What’s the difference between off-the-rack and made-to-order shoes?

What do you look for when you need new footwear?

For some people, a quick Google search suffices to find a pair of sleek leather sneakers or everyday ankle booties; they look for instant gratification rather than supreme quality or other specific details. Others aren’t as likely to make haste on a purchase, as they’re in search of something in particular—that meets the criteria they’ve established in a sort of mental checklist.

If you identify with the former group of people, you’re the quintessential off-the-rack shoe shopper. But if you can be described more as the latter, you may naturally be more inclined to shop brands with custom design options. This is because the differences between off-the-rack and made-to-order shoes have much to do with the designers’ willingness to customize their products for shoppers.

What are off-the-rack shoes?

Put simply, an off-the-rack shoe is made using standard sizing and available to you at any retail store. As a consumer, shopping off-the-rack means there is no option to customize the shoes’ color, fabric or structure to fit your needs.

Moreover, off-the-rack shoes are made on a generic mold and often mass-produced, so there will likely be a compromise to the fit and overall quality of the shoe.

What are made-to-order shoes?

Also known as custom shoes, this type of shoe is appropriately sized and otherwise fitted to your specifications. Essentially, be it a dress shoe or any everyday shoe, it’s the perfect shoe for you—designed and made to best fit you, both from an aesthetic and a fit perspective.

In an appointment, shoppers and designers discuss fit preferences based on standard sizing and make note of color and fabric choices. As a shopper, you’ll confirm your preferences and make payment to the designer, and then craftsmen will get to work on making them with traditional shoe-making techniques.

When experienced craftsmen, rather than automated machinery, make a pair of shoes from the very beginning, there is an assurance of great quality and attention to detail. They cut the materials, dye the leathers to your liking and hand punch every perforation—to name a few steps. Essentially, they’re minding the shoes from start to finish. 

The result? A custom shoe handcrafted for one particular recipient.

It’s worth noting that made-to-order shoe designers won’t make a shoe for each of your feet separately, as a bespoke (or made-to-measure) shoe designer would use precise measurements. They will, however, help advise on the best size for you based on the style you’ve chosen and how you like your shoes to fit. And if you find that the best size for each of your feet is different, they may suggest ordering a different size for each foot.

Difference: Because they’re made for you, made-to-order shoes are not readily available (i.e., “in stock”)

Unlike shopping off-the-rack, procuring a pair of made-to-order shoes is a process.

You must schedule an appointment to try on styles and confirm sizing before your designer can get to work on making your shoes from scratch. Ergo, the style you try on to confirm the size is not the shoe you’ll take home. A custom shoe is brand new. It’s not meant for the masses to try on; it’s made only for you.

Once your order details have been confirmed, you’ll get an estimate for how long your shoes will take to complete. Lead times often vary depending on the designer and size of the company.

If you want to learn more about made-to-order lead times, check out this post.

Difference: Made-to-order shoes allow you to make decisions about aesthetic details, though such customizations make the price variable

Surely you’ve been there: in your average retail store, having just tried on a pair of shoes you mostly loved but wished it came in a different color. Of course, they don’t, and you’re forced to decide if you love them enough to overlook dissatisfactions and to not harbor any misgivings.

This is a common dilemma in off-the-rack shopping but not in made-to-order. In the latter, shoppers make decisions about color, fabric and other aesthetic details to achieve the exact look they’ve imagined.

Still, materials and added details factor into the cost of any product—whether you’re designing them or not. And if anything, the made-to-order process teaches consumers why materials vary in price.

Cost-effective materials are suede and calfskin leather. More expensive is hand-burnished leather, with the level of hand burnishing also playing a role in the cost. (More hand burnishing requires more time spent on your shoes, and, well, time is money.)

A finish to suede, like an oil rub to make the shoe look more weathered straight away, will also add to the cost, though it’s less laborious than hand burnishing. 

On top of all of that, designers will entertain requests for extra laces and custom shoe tattoos/engravings. For laces, they’ll determine the exact surcharge based on the kind of laces you request; silk or frilly will run at a higher additional cost than cotton or plain laces.

For tattoos, a designer will often charge by the hour, though it can depend on the complexity of the customer’s request.

Difference: Made-to-order shoes are usually final sale

With an option to return being an unpopular policy among custom shoemakers, the stakes are higher for made-to-order shoppers, to be sure.

Why is this such a common stipulation for made-to-order shoes when off-the-rack ones are so often returnable? The reason for this difference between off-the-rack and made-to-order shoes is simple: While off-the-rack shoes are designed to cater to a broad target market, made-to-order shoes are made for you.

And since they’re made for you, they’re not considered resalable.

Of course, going through a made-to-order process means you’re securing a pair of shoes that’s exactly your style. So long as you’re sure of your preferences and selections, there should be no reason for buyer’s remorse.

You’re ready to order your pair of made-to-order shoes

Be sure to note, these are just guidelines for acquiring made-to-order shoes. With over 20 years in the fashion industry, Esquivel Shoes takes pride in being a quality resource for shoppers. To learn more about made-to-order shoes or any of the products we offer, send us a note. We’re here to give you peace of mind and help you make the best buying decisions for you.

George Esquivel

George Esquivel

George is a Southern California-based designer and craftsman who designed his first pair of shoes in 1994 and began honing his craft thereafter. For over 20 years, he’s operated his namesake brand, Esquivel, which specializes in handmade shoes and accessories. In the last decade, George served as Creative Director of renowned luxury bag and luggage brand Tumi Inc. and as Creative Consultant for Italian heritage brand Fratelli Rossetti, and has collaborated with many others for his own brand. George was a 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, and has been a CFDA member since 2010. When he’s not working alongside his team of artisans at his atelier, Esquivel House, in Downtown Los Angeles, George is enjoying time with his wife and high school sweetheart, Shelley, and their three grown children. He also loves mountain biking and hosting good friends for dinners and fêtes.