Sole of a Gentleman

Purple Label benchmade footwear,
from sketch to finished shoe

About 65 miles northwest of London lies the town of Northampton, widely known as the shoemaking capital of England, and possibly the world. It’s there that Ralph Lauren’s finest footwear—that bearing the legendary Purple Label stamp—is made by hand, by master craftsmen in an area so esteemed that at least one of London’s finest hotels has sent its butlers there to learn the proper method of polishing a shoe.

Purple Label footwear from Northampton is benchmade, which means that it’s crafted by hand, over a period of up to three weeks, resulting in some of the most elegant and longest-lasting shoes money can buy.

The whole process begins with a sketch, used to illustrate exactly how Mr. Lauren envisions the finished shoe, from the shape of the toe and heel to the final burnishing and decoration. To bring that sketch to life, the finest leathers are chosen, then carefully examined for any imperfections.
benchmade shoes

The material is then trimmed and sewn together by hand to form each shoe. Our craftsmen use a waxed cotton thread, often attached to a boar’s bristle. This allows for a smaller, more uniform hole and more precise construction. We also use Goodyear welting—a 19th-century technique for attaching the sole of a shoe to the upper. The upper is stitched to the welt (the piece of leather that runs along the outsole), which is then stitched to the sole, all using what is called a Goodyear welting machine. (A layer of ground cork is added to the sole, and the leather is skived right before this happens, to ensure greater comfort and a more refined presentation.) This means your shoes can be resoled endlessly—it’s not uncommon for a pair of benchmade, Goodyear-welted dress shoes to last for decades.

Finally, each pair is stained, burnished and polished by hand, before having an exclusive pattern heat-stamped onto the sole.

For a step-by-step look at the process, click through the slideshow below.
  • The journey begins with a sketch. Then every piece of leather is carefully examined for imperfections.
  • At left, a craftsman cutting a pattern, a process known as “clicking,” due to the sound the knife makes on the brass used to guide the cutting. At right, sewing a shoe, using thread attached to a boar’s bristle.
  • At left, the tools of the trade: boar’s bristles, awls and wax. At right, a shoe in the midst of the closing process, where a shoe becomes three-dimensional. Next to it are the raw materials for its mate shoe, shown prior to closing.
  • Shaping the closed shoe by pulling it onto a last, at left. At right, a shoe after it’s been shaped on the last—note the wire at the front keeping the shoe in form.
  • At left, shaped shoes. The two on the left have their welt attached and are ready to be stitched to the sole. At right, the Goodyear welting process at work. Peeling back a thin amount of the sole during this process ensures that the stitching is elegantly hidden—and protected from wear and tear.
  • At left, each shoe is finished and burnished by hand after heating irons in a fire. The iron next to the shoe is used for a toe pattern that is exclusive to Ralph Lauren. At right, the final product—hand-finished to produce the deep, rich colors you see here.
  • ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION