Sophie Simpson and Bethany Chivers are both Senior Fitters at Freed of London, UK and combined their expertise for this interview. Both have an extensive dance background and are passionate about dance. Sophie has worked for Freed of London for 15 years, and Bethany for 9 years. Both were trained by Michele Attfield MBE. Having worked at Freed of London for nearly half a century, Michele is a world authority on pointe shoe fitting and development.
Q. What is so special about a Freed shoe?
The Classic pointe shoes are hand lasted, the specifications are completely responsive to the dancer’s needs. [“Hand Lasting” is an old method of shoe-making by hand that is now done only by high-end designers. In vintage shoes you’ll sometimes see it labeled on the sole or on the lining of the foot pad, and it’s almost always a sign of an expensive, well-made shoe. The “last” is the wooden model that serves as a mold around which the leather (or other material) is stretched to form the “upper” of the shoe, the part that goes on top of the sole. If a shoe is machine-lasted a machine does this stretching automatically. In a hand-lasted shoe, a master shoemaker stretches the leather (or other material) by hand, using his experience to loosen or tighten the pressure to make the shape ideal on all parts of the shoe.]
Q. How are the shoes made?
They are handmade using the traditional turned method.
Q. Has anything changed in the making of the shoe or the materials the shoes are made of?
The components used in our pointe shoes are biodegradable and natural. Materials have evolved as technology has advanced.
Q. Would a dancer from 1880 or 1920 think the shoes are the same?
In 1880, the shoe would have been soft with little padding at the toe to allow a rock onto pointe. In 1920, dancers required more from the shoe which moves nearer to today’s product.
Q. Should a dancer today be dancing in a shoe that’s the same as a shoe from 1880?
Only if she was doing historical dance.
Q. At what age is a girl ready for pointe shoes?
This is guided by teachers depending on the training method. The average age is between 11 to 13 years.
Q. What should every girl know in buying a shoe?
Once the teacher says that they are ready.
Q. What are some of the most important things to know in getting fitted for toe shoes?
The basic understanding of technique is required.
Q. Can you walk us through the fitting process?
The fitter must fit the foot/shoe, passive and active – en fondu and en pointe. It is essential for the fitter to know the age, attainment level and any further information given by the teacher.
Q. How long should a shoe last?
It depends fully on the demand made of it. A beginner can expect to be comfortable anything between 1 to 3 school terms, depending on the growth rate. At the other end of the spectrum, professional dancers will wear shoes at a much faster rate through class, rehearsal and performance which demands a different level of stress on the shoe.
Q. What can you do to make a shoe last longer?
You must look after the shoes. The removal of padding mst be undertaken after wear to enable the dancer to ‘air’ the shoes. Teachers will also check the fit of the shoes after each term. Professionals often customise the shoes using various hardeners, stitching, cutting and nails.
Q. What makes for a perfect fit?
The shoes should work with, and compliment the feet. This is to enable and encourage, rather than to restrict.
Q. What are the signs that a shoe is the wrong fit?
On pointe, if the shoe extends at the heel then this is a sign that it is too long. If the shoe twists inwards or outwards largely off the heel, this could be a sign that the shoe is too narrow or wide. The metatarsals should be encompassed by the block comfortably from the little toe to the big toe joint.
Q. How long should it take to break a shoe in?
For students, no breaking in should be necessary. The size of our pointe shoe range ensures that this is possible. The foot work will build up the strength intrinsically. Vocational students and professionals often prepare their shoes to suit their needs.
Q. White Lodge is the lower school for the Royal Ballet. I understand there is one day where the latest group of girls who are ready for their pointe shoes are fitted by Freed fitters. Can you talk about that day?
We are invited to fit many vocational schools and always go with our main team of fitters, among them is White Lodge, the Royal Ballet Lower School. The day starts very early as we fit all the boys and girls in class rotation. We work with each class teacher so that we can be sure that each pupil gets the best shoes for them. We liaise constantly throughout the academic year so that any evolving needs are always dealt with. Often friendships are forged throughout the dancers training and career.
Q. Does the fitting process change for a dancer new to pointe shoes as opposed to someone who’s been dancing a while?
The fitting process must always be faithfully adhered to but the more advanced professional will add a further dimension by adding their own insights.
Q. Obviously, professional dancers get a lot of attention and care from Freed but what can a young girl in Iowa expect?
In our own stores, it is our philosophy that every customer must have the same attention. The same fitter that may have fitted a professional one day, will most likely fit a beginner the next day.
Q. How are Freed shoes sold? Only through Freed stores? Are there authorized dealers for Freed shoes? Are the shoes sold online?
