Hello everyone, and welcome to another Singaporean review! This Sunday, we are taking a break from watches and will instead be looking at local shoe label, CustomMade.
I’ve previously mentioned CustomMade briefly in my Singaporean shoe label roundup article. CustomMade bills themselves as a homegrown shoe startup that aims to “personalise your shoe shopping experience”. I recently had the chance to commission a pair of dress shoes from them, and will be chronicling my experience as well as a short review of the actual pair of shoes itself later on.
Without further ado, let’s check out CustomMade as a brand!
CustomMade – the Brand
CustomMade was started by Donovan in 2015. Back in 2013, Donovan was an accountant student at NTU. In his own words, he was all set to “join one of the Big 4 (accounting firms in Singapore)”. That accounting future was shelved when Donovan went on a family trip to Vietnam. Over there, he commissioned his first pair of custom-made shoes, and was amazed at how simple and personalised the process was as compared to the experience of shopping for dress shoes at departmental stores. His brother made an off-handed remark that the concept of custom-made dress shoes would probably do well in Singapore, where a large segment of the working force is white-collar. Thus, the idea for CustomMade was born in Donovan’s mind.
After his graduation from NTU, Donovan bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam in an attempt to find suppliers and craftsmen for CustomMade. The search was tough – he spent an entire 2 months in Vietnam before finding a suitable workshop to partner with. Thereafter, Donovan begun selling his shoes (then under the eponymous brand Donovan’s) out of his bedroom. Yup, you heard that right – being a cash-strapped, unemployed graduate, he didn’t have any money for an office space. Instead, he moved his bed out of his room and invited customers to view his products right in his room. That’s the very definition of a bootstrap startup, if you ask me! Gradually, business picked up, and Donovan was able to first afford a small serviced office in Cecil street, before moving into their current showroom at Telok Ayer. In fact, business has picked up so significantly that Donovan has since roped in his mother Cecilia, as well as his younger brother Nigel to help out with the business! Currently, CustomMade can be said to be a family operated business.
Through a personalised shopping experience, CustomMade hopes to “bring direct to you a custom product made by passionate individuals”. They state that “80% of men are wearing the wrong shoe size” (no idea where they got this statistic from – as always, I think it would be a good idea to quote a source). By including a personalised fitting process – as well as some 23 different designs, 8 hand-painted colours and the option for burnishing – CustomMade seeks to offer you shoes that not only fit you well, but also reflect your unique personality.
I personally think CustomMade has a really compelling story. Firstly, hats off to Donovan for chasing his passions and dreams. He could easily be earning a stable, sizable income with KPMG or PWC, but chose instead to go down the unbeaten path and establish a shoe label. For a lack of better words, that takes balls. As an aspiring entrepreneur myself, I hope I’ll be as brave as Donovan when it’s my turn to take the leap of faith! It’s also heartwarming to see his family being supportive of his venture, so much so that they eventually joined the team. In addition, I think they have a solid value proposition here. Essentially, they are bringing the MTO (made-to-order) experience from the tailoring industry over to shoes, bridging a gap between off-the-rack offerings (such as shoes from departmental stores, or even recent online successes such as Earnest & Collective) and truly bespoke offerings such as those from Josh Leong.
The experience is a big part of ordering a shoe from CustomMade, so let’s see how my experience was like!
CustomMade – the Experience
Tucked away on the second floor of a cozy shophouse lies CustomMade’s Telok Ayer showroom.
CustomMade proudly proclaims on their door that “Your shoe search ends here”. Hmm – let’s see if the experience (and later the product) attest to that!
Walk into the showroom, and you will see shelves of shoes straight ahead. Donovan displays most of the available 23 designs on the shelves, so that customers would have a better idea on which design they prefer. Pictured above for example is a double-strapped monk – one of the multitude of designs customers can opt for if it’s to their fancy!
