The Digital Cobbler

Simon Stanley visits Veritas Bespoke, where traditional crafts and modern technology combine to create some of the finest custom-made footwear in Vietnam. Photo by Vinh Dao.

They say you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his shoes. With everything you’ve got going on up top – the tailored suit, the carefully chosen silk lining, the colour-coordinated tie – why settle for the worn-out pair of size 10s knocking around at the back of your wardrobe? Your foot is as unique as you are and your shoes should be too.

“It’s just like a key and a lock. A shoe will only fit one person,” says Thanh Le, owner and co-founder of Veritas, Saigon’s first truly bespoke shoemakers. He produces a custom-made last, the wooden form around which shoes are constructed. Along the side is the customer’s name. From this, Thanh and his workshop team can create a shoe with an absolutely perfect fit. “For example,” he says, “the left and the right feet will be different. Some people will have a high arch, some people a low arch, the instep too, and the width. They are always different.”

Traditionally hand-carved by highly skilled master craftsmen, it is in the creation of these custom lasts that Veritas’s approach has marked them out as one of only a few bespoke shoemakers in the world to have taken the once time-consuming (and costly) process into the 21st century.

Cutting-edge Technology
With a background in engineering, Thanh earned an MBA in Canada where he met co-founder and master cobbler Thai Nguyen. The pair set about combining their skills to create a high-quality, bespoke men’s footwear brand on par with the world famous shoemakers of Great Britain such as Foster & Son and Barkers. From the outset, the biggest problem, and the biggest cost, was always the creation of the lasts.

But Thanh had an idea. Whilst working for a Canadian retail corporation, he had seen a hand-held 3D scanner being used as a market research tool to digitally model the average Canadian’s foot and create a line of footwear best suited to it.

The technology was, and still is, fairly new, and at the time, only two such scanners existed in the whole of Canada. “One was at my company,” says Thanh, “the other was in the hospital being used for the creation of orthopaedic shoes. I knew we had to bring these two worlds together.”

Thanh and Thai invested in a scanner of their own and after two years of software development were able to successfully convert a computerised model of a foot into a computerised model of a last. With the help of a CNC milling machine, the digital models become a real-world wooden mould, uniquely and accurately crafted for the wearer and ready for a bespoke shoe to be constructed around it.

Founded in Calgary in 2013, Veritas arrived in Saigon in 2015. While having a tailor-made pair of shoes is nothing new in Vietnam, Veritas represents a return to traditional shoemaking techniques where skill, accuracy and quality are paramount, and drawing around a foot on a sheet of A4 paper simply doesn’t cut it. “You can get the length and the width,” says Thanh, “but you can’t measure the curves. That’s a problem. To be truly bespoke, in the traditional way, you cannot just use a measuring tape.”

Choose, Customise, Create
After scanning a customer’s foot, Thanh and his staff will guide them through the rest of the design process, first by suggesting a style of shoe depending on the attire to which they should be matched. Oxfords, Derby’s, boots and loafers, the list is vast. With a range of ‘off-the-shelf’ footwear available in addition to the bespoke service, everything is available to try before committing. If you have something particular in mind, one-off designs are also possible. Next comes the choice of material.

Imported Italian or French cow leather is standard, but the more adventurous might prefer python, crocodile, ostrich or even the art-deco favourite, stingray, with its mottled patterns and iridescent finish. Colour options are unlimited, as are the punched toe ‘medallion’ designs commonly seen on gentlemen’s brogues. Rubber soles are standard or you can upgrade to a leather sole with a choice of attachment options ranging up to a fully hand-welted technique that’s about a million miles away from the smear of glue that most mass-market shoes are blessed with.

Another option beautifully displayed in cases around Veritas’s sleek store is their ability to add custom designs onto a shoe. Take any image to them and their skilled craftsmen will carve it directly into the leather, using dyes to add colour and detail to the point that you may prefer them hung from the wall than tied to your feet. Thanh proudly hands me a pair of Oxfords with an intricate Chinese-style dragon carved along their flanks. Although not to everyone’s taste, they could be the most incredible pair of shoes you’ve ever seen. “This takes a long time, to carve the shapes and apply each colour separately,” he says, “but it will last forever.”

Prices for bespoke shoes begin at US$1,000, with each added layer of customisation priced separately. It may sound like a high price for a pair of kicks, but compare Veritas Bespoke to a similar service in London, for example, and you’d be looking at a figure three, four, even five times higher. “In the UK, a cobbler would have to make the last himself, by hand,” says Thanh. “It’s no good, because the customer won’t stay there forever for you to look at their feet.

“I always give the customer a guarantee. If it doesn’t fit, we’ll destroy the shoes and make a new pair. If they still don’t fit, we will give you a full refund, including your deposit.”

The quality of Veritas’s shoes is staggering. The love and pride poured into each one is palpable and even if your budget only permits an ‘off-the-shelf’ pair (prices start at around $180), you know you’re getting a pair of shoes your feet will be proud of.

Veritas Bespoke is at 56 Le Thanh Ton, D1, HCMC. Visit veritasshoes.com.

Published March 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine

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