Photo: Last-makers use guillotines to carve wooden bespoke lasts; photo credit: V&A Museum
This is a difficult question to answer, since there are so many levels and variations.
Bespoke shoemaking is a lengthy process that entails 60-80+ hours of work. First, a shoemaker takes your measurements; then a wooden last is made, either by the shoemaker or an experienced last-maker.
The last must accommodate your specific measurements. Just as important, the last must be shaped in a way that embodies the style of shoe you desire. Without both, the shoe will not be successful.
If a last is not made for you from scratch, the final shoe is not bespoke. If a shoemaker takes a standard lasts (or another client’s last), and modifies them with leather, it is called “made-to-measure.”
Made-to-measure shoes are shoes made from modified, already existing lasts. The rest of the shoe may be hand-made, but the pre-existing last guarantees that it is made-to-measure. This process saves time and money, since a new last does not have to be created.
So, there are different ordering systems for shoes (the standard being ready-to-wear, made-to-order, made-to-measure, and bespoke).
Be aware if a shoemaker charges bespoke pricing but doesn’t have the proper lasts to show for it. Unfortunately the client suffers because the fit and style are guaranteed to fail.
In this case, why order at all? A client ordering bespoke desires a comfortable, stylish fit. A bespoke shoe cannot be perfected in fit or style if the shoe is built from a last not yours to begin with.
There are muddier waters related to bespoke. For instance, shoemakers may draft a design and outsource their shoes from a different country (usually Europe) and claim it is bespoke. It’s up to the client whether they care about something like that.
The purpose of bespoke is to craft a beautiful shoe that blends the shoemaker’s house-style and technique with the client’s vision. As good practice, I recommend being upfront with clients about outsourcing shoes.
Transparency is best way to go about bespoke shoemaking. False labels will hurt your reputation and give a negative impression of you to others. It also undermines the work of craftsmen who embrace true bespoke.
To those looking to invest in bespoke, ask the shoemaker questions—lots of questions. Ask the shoemaker where they get their lasts from, whether your last will be made from scratch, and if the shoes are made in-house. There are more questions you should ask, but I would start with these. And shoemakers: respect your clients and maintain the integrity of the trade. You can never go wrong with honesty.