To start off, one decides the construction of the shoe. At CustomMade, shoes are offered with either a blake-stitched or a goodyear welted construction. For the uninitiated, dress shoes typically comes in 3 forms of construction: cemented, blake-stitched, and goodyear welted. Cemented construction is the lowest quality tier, as it means that the sole of the shoe is simply glued on. Over time, the glue will weaken and eventually result in the sole of the shoe breaking off. Personally, I would not pay more than $150 for a cemented shoe. In blake-stitched shoes, the upper is wrapped around the insole and attached between it and the outsole. A single stitch attaches everything together. This enhances the durability of the shoe (as compared to cemented construction), and also allow for resoling once the outsole needs replacing. In essence, it’s a construction method that ensures that the shoe is made to last. On the other hand, goodyear welted is generally considered the most durable (and also most expensive) form of construction, with many components of the manufacturing done by hand. It employs two-level stitching, which not only makes the shoe more durable but also allows for easier resoling, as well as waterproofing qualities. Honestly, I was torn between the two, and that’s where Donovan stepped in. He advised me that if I had not worn a goodyear welted shoe before (I haven’t), the feeling of a goodyear welted shoe on the feet will take some getting used to. On the other hand, blake-stitched shoes are more flexible, and he recommended that I start off with a blake-stiched shoe first, especially if I wasn’t going to be wearing dress shoes often (I wasn’t). As such, I eventually went with a blake-stitched construction for my pair of shoes.
Thereafter comes the fun part. I had to select one out of the 23 designs CustomMade had to offer. They have Oxfords, brogues, monk-straps, etc – there were so many choices to choose from! After briefly flirting with the idea of a double-strapped monk, I decided that I was not adventurous enough (yet!), and stuck with the conventional choice of a pair of classic oxfords. (Boring, I know).
Even though I had already narrowed down my preference to oxfords, there were still more design options to finalise. While I was mulling over a wholecut, cap-toe as well as a plain oxford, Donovan noticed that I was wearing a pair of cap-toe oxfords that day, and asked if it was a style I liked. I thought about it, and indeed realised that I had a slight leaning towards the cap-toe. It’s elegant, but (in my opinion at least) still versatile enough to be able to dress down, unlike a wholecut for example. As such, I eventually went with the cap-toe design – you can never go wrong with the classics!
Once a customer settled upon the design of their shoe, they next get to decide the colour. Currently, CustomMade offers 8 hand-painted colours for you to choose from. It was an easy choice for me – I always felel that the cap-toe oxford looks best in black. You know what they say – once you go black, you don’t go back!
After selecting the construction, design, and colour, it was down to the details. First up was the toe-shape. Between a round, square or pointed toe, I chose to have a pointed toe as I felt it was the most contemporary option. Next, one can also choose the lining colour! On Donovan’s advice, I decided upon a maroon inner lining for the shoe – black and red is always a splendid colour combination. As I was going for a black, cap-toe oxford, I opted not to go with any burnishing or medallion toe. Lastly, CustomMade also allow customers to personalise the colour of the sole edges – playing it safe, I went with black.
Lastly, customers can opt to have a rubber protector installed on the soles of their shoes, which would not only preserve the leather sole underneath (all shoes from CustomMade utilises leather soles) but also improve traction and grip. Unfortunately, the rubber protectors happened to be out of stock when I visited, though Donovan did advise that I could just bring the shoe to any decent cobbler thereafter to have the rubber grip installed.
Before we move on to the fitting, I should also mention that CustomMade offer shoe-care products from Wren’s. If you know nothing about shoe-care (like me), you can always consult Donovan about how to best extend the life of your dress shoes!
Onwards to the fitting process. The fitting process is integral to the CustomMade experience – it’s what separates them from their cheaper, off-the-rack counterparts. The fitting process is rather simple – it comprises of 3 steps, namely 1) Feet measuring, 2) A standing and walking test, and 3) Deciding which last is best for your foot shape.
The first step is simple enough – Donovan measured the exact length of my feet, so as to ensure as perfect a fit as possible. This is done on both foot.
Based upon the feet measurements taken (as well as the fact that I usually wear US 10.5), Donovan furnished a size 44 sample shoe for me to try out. He told me to put them on and basically walk around shop to see if the shoes were comfortable on my feet. While I thought they were, Donovan thought otherwise – he felt that size 44 was still a bit too big, based on his observations of how my feet were striking the ground. As such, he recommended that I try size 43 instead. Initially, I was skeptical – I usually wear size 45, even on my Earnest & Collective dress shoes! Yet, when I tried on the size 43 shoe sample, I instantly knew that Donovan was right. The shoes fit me like a glove! CustomMade states that “You don’t need to understand shoe fit to get a good fit. Because we do.” I have to say, they were right.