Freed of London is a global brand and we have retailers in over 40 countries. We have our own retail stores in London, New York and across France. There are also extensive online outlets where Freed of London can be purchased.
Q. Are all Freed shoes made in England?
Yes. All our pointe shoes are made in England through three factories in London, Leicester and Norwich.
Q. How many countries is Freed in?
As we deal with distributors it is hard to give an accurate answer but we estimate that Freed of London is available in over 45 countries.
Q. Does Freed have some kind of training program for people who sell Freed shoes? Is there any kind of accreditation?
Any new stockists will meet with an experienced member of our sales team who will talk them through the characteristics of our products. They are offered support, seminars and reference guides all year round.
Q. What kind of training and accreditation does a fitter get? How does one know that the fitter is good?
It is good to use a store/fitter that your teacher has a good working relationship with and recommends.
Q. Do the fitters often have a dance background? What types of backgrounds do they have?
Any Freed fitters who work in our stores, fit ballet companies and vocational schools will usually have a dance background, this is an exacting job and love of dance is essential.
Q. Are there Freed fitters in different countries to work with the ballet companies in that country or are Freed fitters flown in from London?
Freed fitters travel to fit companies from London and New York wherever requested.
Q. Since professional dancers have their own Freed shoe maker, do Freed fitters also work with their own group of shoemakers?
No. The fitter usually selects makers from the 25+ makers we have who most suit each dancers needs.
Q. What is the communication process like between the dancer, the fitter and the shoemaker?
The fitter is the conduit and interpreter between the dancer and full production team.
Q. Other than widths and lengths what kind of customization is possible in a shoe?
Everything! We can vary strength, shape of insole, shape and strength of block, pitch and width of the platform, colour, split the sizes into quarters, control the measurements of the upper by as little as an 1/8″, and can offer elastic or cotton drawstrings.
Q. Is the same level of customization available for anyone who buys Freed shoes?
Yes, any quantity necessary.
Q. What are some of the odd things that dancer do to their shoes?
Dancers do whatever they need to make them feel happy and confident in the shoes. At a rational level, dancers will darn the toes, use strengtheners, cut the insoles themselves and position elastic to their choosing. Irrationally, we knew a dancer who used to boil their shoes!
Q. George Clooney—yes, George Clooney—sold women’s shoes in his younger days. He hated it. He said women lied about their sizes and tried to stick their feet in smaller shoes. Do dancers have the same problem with pointe shoes? Do they try to fit into smaller pointe shoes?
The difference between George Clooney and Freed is that we do not deal with women, we deal with dancers. Seriously though, some dancers prefer the look of a tight shoe or others will want extra space to allow the foot ‘to breathe’. Everyone is individual.
Q. Since dancers take the pointe shoes and basically reconstruct them, doesn’t that mean that there’s a failure in their construction?
Most of the things dancers do is cosmetic rather than functional. Often this customisation will be dependent on a specific role they are doing at the time.
Q. As I understand it, professional dancers have one shoemaker who makes their shoes. Are all Freed shoes handmade? Can any dancer have handmade shoes and their own shoemaker?
Most dancers stick with one maker, although some can vary between two or three depending on the repertoire. All our shoes are hand made, and yes, any dancer can have a bespoke shoe.
Q. What are the differences between handmade and manufactured shoes?
All Freed handmade shoes are made using a process where the block is layered and shaped individually. This makes it extensively responsive to the foot and also helps to guard against shock injuries. Some manufactured shoes who use rigid components may not have these advantages.
Q. What are the most popular ballet shoes that you sell?
The DV/Classic. Globally, the Classic shoe is the conduit and is our most popular model.
Q. What do you see as the future of pointe shoes? Any innovations that you are considering?
Freed pointe shoes never stand still, the future is bright. Luckily many choreographers are developing new styles of dance that still include pointe work. Freed are uniquely placed within the industry to continue to have our shoes evolve in tandem with artistic demands.
Q. Sneakers have come a long way since Keds. Gel, rubber, pumps. Is there any kind of sneaker innovation that you will employ or have employed in pointe shoes?
Maybe developments in sport and fitness shoes have impacted in the development of toe pads. We see no parallel between sneakers and pointe shoes.
Q. What other dance products does Freed make?
Freed of London truly is the world’s leading provider of professional dancewear. Our product portfolio extends across Ballet, Ballroom, Latin, Jazz, Tap, Modern, Contemporary and Lyrical.
Q. Any new products coming soon?
At Freed of London we are constantly innovating and updating our product portfolio in order to meet customer demand and respond to their feedback. This year Freed of London has already launched a new collection of fashionable outdoor shoes and a collection of wedding shoes.
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