Pauline, Petrova or Posy? Or, instead, which Fossil sister did you hope to be when you read Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes? It must be Posy. The next and last adopted Fossil arrives in a basket with a note –‘This is the little daughter of a dancer’ — and tiny slippers. For any girl who has ever envisioned taking the stage at pointe shoes, the Freed factory in Hackney is a dream of lace.
Frederick Freed was a shoeman and showman. Ninety decades ago, Mr Freed was the star-maker in Gamba, which only made shoes at 1 width. Subsequently Mr Freed had the notion of adapting the shoe into the dancer, instead of the dancer cramming to the shoe. Mrs Freed was a milliner. Fred did the architecture, Dora the trimmings. Their first mill was in Covent Garden. From the 1960s Freed moved to E9 and here it’s been ever since. Today, it makes 333,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year.
Freed pink is exceptional. When the Freeds began in 1929, ballet shoes were very white (Russian) or very pink (American). Freed created something in between: a warm, soft pink that will shine under stage lights. The excellent choreographer George Balanchine advised Mr Freed he would always buy Freed sneakers on one condition: never change the color. The pink is as pearly as ever, but Freed, advised by Ballet Black, today makes shoes in different skin colors.
Each set is created by hand. The workshop scents delicious: lace, leather, hessian and something tangy…’secret recipe’ glue. Over 17 people work on a single pair of pointes, each an expert in their specific skill: cutting, hammering, pleating, binding, pinning, sewing, cleaning and checking, checking, checking that each and every stitch, every bow, each sole, each toe is ideal.
What takes me by surprise is the way man the store floor is. Big burly blokes violently bashing and beating to produce infinitely exact sneakers. Photographs of Moira Shearer and Margot Fonteyn are outnumbered by Liverpool FC posters. ‘What hurts?’ I request one of those shoe-binders. Not every apprentice can bear the physical strain. 1 manufacturer, responsible for angling and pointing, leans his entire weight on the shoe, battering the toe against the bench until the shoe racks en pointe. If the toe teeters or wobbles then the shoe receives another blow, and yet another, until it’s sound. Manufacturers work on 31 pairs a day, 35 if they get a rhythm up. Tabletops are littered with dockets: shoes for Japan, New York, Paris.
Dancers are superstitious about shoes. Like the tennis player that favours a winning racquet, dancers come to Freed with fraying, greying, falling-apart shoes and say they wore this set for Swan River, and also could Freed make another exactly like it? Royal Ballet principals Lauren Cuthbertson, Yasmine Naghdi and Laura Morera are all Freed girls. The day I see there is a rush on to finish sneakers for’Miss Morera’. Freed is scrupulously courtly: Miss Ferri, Miss Nuñez, Mr Freed. Was there ever a more joyful name for a firm? Freed from pain, freed from blisters, freed to dancing like a dream.