After your shoe size is settled, the last part would be deciding the shoe last. For those of you who don’t know what a shoe last is, it’s basically a mould of the human foot. (What Donovan is holding in his hands, in the picture above) The shape of the shoe is built upon the shoe last, therefore making the last (apart from shoe size) one of the most important aspect of what constitute a good fit. True bespoke shoemakers (for example, Josh Leong) would create a custom last based upon the exact shape of your foot – understandably painstaking, prices for bespoke shoes such as Josh Leong’s are well in the 4 figures. At CustomMade, you generally get to decide between three different lasts – one meant for narrower feet, one standard, and one for wider widths. Donovan will also take note of the fit at certain key areas of the shoes, such as the inside and outisde width, pinky and big toes and the instep area. They able to do minor amendments by adding “volume” to the abovementioned areas for a more customised fit. In layman’s terms, CustomMade adds leather patches to the last before they last and construct the shoes. When the shoes are made, it would have added “volume” in whichever area the amendment is done. For example, I feed-backed to him that the fit was a little snug at the toe-spring area (this was while wearing the sample shoes), and he duly noted it down. Unlike tailoring, there are no alterations for shoes, so CustomMade’s fit process has to be on point – there’s literally no room for error!
Once I’d decided on the last, I was done! Altogether, the entire process from start to finish took me less than an hour. Given that their main audience are white collared workers whose schedule are packed tighter than sardines in a tin can, I was really impressed by CustomMade’s efficient, streamlined process. Currently, the lead time for their shoes averages 6 weeks, though they are trying to bring that figure down to just 4 weeks in the coming months. Still, that’s a rather long time to wait for a pair of shoes! But as they say, good things can’t be rushed. Overall, the process at CustomMade was certainly an interesting one, and I bid adieu to Donovan as I excitedly awaited my shoes to arrive!
CustomMade – the Shoes
After a little over a month, CustomMade messaged me to say that my shoes were ready to pickup. Let’s see if they were worth the wait!
The shoes came out of the box nicely pre-polished. The first thing I noticed was the quality of the leather used. CustomMade uses full-grain leather in their uppers, soles, as well as lining. If you’ve been reading this blog since its inception, you will recognize that is exactly what I advised you guys to look out for when buying a dress shoe. Furthermore, full-grain leather will patina nicely over time, giving the shoe a nice, aged look – though admittedly the patina will look more obvious on brown than on black. In addition, full-grain leather will mould to the contours of your feet over time due to their inherent suppleness, giving you a better fit.
The maroon inner lining that I customised turned out really nicely here, providing a sharp contrast to the black leather. As aforementioned, the lining is made of full-grain leather as well – as opposed to cheaper/lower quality shoes, where though the exterior may be made from full-grain leather, the inner lining may only be fashioned from “genuine” or top-grain leather. In addition, the stitching is nice and even on the shoes here as well, with no loose threads or fraying that I can see so far. At this price point, it is machine stitched, but at least the stitching is done well.
Perhaps the area where the shoes shine most for me is the fit and comfort. If I’m honest, because I picked probably the safest option out there (a black cap-toe oxford), the exquisite workmanship that went into the shoe is not immediately apparent. All of CustomMade’s shoes are hand finished by a shoe craftsman – this includes hand-dying the leather, hand-punching the holes detailing in brogues, hand-stitching the leather sole to the upper, hand burnishing the leather exterior, etc. If you had chosen to customise a flashier shoe (maybe a brown wholecut with burnishing, or brogue detailing), the shoe might look more “expensive”. Nevertheless, what stood out for me was definitely the fit and comfort of the shoe. Compared to the Earnest & Collective shoe that I’ve previously reviewed, I much prefer the fit on the CustomMade shoe – though I probably ordered a size bigger than I should have from E&C. Even so, the fit of the CustomMade shoe was really great, and fit my feet to a tee. In addition, I appreciated the comfort that was present. Dress shoes aren’t known to be the most comfortable, but because of the full-grain leather inner lining and sole comfort is enhanced. It’s not Ultraboost comfort level by any stretch of the imagination, but I would say that it is definitely more comfortable than the average dress shoe.
