There are a lot of pairs of shoes out there.
Oxfords, bluchers, boots, monkstraps, derbies, loafers, and lots more from all kinds of brands, made from all kinds of materials with all kinds of constructions. So assuming you want to get something good, how do you know what to look for when buying a new pair?
Obviously, you can rule out any suspiciously cheap or especially unstylish options – they're usually made with shoddy construction and low-grade materials. But beyond that, how do you tell a nice pair from one that's just so-so?
Well first, you could shop our lineup of expertly chosen options, all of which have the Bespoke Post seal of approval. But if you're looking to buy a pair secondhand, or want to gauge the quality of the pairs you've already got, you can look for any (or all) of the below indicators.
Keep in mind that these don't apply to every single pair of shoes – most sneakers, for example, won't fit any of these criteria. And it's not a strict set of guidelines, as you could find a pair that's made with care but intentionally omits one (or all) of these details. As a general rule, though, these features are a good indicator of quality for any pair you're looking at.
A Stitched Sole
How the sole of the shoe connects to the upper is one of the easiest ways to know the potential lifespan of any given pair.
Most lower-end pairs use glued soles, which is easier and less expensive, but creates a poorer seal and can degrade more easily. They can actually be ideal for affixing certain kinds of casual styles, but do make it impossible for you to replace the soles when they get worn down.
Higher quality pairs use a needle and thread. This can be done two different ways:
The shoe's upper is folded underneath the insole, and then stitched into place with the thread going straight through the insole, the upper, and the sole.
This is the easier of the two methods, and creates a sleek, minimal look by keeping the stitching inside of the shoe. It also makes the shoes especially flexible. That comes with a price, though: shoes made with a Blake stitch are more difficult and usually more expensive to resole, since specialized equipment is required. They're also not quite as water-resistant.
Both the sole and the upper are sewed onto a "welt," a strip of leather running along the entire perimeter of the shoe. You can see it clearly on this pair of Red Wing Iron Rangers – the welt is the tan strip of leather along the outside of the shoes, and the stitching on top is how the shoes are held together.
It's considered a highly desirable selling point in shoemaking, for a few reasons. The extra layer of material means that Goodyear-welted shoes often feel more supportive, and because the stitching is outside of the shoe's inner section, they also tend to be more water-resistant.
Most importantly, though, it makes the soles extremely easy to repair or replace. If you buy an expensive pair of boots and wear them into the ground, a quick trip to the cobbler for a new pair of soles will leave them good as new. That way, a pair of shoes can last you a lifetime so long as you take good care of the leather uppers.
High Quality Leather
This can be a bit subjective, unless you're a professional tanner who can instantly tell leather quality by sight alone, but in general you want the surface to be smooth, consistent, and unblemished. If you want to get technical, shoe leather is generally broken down into two categories:
This comes from the upper section of a hide, and hasn't been sanded or buffed during the tanning process to artificially boost the appearance or remove imperfections. This stuff has better fiber strength – meaning it's more supple and durable.
If you have the option, this is what you want, since it's a surer bet that you're getting good leather.
This is leather that's been (you guessed it) "corrected" in any way. That means the leather's surface had to be buffed smooth to clear away things like scars, brandings, fly bites, etc. from the animal's hide. That buffing process removes the imperfections, but it also removes the topmost natural surface of the leather.
Nitpickers say that as a result, corrected grain leather lacks the visual depth of full grain, and it's usually lower-quality leather that's chosen to be corrected – so the resulting shoes will be more likely to crease over time and won't develop as rich of a patina with age.
However, corrected grain is not always a bad thing – sometimes the correction is simply to even out the surface before adding a specialized finish, or to polish to an already exemplary hide.
A Leather Inner Lining
This is a much smaller point, but does indicate a detail-oriented construction. Lining shoes with leather, rather than fabric or rubber, makes the inners more durable and odor-resistant.
To really put a pair to the test, you can feel around the leather inners with your hand. Check to see if the lining is smooth and flat all over, especially around the seams of the shoe. If so, you've got a properly made pair.
Again, this isn't an exhaustive list of what makes for a quality shoe, nor should it be used as a strict set of benchmarks. But if you understand these finer points of shoe construction, and the nuances of each aspect, you'll be able to buy with confidence and take home a new pair of kicks that'll serve you well for years to come.