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Dec / Jan 2012
Sole Man

Writer: Warren Singh-Bartlett

An Australian-born cordwainer based in East London, Sebastian Tarek fuses traditional artisanal skills with a contemporary aesthetic to create bespoke shoes that represent personalised luxury at its finest.


Stylishly unkempt comb-over, neo-Victorian beard, neckerchief, denim apron, Sebastian Tarek is practically the epitome of hipsterdom. Even his tiny Swanfield Street workshop, with its gaslight Artful Dodger vibe and post-Kings of Convenience soundtrack seems made for the exchange of ironies over cups of organic Fair Trade coffee grown by Nicaraguan collectives.

I said practically. Because the minute Tarek begins to speak about what he does – he is cobbler by trade, cordwainer by persuasion - this impression is swept away by a passion and pride that an actual alumnus of Generation Whatever could never muster. 

As I begin to take notes - yes, I am analogue - I notice his shoes. Not the bespoke beauties lined up in the glass-fronted wall cabinet behind his head - retro-fabulous canvas and leather boots, soft Oxfords, woven, mottled pink lace-ups, supple-looking gentle brown brogues and what I think are a pair of Chelsea boots - but the ones on his feet. A pair of rather distressed leather Adelaides with scruffy suede tips. Naturally, they are Tarek’s own creation. He notices that I’ve noticed.

“I’m not going to lie, the state of my shoes is terrible. I work a lot, six, seven days a week. I don’t have time to polish, so they always look a little down at heel. A shoemaker’s lot is not an easy one.” He grins ruefully.

Despite his surname, Sebastian Tarek is of Polish, not Arab origin. His actual surname is “something with lots of s’s, z’s and a y” and he uses his middle name as his surname because he claims that it’s unpronounceable and also because he was born into a household of well-known Australian fashion editors so he didn’t want to ride on his parents’ coattails. As for why a Polish-Australian boy should have an Arab middle name, Sebastian was named in honour of the youngest child of the family his parents lived with for a while, when they were travelling in Morocco.

Aware of appearances from an early age, Tarek remembers being fascinated by the way things - mostly clothes - were made. Not that this immediately translated into a burning desire to make shoes. Raised in cerebral surroundings, he was instead a self-confessed nerd, albeit of the kind who could turn up at primary school in a waistcoat and fob watch with “bum-parted” Oscar Wilde hair. After a lifetime of preferring literature, drama, even the fine arts to industrial design or making things, his decision to become a shoemaker appears to have been entirely serendipitous. 

“There two versions to the story. One is corny and very press-friendly, the other isn’t,” he tells me before launching, at my instigation, into both. The first is that he comes from a long line of shoemakers. The last of them, his great-grandfather, had a modest factory in Warsaw but the family tradition extends in an unbroken line back into the 1500s. At one point, one of Tarek’s forefathers worked as occasional bootmaker to the Tsar. Yes, of Russia. 

But it’s the second story, the actual reason Tarek became a shoemaker, which I find most appealing. Sat down one Christmas at an uncle’s house watching “dodgy” television, he clicked upon Hans Christian Andersen, the 1952 Hollywood musical. “I always liked Danny Kaye, so I watched it and thought, ‘My, what a wonderful life, roaming the countryside and telling fairytales to kids and making shoes. That’s what I’m going to do with myself.’”

And so, he did. Well the shoemaking part, anyway. The roaming and storytelling hasn’t happened yet. After apprenticing under one of Australia’s only bespoke shoemakers, Tarek moved to London to complete his training and soon found himself working. One job led to another - he has made women’s shoes, traditional West End hand-welted shoes and orthopaedic shoes - until he was asked a couple of years ago to produce a collection for London Fashion Week.

The experience, though valuable for exposure, was not what Tarek wanted. His bent is firmly for the bespoke and so after producing three collections, he stopped. The remnants serve neatly as calling cards.

It’s only now, twelve years after he first began making shoes professionally, that Sebastian Tarek finally feels comfortable calling himself a shoemaker. If it’s taken this long, that’s because he’s an exacting taskmaster. While my (admittedly untrained) eye can see no fault in his creations - several of which are so gracefully and sleekly crafted that even sat on table, they seem to suggest motion - at several points during our chat, he hints that as far as he’s concerned, he still has plenty to learn. 

Which brings me back to those visibly abused Adelaides. Does he only wear his own shoes, I ask? Admitting that he does have one pair of boots he did not make, he answers in the affirmative.

“When you’re at an early stage in your career, it’s foolish to wear other people’s shoes. You can’t learn as much from making shoes for other people as you can from making a pair for yourself because you can’t feel what other people feel,” he explains. “Besides, it doesn’t send the right message to potential clients if a bespoke shoemaker is wearing someone else’s work.”

Describing his aesthetic as minimalistic, Tarek says that stylistically, he’s a child of the casual tailoring movement of the 1990s, a time when thanks to tailors like Timothy Everest, the bespoke industry finally understood there was a segment of the population that liked to have something beautiful, exclusively made for them but didn’t want to look like they’d just walked out of a meeting. He freely admits he likes to shake things up, adding more length to shoes than would classically be the norm, for instance, but some traditional aspects of the bespoke industry still appeal.

“I’m a big fan of those old tailors and shoemakers of the 1960s who weren’t just a tailor or a shoemaker, they were part of a gentleman’s styling and wardrobe,” he continues, launching into a story about George Cleverley, the legendary late London bespoke shoemaker who was known on occasion to send clients a pair of shoes they hadn’t ordered - bill included - because he felt they’d fit their wardrobe.

Tarek doesn’t go quite that far. At least not yet, though he says that he too enjoys bespoke shoemaking because ultimately, the process is as much about asking a client what kind of shoes they want as it is about making the shoes themselves. Flexibility. Freedom of creation. Dialogue. I begin to understand why that Danny Kaye film about the roaming Danish storyteller struck such a chord.

“I love the idea that every pair of shoes I make is a unique, because it’s from a different piece of the leather, because it might react a little bit differently, because of the way I apply polish a little more in one area than another,” he says, sliding a pair of flesh-coloured lace-ups with delicate hot-pink piping running around the open edge of the quarter, back into a box. “I work in a very classical aesthetic so making people aware that their feet can be enclosed in a more enjoyable home is a big part of my pleasure.”

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