Adventures In Shoe Country
We travelled to the epicenter of British luxury shoe manufacturing to meet the people behind the world’s finest shoes
When contemplating the great style capitals of this world, Northampton doesn’t usually come to mind. London yes, but Northampton? It doesn’t carry the same glamour. There’s no fashion week and you won’t find the locals posing discreetly for The Sartorialist. Look down at a stylish man’s shoes in London (or anywhere else for that matter) however, and if said man really is a stylish dresser, chances are he’ll be wearing a pair of shoes made within a 40-mile radius of Northampton. But what is it that makes a British-made Goodyear-welted shoe from Northampton so special? Our editor went on an adventure to visit the factories of shoe country to find out.
Of all the places in the world, my adventure begins in the small town of Desborough, a forty-minute drive from Northampton. As our taxi driver flings us around country roads, the surrounding countryside (and weather) provides an insight into the origins of the area’s shoemaking. Ample countryside for cattle grazing and forests plush with a variety of trees (Oak bark for the tanning process, wood for the lasts) meant that historically, the Northampton area had access to an abundance of materials required for shoemaking. It’s central location also made for the perfect distribution hub and a well-fed river didn’t hurt production either.
The workforce was and still is crucial, William Church tells me, as we sit in the showroom of Joseph Cheaney & Sons, the first port of call on my shoe country tour. “For us, the people who work in the factory, that is the real asset.” William says. “Everything else is a function of finance. You want a nice brand new shiny building? Providing you’ve got the finance, you can have it. If you want sparkling new machines, provided you’ve got money, you can have them. The skill base, you can’t buy that off the shelf. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t. It takes years to build and grow.”
You can’t talk about Joseph Cheaney without talking about Church’s, or even Prada for that matter. Founded in 1886, Joseph Cheaney has been in its Desborough residence for 123 years. In 1966 the company was sold to Church’s but mostly used as a subsidiary tasked with making shoes for other brands. Following on from Prada’s acquisition of Church’s in 1999, Cheaney was bought out by William and Jonathan Church in 2009. The cousins, quick to step in after observing an upturn in the desire for luxury leather shoes, steered the company towards a resurgence which continues to this day.
If you’re curious as to what shoe William Church wears, today it’s a pair of Cheaney Brackley Oxfords in Mocha Calf with an Oxo pattern. He’ll also tell you that they were made on the 225 last, which is the same as the classic 125 last but with a slightly squarer toe. Unsure of what a last is? With the help of the rest of the Goodyear-welted shoe process, let me explain.
Invented by Mr Charles Goodyear Jr (son of rubber dynasty fame), the Goodyear welt is a process which involves stitching the upper leather, lining and welt (a ribbon of specially made leather) to the ribbing of the insole. The welt is then stitched to the leather or rubber sole with a lock stitch.
The ‘last’ is the wood-carved foot shape that is used as the mould for a shoe. Lasts differ according to shoe style and shape and should be thought of as the starting point for every shoe. The magic of the Goodyear welt meanwhile is twofold; it makes for a hard-wearing and solid shoe construction, but also means that due to the robustness of the upper, soles can be repaired and replaced as and when. If you buy right, your favourite pair will last you for decades. The alternative to the Goodyear welt is merely glue.
Our second port of call in shoe country takes us to Crockett & Jones, one of Northampton’s few remaining family-owned companies. Sat among terrace housing, akin to a church of manufacturing, I enter the Grade-II listed factory through an art-deco frontage that’s subtle by architectural standards, but still sets the building off wonderfully against the rest of the street. I sit for tea in the company’s impressive ornate showroom with James Fox, Head of Marketing & Advertising, a title that does little to describe what James actually does on a daily basis.
James knows every minor detail about Crockett & Jones, talking with an enthusiasm that is contagious. As we tour the factory, he’s a walking encyclopedia of history, process, experience and anecdote. He tells me how Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition boots were made in this very factory as well as linking Crockett’s footwear to a roll-call of notable historical figures.
A Crockett & Jones shoe passes through the factory, over 200 individual processes will take place, thanks to the work of over 120 craftsmen and women. The level of precision and ability required by each person is awe-inspiring and after observing a shoe’s creation from start to finish, it’s impossible to look at a pair in the same way. Although machines are involved with most of the processes, the skill lies at the behest of the well-trained human eye. On a different level however is Crockett’s, hand stitcher, tasked with stitching some uppers entirely by hand with a precision that’s frankly inhuman.
As we tour the light and airy surroundings of the factory, walking across sturdy well-trodden floors, the process is revealed, but also the skill. ‘Clickers’ (those tasked with cutting out the ‘patterns’ or shapes of leather) for instance, need to be able to ‘read’ the leather they’re working with, navigating any veins, defects or damage that may have occurred when the animal was still alive. The amount of patterns used per skin often relates to a brand’s price tag. Your super premium-priced shoe company for instance, is likely to be less economical with a skin. Although the local tanneries have long disappeared, Crockett and their fellow shoemakers pride themselves on sourcing Europe’s finest skins from Italy, France and Germany.
