Oslo is the capital and largest city in Norway and by Norwegian standards there are a lot of people living there and the surrounding areas. A big city, in one of the richest countries in the world. Yet in many respects it’s a provincial little town, and perhaps especially when it comes to good shops.
Apart from the usual stuff you find everywhere, there are few places of any real distinction. One shop that should be mentioned is the Norwegian Rain shop, home of great raincoats. Apart from that though, is there anything?
Well, yes, but unless you knew it was there, you’d likely never find it. Hidden away on a side-street, well off one of the major shopping streets you find Skomaker Dagestad. Skomaker is Norwegian for shoemaker (or cordwainer, if you’re truly into the terminology of footwear), and Mr Asbjørn Dagestad is a rare specimen of the breed. His shop has been in business for 25 years now and by all accounts he’s doing very well for himself.
I’d heard mention of Asbjørn’s shop a few times from similarly inclined friends saying that I must visit the shop. I had a few looks at his website and was impressed by stock the shop keeps.
Finally I found myself in Oslo and wanting to have a peek at some Paraboot shoes, I used all my scouting skills and made my way off the beaten track to the reclusive location of what may be the most singular shop in Oslo.
Initial impression? The shop is very small! Every possible surface is used, either for storage or display. Vertical surfaces are covered in exclusive shoe boxes. Horizontal surfaces is displaying exquisitely lit shoes, in an almost pornographic manner. And we’re not talking the sort of low-end outlet style shop here, but a shop you go to when you have decided you want to buy proper adult footwear. Not only mens shoes, but also a selection of ladies shoes, gloves, hats, shoe care products, leather bags and more.
As history has it, Asbjørn, now in his 50s, started out as an apprentice shoemaker making orthopedic shoes back in 1983 when he was 21. Three years later he spent a year in England repairing shoes and making shoes mainly for himself. He then went back home and opened his own shop in Josefines Gate 2, where he has now been located for 25 years.
He is widely considered to be one of the top cobblers in Norway, even though he now focuses almost entirely on selling quality shoes. The work involved in making new shoes from scratch or even repairing shoes is just too arduous and time consuming. While Asbjørn finds it hard to say no if you arrive in his shop and ask him to repair a pair of good shoes, don’t expect turnaround to be quick, even though he has now employed an apprentice. The general rule is that if the shoes are bought there or of similar quality, they’ll try to find the time to help you. Though it may take some time to get round to it.
Since 1992 he has instead focused his attention on selling quality shoes. Starting out with Alfred Sargent, initially stocking their high-end lines, later having models specially made as “Dagestad by Alfred Sargent”. Pretty fancy stuff! Today there is also a number of “made to order” (or MTO, if you’re in the know) orders on the go at any given time, so if you have truly special requirements there may be salvation for you as well.
The stock has expanded though, upwards, sideways and inwards. Quality British shoes are still the main focus, ranging from the traditional gentlemans shoes from Loakes up to the pinnacle of off-the shelf handmade specialist shoes in the form of Edward Green. Not only the traditional brands though, newcomers like Gaziano & Girling and oddball innovators like Mark McNairy are also represented, as are brands like American Alden (yes, I did get to take a good look at the “Indy” model, as used in the Indiana Jones films) and French Paraboot. In fact, not even all the shoes are what you’d describe as gentlemans shoes, as there is a decent selection of American Red Wing workboots as well.
I’ll confess, much of the fancier brands and styles of shoes are way above me, both in price and usage. I have no problem appreciating the workmanship and quality involved though. Normally I would have considered a pair of Loakes to be most excellent shoes, but talking to the specialists this is clearly only the starting point when it comes to truly fine footwear. The really good stuff is by Edward Green and costs four times as much. Unless you want a special order, then it gets really expensive.
It is something of a change in mindset to go from wearing cheap shoes that last a single season (or less) to shoes costing multiples more and lasting even greater multiples of years. That’s the thing though, there are good mathematics at play when you go from buying poor shoes to good shoes. While a single pair of cheap shoes may last a season, two pairs of really good shoes may last you 20 years or more. Given proper care, and an occasional resoling, naturally. Regular readers will recall that I am very much in favour of buying good stuff and wearing it a long time, rather than buying cheap, low-quality stuff that has a limited lifetime.
Does this justify buying shoes in the Edward Green class? I’m not quite sure it does, I think that may be stretching the principle a little too far. It’s like buying an Aston Martin when a Jaguar would be very much more than adequate. I did hugely enjoy speaking to the representative from the Edward Green factory when he visited the shop though. Hearing about the small, personal nature of the factory. How they source their quality materials, all the processes involved in creating the shoes, and how they are considering a drastic increase in production to cope with emerging Asian markets. Drastic as in an extra 25 pairs a week. I have a great deal of respect for quality and craftsmanship, even if my personal finances won’t see me in an Aston Martin in any near future.
Asbjørn Dagestad is clearly as much an enthusiast as a salesman, the former a vital part of being the latter. The fact that he obviously lives for what he does gives him an air of integrity though. When he talks about shoes, he’s living shoes, not hurrying to get a quick sale. It’s as much about the social aspect as anything else. It’s easy to see why someone coming in seeking a pair of new shoes ends up becoming more like a loyal friend than mere customer.
On the Saturday I visited there were at least 6 people working there, each with at least one customer, and a few people accompanying or just browsing. Almost all wall space is covered in exclusive shoe boxes, and there were also boxes stacked on the the floor. Did I mention the shop is on the small side?
The selection of shoes available means you’ll have a young guy trying on a selection of Red Wings in one end, while a lawyer with a healthy account and an eye for the best will be discussing whether to go for a pair of off-the-shelf Edward Greens or perhaps one of the made to order variants in the pipeline. While a female companion may be appreciating the selection of hats and British hand made leather bags available.
The atmosphere is terrific and very friendly.
It’s a good thing Asbjørn isn’t alone working in the shop, as he tends to get sidetracked talking to people. He has two full-time assistants, Stefan, who attends to the technical aspects of running a shop in the digital age, and Morten, the apprentice shoemaker.
How did my visit there go? Well, eagle-eyed followers will have noticed me sporting a pair of Paraboot Michaels the past couple of months. Of course, I’m often a very easy sell, so Morten didn’t have to work hard to convince me that I wanted a pair.
What was a first for me was that the person assisting me in finding the correct size actually had a real and vocal opinion of which size was right for me. I would have gone up a size and ended up with very oversize shoes, while Morten was insistent that I go down a size and buy a pair that was the exact length of my longest foot. No prizes for guessing who was right. A definite reason to go to a true professional rather than a bored teenager just killing time.
How could a shop like this possibly become even greater? Well rumour has it that Skomaker Dagestad may stocking a small line of clothing as well shortly, from one of my favourite brands Hansen Garments. It’ll have to be a small selection though, as the shop is really quite small. Had I mentioned that already?
Having seen the light now, I certainly know where to seek shoes next time I need more proper footwear, and can we really afford anything cheap?