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Home Made: British shoes shine

Cheaney has been based in the same 33,000 sq ft Victorian redbrick factory in Northamptonshire since 1896

Traditionalists and innovators alike are pushing British-manufactured shoes into the limelight.

Britain has an unrivalled pedigree in the manufacture of leather shoes and boots. Thanks to this rich heritage, an unwavering dedication to good-quality materials and time-tested production methods, home-grown footwear brands continue to thrive.

Sales of British-made footwear have risen by 30%, from 4.2 million pairs in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2014, British Footwear Association figures show. Many of these are still made using traditional methods such as Goodyear welting, in which a strip of leather or “welt” is sewn around the bottom edge of the shoe and attached to the upper and insole before it is sewn to the outer sole.

British manufacturer and retailer Hotter is the UK’s biggest shoemaker, producing more than 1.8 million pairs – one in every three pairs of shoes made in Britain – at its 64,580 sq ft factory in Skelmersdale, West Lancashire, each year. 

”Consumers know that they are not just buying a shoe but also the back story”

However, UK footwear manufacturing is a shadow of its former self. Whereas in the 1960s more than 100,000 workers made around 198 million pairs of shoes a year, today the British Footwear Association says the industry employs 5,000 people who make less than 6 million pairs of shoes a year. In the 1950s, Northamptonshire, Britain’s shoemaking heartland, was home to 80 factories producing 20 million pairs a year. Today there are fewer than a dozen.

From the 1960s onwards, cheaper imports from Italy, Portugal and Spain began to undercut the more expensively made British shoes, and in the 1970s rampant inflation pushed up the price of raw materials. In the 1980s and 1990s, British manufacturers closed their factories as retailers and brands chose to offshore production.

Today, however, the UK’s depleted numbers of traditional shoemakers are working at full capacity to keep up with resurgent domestic and international demand.

“The Made in England badge means a lot to the consumer and allows the brand to talk about the heritage,” says William Church, joint managing director of Joseph Cheaney & Sons, which has been based in the same 33,000 sq ft Victorian red brick factory in Northamptonshire since 1896. “Consumers know that they are not just buying a shoe but also the back story.”

Cheaney produces around 1,600 pairs a week and, in a clear demonstration of increasing demand, turnover has more than doubled from £4.3m in 2010 to £9.6m.

Norman Walsh now sells around 30,000 pairs per year, up from around 6,000 following the recession in 2008

Walsh now sells around 30,000 pairs per year, up from around 6,000 following the recession in 2008

Walsh now sells around 30,000 pairs per year, up from around 6,000 following the recession in 2008

Retailers too are working to react to shoppers’ growing appetite for British-made footwear. Menswear etailer Mr Porter last month relaunched its footwear category, introducing exclusive collections from Made in Britain brands, including Edward Green and Grenson. 

“The quality of the construction in British-made footwear is unparalleled and, as the modern menswear customer becomes more savvy about the importance of a shoe’s provenance, the demand is steadily increasing,” says Mr Porter shoe buyer David Morris. “Brands are stepping up production to keep up with the workload and we’ve seen up to a 70% increase in sales across our British-made shoe brands over the past year.”

Encouraging signs of re-shoring have also appeared on a small scale in recent years. Footwear firm Groococks began to reinstate a UK manufacturing base for its Padders brand at the end of August, with a range of shoes and boots for autumn 15 at its workshop in Kettering, Northamptonshire. Groococks had moved the last of its manufacturing to the Far East around three or four years ago.

“We realised it actually makes good business sense to manufacture in the UK,” says sales and marketing director Graeme Jenkins. “It allows us to react to things like stock repeats and cuts out the need to transport from the Far East. It also means we can monitor more closely the quality of what we produce.” Jenkins says the reaction from customers has been very supportive and the small increased cost of manufacturing in the UK is offset by reduced costs in areas such as delivery.

We realised it actually makes good business sense to manufacture in the UK

Graeme Jenkins, Groococks

Clarks, which had 13% of UK footwear market share in 2014, launched a British-made range for spring 15 to mark its 190th anniversary. The collection comprises 200 pairs of limited-edition brogues in its Watlington and Saddle styles, made in Cheaney’s factory and retailing at £295. However, the brand could not confirm whether the range would continue for future seasons.