A walk around the lower ground floors takes us by Crockett’s in-house cobbler, who as we walk past, is using plyers to remove a worn out sole. When I ask him about his recent repairs he tells me about a pair sent in “that were even before my time.” His time being 30 years no less. A look around the corner shows his handy work, a collection of shoes that look brand new.
Today, James Fox wears a Crockett & Jones Coniston boot, but he does have other favourites; the Cavendish loafer (the most popular loafer on the market) and the Tetbury and Camberley, due to their 007 affiliation. The feet of James Bond one of the best possible endorsements for a Northamptonshire shoe. Mr Fox and his father-in-law Jonathan Jones (Managing Director) design the new models themselves, both having cut their teeth on the
The next day I drop in on Loake, another family-owned company. Situated in Kettering, their factory that sits snugly on a row of terrace housing. If you were to blink going past in a taxi, you might just miss it. Loake have been at their current premises since 1894 and like most of the companies in shoe country, they were at the forefront of both war efforts making boots for the military, with Cossack boots also made for the Russian army.
Andrew Loake is a bundle of energy when we meet him and he is keen to show us around his factory. Founded in 1880, Andrew is the great-grandson of founder John Loake and the company now boasts five generations. As I sit for tea with Andrew, we discuss the lay of the land and despite healthy competition in the area, he speaks fondly of the local shoemaker ecosystem. “I don’t know of a friendlier industry.” He says, in between sips of Earl Grey.
His experiences prove his point. He recalls a time when the area suffered catastrophic flooding, destroying of all things, the Church’s shoebox supply. Loake happily stepped in, allowing their fellow shoemaker to use theirs. Smaller gestures speak of the pleasant atmosphere too, from the director of Crockett & Jones asking for permission to step onto Loakes’s stand at a trade fair, to another competitor inviting Loake to observe a new machine. Relationships are always civil and despite healthy competition, the area carries a strong bond.
Even more surprising is despite the competition, Northampton shoe brands are all too eager to compliment their competitors. Partly because they know their own strengths, but also because of their innate loyalty to the area. Andrew speaks fondly of Crockett and Cheaney and he admires John Lobb’s ability to make a £1000 shoe. Meanwhile, James at Crockett would happily recommend Loake for a customer on a lower budget. During a brief phone call with the director of Tricker’s the following week, I was surpirsed to hear him casually refer to Sanders as the iconic Chukka Boot.
Grenson, my last stop on the trip, is somewhat of an outlier. Walking through the bowels of their new (in local terms) factory, with its modern interior and brightly painted walls, the building provides a contrast to the historic surroundings of my previous stop offs. Grenson is different due to the influence of one man in particular, owner and director Tim Little.
Tim is politely unapologetic when he talks about the place of Grenson within the local industry. Whilst some might use the company’s foreign production as a stick for beating, Little points out that the company has outsourced production since the 1960s, a fact they’ve never tried to hide (whilst others have been more candid). “We’re not trying to protect anything.” He says, as we touch upon the the topic of heritage. Despite this, the company’s G: Zero and G: One ranges remain entirely made in Northampton and the company also offers a bespoke service.
The lingering theme of Tim’s relationship with Grenson is modernization. As he points out, “you can’t be relevant unless you have an 18-year-old and a 25-year-old wearing your shoes, as well as a 60-year-old.” Heritage remains at the core of Grenson, but it’s the efforts that he has gone through away from the factory floor, that have separated Grenson from the pack. Tim Little’s Grenson has had a revolutionizing effect on the shoe country ecosystem. Whether it be retail, e-commerce or styling, the brand has been a gateway for a younger clientele. Although it may not comply with the wider trends of heritage footwear, Grenson have one foot in heritage the other in fashion.
A friend in luxury clothing once told me that you should buy British Goodyear welted shoes because “you could boot down walls for a decade in them if you wanted to and they’d still feel comfortable and look fantastic.” Destruction aside, his point rings true during my trip as I slalom between talented craftspeople. The longevity of Northamptonshire’s shoe manufacturing industry is channeled into the shoes it produces.
The finest materials are handled by the finest craftspeople. People that have spent their entire lives with a particular blade or machine, refining their craft. Often at the same station, room or building as their family members before them. Add to that mixture pride and passion and what results is not simply a well-made pair of shoes in a timeless style, worn throughout history by people that changed the world, but also a labor of love.
As a craftsman at Joseph Cheaney put it, “The making of these shoes is not a science. It’s a mixture of engineering and art.” That is what makes a shoe from this part of the world so special and long may it continue. EJ
Words by Davey Brett
Image Credits by Lara Poynor