As mentioned above, CustomMade shoes uses full-grain leather for their soles. I absolutely adored the leather outsoles. It was a bit slippery at first (though having a rubber protector installed would probably have fixed that) but I loved the “tap-tap” sound that the leather outsoles made when I walked. This sounds very superficial, but it gave me the sense that I was somebody important. While that initially feels illogical, upon further thought isn’t that the point of formalwear? Be it wearing a great pair of dress shoes, donning a tailored suit or strapping on an exquisite dress watch, these garments and accessories are our modern day, white-collar armour, and serve to project confidence and panache to the watching world. At the end of the day, more so than the looks, build quality or the fit, that feeling of poise when I lace up my pair of CustomMade shoes is probably what I enjoy most about them!
All in all, I’ll say that the shoes were worth the considerable wait-time – I loved wearing them.
Shootout: CustomMade vs Ed Et Al
Well, it wouldn’t be a Wahsoshiok review without a shootout, would it? Currently, Ed Et Al (another local shoe label) offers MTO blake-stitched/goodyear welted shoes at $289, making them the natural competitor to CustomMade.
If I’m being very honest, I think there’s very little separating the two. In terms of customisation options, both companies have a wide variety of designs, colours, and adequate options of lasts and toe-shape choices. In terms of build quality, both brands are largely similar as well. Both offer their shoes in either blake-stitched or goodyear welted construction, and feature leather uppers, inner linings, and soles. Curiously, I can’t seem to find any detailed information on the Ed Et Al website on the quality of their leather, which leads me to believe that they don’t use full-grain leather for their shoes. Full-grain leather is costly, and if a manufacturers uses full-grain leather for their products (be it shoes, watch straps or bags), it is highly likely that they would state it on their web-page. That being said, that’s me already splitting hairs – there is really little to choose from between the two. CustomMade does offer that personalised shopping experience, which is lacking if you simply choose to commission a MTO shoe from Ed Et Al’s web-page. That being said, I’m quite certain that you can make an appointment with Ed Et Al to make an MTO shoe in their showroom as well!
With so little to choose from between the two, making a decision comes down to the fine details. Firstly, CustomMade’s offerings (starting at $250) are substantially cheaper (>15%!) than Ed Et Al’s offerings. Secondly, CustomMade’s lead time is also noticeably shorter at 6 weeks, as compared to 8 weeks for Ed Et Al. Lastly, as aforementioned I’m not entirely certain that Ed Et Al uses full-grain leather, though I may be wrong. As such, due to the reasons mentioned above I’ll have to say that CustomMade edges this shootout for me. However, I’ll recommend interested customers to drop by both showrooms and see which you like better – conveniently, CustomMade and Ed Et Al’s showrooms are just a 5 minute walk from each other!
Conclusion: so CustomMade “shiok” or not?
Definitely. I really like CustomMade as a brand. Firstly, I love the brand story of a young, bootstrapped entrepreneur throwing away his iron rice bowl to pursue his dreams – as a budding entrepreneur myself, it’s a story I relate to. Also, this means that there’s always a sort of youthful energy around the place, which is great! Secondly, I loved the experience of personalising my own pair of dress shoes. Having recently discovered the wonders of tailoring (if you haven’t yet read any of my tailoring articles, please do!), I was chuffed that they took the same made-to-order concept, and applied it to shoes. Lastly, I think they have great products as well. I really appreciated the great fit and comfort of my CustomMade shoes, especially during long days of walking.
I highly recommend that you guys check out CustomMade. Starting at $250 (with additional surcharges for burnishing, medallion toe, etc), I think CustomMade shoes are a worthy investment. Are there cheaper shoes out there? Sure. Will they last as long as CustomMade’s shoes? Probably not. Will you enjoy the experience of purchasing them as much as you would at CustomMade? Definitely not.
For those interested, it is recommended that you book an appointment first via their website, here. I hope that you enjoy the experience and the shoes as much as I did!
Location: 82 TELOK AYER ST, #02-04, S048467
P.S Do check out the new “Discounts!” page for exclusive discounts for Wahsoshiok readers! More brands will be added very soon – stay tuned!