The older I get the more my Shoe Snobbery evolves and thus wises up to the reality of everything you see and read and hear from the blogs, to shoe salesmen to the brands. Having spent the last 15 years of my life surrounded by shoes. And I mean all manners of shoes from the cheapo’s to the top grade shoes of the industry. Having not only handled them personally but owned everywhere from Meermin to Bespoke G&G’s to my own makings, I can tell you that some things that are often discussed simply just don’t really fricking matter. And one of those things is the quality of the Heel Stiffener and how that supposedly affects your heel. And I saw that first hand not only from experience but from people cocking up on how they swear one was better than the other and then foolishly proving themselves liars when swearing by the so-called ‘inferior’ one when they thought it was the ‘superior’ one. I love when that happens.
Therefore allow me to break down what you find in the industry. I won’t get too deep into the technicalities of each one as I really don’t think that it is necessary but here are the three commonly used heel stiffeners of the industry.
- Leather – real actual cut leather, like your lining leather but stiffer and thicker. This is typically used in real handmade shoes, ones that are hand-lasted as you can’t really use proper leather in a production facility as materials there need to be streamlined and pre-cut. Leather is not that. It is created by the maker and skived with a knife and skill of the hand.
- Leather Board – a leather composite pre-molded and cut to be in the shape of a heel stiffener. This is supposed to be the closest thing to leather and what most people that like to discuss shoes via the internet like to claim as the best and if a shoe does not have this then it is not top rated
- Thermoplastic/Celastic – This is what you will find on the majority of shoes made in this world. It is the mass-produced version of the leather heel stiffener created most likely for a lower cost and ease of use in a large production facility. Of course, being in the bottom here, it means that it is the less of quality and hence used most.
Using actual leather is of course the best but it is far and few between and usually only done by the bespoke makers, so the argument is generally between Leather Board and Celastic heel stiffeners, found on most ready-made shoes. The Snobs of the world say that celastic is hard and doesn’t form to your heel and once it breaks, it’s done. They then say that leather board is soft, molds to your heel and stays strong.
After having first used celastic in my own shoes and then upgrading to leather board a few years back, I can personally tell you that if you don’t have particularly sensitive heels it doesn’t really matter and all of this back and forth is really just hogwash. The fact of the matter is that they both start out stiff and both age pretty much the same. Yes, celastic might be somewhat more rigid (and maybe there are worse grades of celastic) but this only really matters if you have sensitive heels. I get blisters on all of my oxfords on the first day (no matter who the maker) and tell you what, the worst of them on my bespoke, super handmade and well quality material shoes. Of course, over time they do break in the nicest. In consequence, you don’t really notice the difference between all of them, in the beginning. And celastic doesn’t just break prematurely, like canvas ribbed gemming neither. If it did, the entire world wouldn’t be using it. They all start stiff, they all break in and well, they all age pretty much the same. And the people that say they are so inferior often lie and I have seen it first hand. Remember, the mind can make you believe anything, hence the placebo effect. Let me share you this story below.
There used to be a guy that would always come to a trunk show that I had in one city, 3 shows to be exact. Each time he would come and try a bunch of shoes and never buy anything. During the first two trunk shows I used celastic in my heels. Between the 2nd and 3rd trunk show, I changed production to leather board. He used to tell me that he could not wear celastic as it would damage his heels. So he never purchased. On the 3rd trunk show, sure enough, he came back in and I was proud to tell him that I had changed production and was now using leather board. He was looking for a specific boot and we had something that was exactly what he wanted and sure enough the sample shoe (just one) was in his size. We had also had some stock, the new stock with leather board in the heels. He tried a pair of stock boots and was telling me that they felt good, but a little stiff (of course, they were brand new). He then tried the sample pair. He said it felt so comfortable and that it fit perfect and the heels felt great. Little did he know that this sample was made during the time of celastic use in my heels. And I secretly smiled to myself thinking that I got him.
Funny enough, even though I didn’t share my dirty little secret (as his new pair would have had leatherboard anyway), he STILL never bought even though he was ooowing and awwing on how comfortable they were.
The fact of the matter is, this stuff really doesn’t matter on the grand scale of why you should buy a shoe (unless of course you truly have issues in your ankles that really prevent you from have stiff shoes). We as people are often truly tricked into believing things not real. We do it daily with the news. Why do so many Americans wear orthotics and less than 1% of Europeans do? It’s fucking marketing and sales. That’s why. Leatherboard, celastic, real leather. They are all stiff, they all break in, and they all become softer. That’s the only real truth there is. And many of your shoes, even your good ones, are using celastic. Therefore, it should not really make or break your decision to buy a pair of shoes. You buy them because they look good, fit well and feel comfortable. Not because they have leather board. And that is the point of this post. I am not bashing leather board. My shoes have it. But it doesn’t make a shoe that doesn’t have it, a bad shoe.
If you have sensitive heels, most likely no matter what a welted shoe is going to cause you some discomfort until that heel counter truly breaks in. There are manual ways of doing this, so best to learn those. But for you guys, I understand that the more rigid molding of celastic is not ideal.
***EDIT: For all of those reading this post and misunderstanding what I meant, which is maybe my fault, allow me to clarify. Is leather better than leather board? Yes, it is. Is leather board better than celastic? Yes, it is. Would I personally prefer to have leather heel stiffeners? Yes, I would. Do I prefer leather board over celastic? Yes, I do. Does this post have anything to do with handmade shoes and bespoke shoemakers? No, it doesn’t, a full leather handmade shoe is superior to all. This is about ready made shoes.
So what I the heck am I on about? The idea that just because a shoe has celastic means it’s poor quality or that you shouldn’t buy it. That’s the point. And for the fact of the matter that 95% of people truly won’t know the difference so it’s really not something to start over thinking about. Therefore, arguments online about such and such shoe having celastic and therefore being inferior, well, for me that really doesn’t play out because of the fact that all heel’s start stiff, some mold better than others, yes, but what affects comfort most in reality is all subjective. Therefore, no I am not 100% right here as I am stating my opinion. But my opinion will be the same for 90% of people. 10% may truly be affected by celastic heel stiffeners. But those 10% should not try and convince the 90% that they need it too. That’s the point. And I am not trying to convince the 10% that they are wrong, just that the 90% don’t need to over think the hype about which is ‘the best’.
Spread the knowledge and share this post. Get off Instagram for a second and actually read. Here I am dedicating myself towards the spread of knowledge again. Let’s us spread it more and come back to script and not this world of imagery that often confuses us.
-Justin FitzPatrick, ‘The Shoe Snob’