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What's Bespoke: Marcell Mrsán

Master shoemaker Marcell Mrsán is king when it comes to footwear, creating custom-made shoes at his workshop in Budapest, Hungary. Owner and shoemaker of Koronya Handmade Shoes - a family business defined by a long heritage of leather craftsmanship - Mrsán believes that a man's essential attributes can be seen in his shoes. He continuously crafts bespoke pieces that are far more than just footwear, and are popular favorites around the world. We chatted with Mrsán on all things bespoke, while wishing we could take a turn through his workshop in Hungary, where we imagine the smell of leather takes over the senses...

What's Bespoke?

I consider bespoke to be the highest available level of fashion products. A bespoke product - even if we talk about a suit or a pair of shoes - should be handmade to the customers needs, from the best available materials, to the exact measurement. It involves several fittings (depending on the maker) and an individual design, which makes the product very special and one of a kind.

How did you start in shoemaking?

I started to learn shoemaking when I was fourteen. I fell in love with it instantly and it is still the same. It was a family tradition; I am the sixth generation in the craft. Koronya has a long history in the leather craft.

What's the process behind creating your handmade shoes from start to finish?

First, I have a workshop visit from the customer. The first meeting usually takes hours. People enjoy being in a workshop and I don't hasten them. I perfectly understand they love to be there; I do too. After checking my previous creations, we decide about the design details. This is a long process, but must be done. I believe this is one of the most pleasurable times in the whole process for a customer.

Next, I measure the feet. It takes only a few minutes, but this is the most crucial part of bespoke work and makes it really individual and comfortable. It takes years of experience and expertise to get the right measurements.

With the measurement, the visit practically ends. I don't talk about prices and deadlines; they have to do it with my assistant by mail. I handle them as gentlemen, so money should not be a topic of conversation. I know it is very old-fashioned, but bespoke is an old-fashioned business. After a while, we start the fitting process. In the best case, they can visit me again and I provide a test pair of shoes. The test pair is almost the same as the final pair, with slight technical differences. (The quality of the test shoes exceeds most of the ready-made shoes). The fitting - if it goes well and the shoe fits - is followed by the final shoe. That might take long time. Everything is custom-ordered: the leathers, the lasts, the shoe trees, etc.

At the end of the process, the customer receives his or her shoes.

What's the different between handmade shoes and regular ones?

They are like earth and sky. What is similar? Both look like shoes. Before I get to the details, we should also distinguish between an authentic pair, handmade by a real, properly trained craftsman, and those handmade made by an amateur, or a fake handmade. The latter two are anything but genuine, let alone handmade. You can find ample examples for bogus handmade footwear, even among famous brands, as there are no regulations. Everybody can use the "handmade" label freely.

How can we tell if the shoes are real or fake handmade? It's shockingly easy. Just imagine: did our grandma ever put a sign on her cake saying "made from scratch" or "homemade"? I don't think so. Us bespoke craftsmen actually don't write "handmade" on our shoes. We don't feel the need to. I can imagine a few makers do, but not typically.

Let's start with the materials. In the case of the handmade shoes, we use the best ones that are available on the market. Factories try to bring down the costs by using cheaper substitutes whenever possible. This means cheaper leather, paper insoles, plastic stiffeners and a lot of shortcuts, which make the shoemaking process faster and less expensive. We don't do it. A good pair of handmade shoes should be all leather and made with good quality materials - even on the details a customer would never see. The difference is easier to tell than you would think. It's in the smell of the shoes after a long day wearing them. If the smell is really bad, it's caused by cheap materials and parts made of synthetics that won't let the feet breathe. The other obvious difference is comfort. A handmade pair of shoes give a healthy wear for a whole day. It might be hard to explain, but easy to feel. This is why people don't want to switch back from handmade to factory shoes.

What do a man's shoes say about him?

Since it is my profession, naturally I would say everything. It is like a car - everybody can see the difference between a ten-year-old pickup and the latest sport car. It is the same with shoes. Not just the shape - although it is very distinctive too - but the leather, the pattern, the decorations, the quality, the way it's aging and many other details. And perhaps the most important detail, that interestingly has nothing to do with the price tag: it is clean or not?

Do you think having bespoke pieces is essential to any shop? Why?

Bespoke means custom-made to a certain customer. It is impossible to have it in every store.

Where are you personal favorite spots to shop bespoke?

Bespoke is not something that is available in stores. As I mentioned before, this is a long and personalized process, which takes months or years. Naturally I wear my own shoes, but besides that, I don't have any other bespoke needs.

When creating shoes in your own shop, what elements are most important to you?

Authenticity and style.

What do I mean by 'style'? Well, I spend a lot of time on the details - I mean a lot. When I come up with a new model, I spend days, weeks and sometimes years perfecting it. This is the beauty of the whole craft.

If you could create a pair of shoes for any person in the world, who would it be? What would you make?

I am a bespoke maker. I make shoes for customers from different walks, cultures and professions. I think as a professional, the maker's personal preferences must remain in the background. I am not saying it wouldn't be an honor to make shoes for the few people whose work I really admire, but I am glad to fulfill my actual orders.

Does custom-made tell a story?

I don't know. I am pretty sure that both the customer and the maker put their own thoughts into a pair of shoes. But that is a secret story. It is about the customer, the maker and the tradition. So as a matter of fact, yes. I guess that is a story within itself.

Who's your style icon and did they wear handmade shoes?

I could name a long list, but unfortunately only old actors. My taste is really classic and not something that is preferred by contemporary stylists.

Whats your favorite personal bespoke possession you own? What's the story behind it? What was the most memorable place you wore it to?

I love my own shoes for obvious reasons. They are not just very personal pieces, but when people ask me if I wear my own shoes, I can proudly just show them my feet.

I wear them all the time and they've taken me to places all over the world. I guess when I embark on a journey, it is a common trip: me and my shoes.

*Photos courtesy of Koronya