKK or HKK as they break — and insist that your shoes are stitched, not glued, bearing in mind that they will still use a little haphazardly applied glue to the end product (which usually can be scrubbed of later). Get everything down in writing and pay no more than a 50 percent deposit, making sure you have that little leather offcut to take away with you.
Your shoes will be made in 12 hours. There is no point in giving them any longer for a better finish — your order will just be put at the end of the job list, meaning you’ll have less time for alterations. Arrange a time for the fitting, keeping in mind that it’s unlikely the shoes will be waiting for you.
At the fitting, compare your leather sample, check the finish and thoroughly test the fitting. Walk around, do lunges, sprints, whatever — if you followed the above instructions the shoes should be fine. If there are problems, do be patient and gently run through them with the sales assistant. If you upset the assistant, it generally goes downhill from here and you might as well give up now. Alterations usually are completed within two hours. If you are happy pay the remainder, if not, repeat until you are. If it all goes horribly wrong, you are going to have to swallow that deposit and leave your shoes behind.
For handbags and jackets, it’s a whole different ball park of expense and disappointment — our best tip here is to go ready-made, preferably over the border.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 13th November, 2014.