Paul Stuart has a sterling reputation as a provider of fine footwear, carrying both ideal business classics and charmingly offbeat models, made in England and Italy. Nick V. of B. Nelson Shoes talks with Peter Agati about his three decades in the footwear trade, sourcing, styling, and Paul Stuart’s current offerings.
Nick V.: Tell us of your background in the Men’s footwear business.
Peter Agati: My career in the footwear industry can be traced back to 1978 with the establishment of my first store in New York City on Madison Avenue at 38th Street. In no short order, my partners and I were able to expand the business, eventually operating a nine-store chain with a warehouse, offices, and distribution center in Long Island City. Over the next few years, my role as buyer led to excursions to several production facilities in the UK and on the European Continent where my interest in production and design afforded me the opportunity to begin customizing orders, and shortly thereafter, to develop my own label.
Most of this additional production was, naturally enough, concentrated in Italy—specifically in Tuscany. After making extended trips to both the Marche region and to the Padova area near Venice we discovered a number of accomplished craftsmen eager to work with us by interpreting and updating the classic styles we were most interested in introducing into our program.
NV: Can you tell us some of your experiences while visiting those factories?
PA: I have visited more than a hundred production facilities of every imaginable size in Europe. The trick is to make your way out of the showrooms and offices and into the working factory. The machinery and people on the production line are always fascinating. The average person doesn’t realize the extent of the handcraftsmanship regularly employed in the production of fine quality footwear. There are no conveyor belts with shoes flying through the factory. In Northampton the clickers methodically and painstakingly cut every pattern by hand—but only after assessing the most appropriate manner in which to address each skin. This attention to detail extends from there to the sewing table, where each hole is hand-punched in a brogue derby, to the hand corking of the insole, to the channel stitching of the sole onto a cap toe. All of these craftsmen take enormous pride in their work. That pride is reflected like a signature on each item they produce.
NV: Why did you decide to join Paul Stuart?
PA: In 2008 I was invited to join Paul Stuart, one of the most prestigious menswear stores in the world, with the intention of turning the lease department into an in-house shoe department.
NV: Describe the state of Paul Stuart’s shoe department when you joined them.
PA: For nearly 75 years, the Paul Stuart approach has represented the epitome of quality, taste, and—most importantly—the finest assortment of menswear available anywhere in the world. In terms of footwear, it was evident when I joined Paul Stuart that with our customer base showing a distinct preference for English make and styling (our production at that time was dominated by a single factory, with some additional Italian-sourced product), it would be necessary to add new production resources.
Two years into my tenure at Paul Stuart we took the entire shoe department in-house and began the diversification of English brands. We sourced factories throughout the Northampton region where there is a signature of sorts that is unique to each individual factory and to every aspect of the product line. It is something inherent in the finished product that allows one to identify which factory has produced that shoe. Drawing on this signature and recognizing its strengths allows us to choose a diverse selection in a classic environment such as Paul Stuart.
Since then, we have increased our English assortment dramatically and added six new factories to our mix. Moreover, we continue to augment our Anglo offerings with equally high quality footwear carefully selected from throughout the best manufacturers in Europe.
NV: How does the Phineas Cole collection differ from Paul Stuart?
PA: Our facility, with all aspects of production, has also made it much easier for us to extend our own signature to encompass the more forward aspects Phineas Cole. The styles may well begin with all the timeless hallmarks of fine classic footwear but, by working with Ralph Auriemma [Design Director for Phineas Cole, see Styleforum's visit with Ralph], we interpret the classics and put a much more resolutely modern twist on the collection to complement the Phineas Cole aesthetic.
NV: Does your customer base prefer English shoes?
PA: The classic styling of English shoes and the durability of their Goodyear welted construction complements business attire. Many of our clients at Paul Stuart wear the same style for many years and refurbish the shoes several times before replacing them. Although all of the attributes of the English welted construction—things like the hand corking, wooden shanks, full leather insoles, aged oak bark leather soles, and the double stitching of the welted construction—aren’t necessarily known to our clients, the quality that allows for the comfort and longevity of these shoes is obvious. With six English manufacturers currently producing for Paul Stuart, we believe no other store in the states is able boast so large collection fine English footwear.
NV: When you are designing a shoe, what are the most important factors that you consider? How much is influenced by your customers?
PA: When designing men’s shoes, the most important aspect of the design is the toe character of the last. This is one reason why at Paul Stuart you may find 10–12 black cap toes all with different toe characters, fittings, and slight detail differences. The toe sets the tone for each article.
Design inspiration comes from many sources. We often find ideas in archived items that were popular decades ago, and we constantly endeavor to update the looks so they are relevant today. Inspiration can also come from the entertainment industry, such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and its prohibition-era wardrobe.
NV: How has the high-grade footwear industry changed since you started in the business? What lies ahead for the footwear department in Paul Stuart?
PA: Footwear designers and retailers like Paul Stuart continue to enjoy success by providing our clientele the highest quality products available. Compromising quality for price dilutes the potency of any brand. Unfortunately, in much of the market, the separation between true luxury brands and the balance of the goods available has increased tremendously; there is a huge gap in quality and price. Although many of the mid-priced manufacturers have fallen victim to competition from the Far East, things are somewhat more settled now and an argument can be made that the top footwear resources will probably continue to get stronger. The internet’s sartorial forum provides a clearer picture of the fashion world and its possibilities. When men realize that a shoe is not simply something you need to complete an outfit but an essential component of that outfit, quality will always come out on top.
At Paul Stuart, we will continue to grow the classic—and, certainly with Phineas Cole, the less conventionally traditional—English collection. We will also continue to expand our already diverse selection of leisure footwear to best complement the wide selection of tailored clothing, sportswear, and accessories we offer. As ever, we are always looking for new items and directions in all of our lines. It is this approach that continues to set Paul Stuart apart from any and all competition.
Images courtesy Paul Stuart.