Northamptonshire – home to Tricker’s, Crockett & Jones and Loake – is widely considered the epicentre of British shoemaking, but there are other production hotspots, including Norwich (The Florida Group), Cumbria (New Balance) and London (Gina).

Hotter is the UK’s biggest shoemaker, producing more than 1.8m pairs per year - one in every three made in Britain

Hotter is the UK’s biggest shoemaker, producing more than 1.8 million pairs per year – one in every three made in Britain

Hotter is the UK’s biggest shoemaker, producing more than 1.8 million pairs per year – one in every three made in Britain

Producers are also enjoying rising sales from growing sectors in the wider footwear industry, such as women’s shoes and fashionable trainers. Cheaney launched women’s styles in 2013 and today these account for 10% of sales – “and I see it strengthening further,” says Church. Cheaney makes around 40 women’s styles, including boots, brogues and loafers, retailing from £275 to £325.

“Economically, the last few years have been tough. And, when the going gets tough, people tend to spend more but buy less, so they invest in quality pieces. From that, we saw more of a demand from women for our shoes,” he adds. 

Van Dal owner The Florida Group is the largest traditional women’s shoemaker in the UK, producing 1,200 pairs a week. It reports an uplift in demand of up to 15% since it embarked on a Made in Britain marketing push in 2010.

We actively communicate that our shoes our made here whenever we can

The Florida Group, Jason Larke

“We launched a vintage collection, inspired by very British archive designs, in 2011 and became a lot more involved with British manufacturing initiatives such as Best of Britannia,” says head of marketing Jason Larke.

“We actively communicate that our shoes are made here whenever we can. Now we’re approaching British retailers offering to manufacture for them, so they can do the same.”

The key trend in footwear in the UK during 2014 was the rise of the “statement trainer”, reports market analyst Euromonitor International. US sportswear business New Balance produces around 28,000 pairs a week from its UK base in Flimby, Cumbria. Among the other companies benefiting are Bolton-based trainer brand Walsh, which opened a pop-up store in London in the offices of advertising agency McCann on November 2. It sells around 30,000 pairs a year wholesaling at between £45 and £80. 

“The world sees the UK as a source of quality products,” says Jon Crompton, who owns Walsh with his brother, Dennis. “The popularity of trainers as a whole has risen, but we’ve found people still want that quality and craftsmanship attached to them, so we’ve benefited hugely.”

Alongside traditional methodologies, technology is modernising shoemaking with computerised design, measuring, pattern-cutting, last-making and constructing. One example is Drapers Footwear Awards finalist Shoes By Bryan, which produces 3D-printed shoes and lasts in a factory in London. Technology also played a crucial part in the return of Groococks’ UK manufacturing.

“There’s more interest in British-made footwear now than ever, especially in the overseas market.”

“Our injection moulding is the most advanced way of making shoes,” says managing director John Bligh.

“It incorporates chemistry, robotics and computer programming. Our footwear has to be extremely competitive, because we’re not making high-end shoes. Ours retail between £65 and £80, therefore costs have to be controlled. Using technology allows us to utilise machines more than man hours, keeping labour costs low while still producing in the UK rather than in a low-labour-cost country.”

More than 60% of UK-made shoes are exported overseas, and there is strong demand from Japan and China. Cheaney’s export business has grown from 10% to 40% in the past five years, and Tricker’s and Crockett & Jones export about 70% of product. 

Drapers Footwear Award-winning business Loake estimates it has produced 50 million pairs of shoes from its 20,000 sq ft factory in Kettering, Northamptonshire, since 1894. Managing director Andrew Loake says exports are a “significant portion” of the business but declined to give details.

“The bulk of what we do is made in England, but we also manufacture in countries like India,” says Loake. “We make it known where our shoes are from regardless, and this works for us because there’s more interest in British-made footwear now than ever, especially in the overseas market.”

“Import penetration in the UK is around 99%, meaning most of the shoes sold in the UK are made in low-labour-cost countries. However, foreign shoppers are actively seeking out Made in Britain products, both in their own markets and when travelling here in the UK,” says Cheaney’s Church. He adds that the business is considering stores in Japan or a franchise in China, but this is still a few years away.

Tricker’s has started to sell in China through new British online department store Jack Russell Emporium, which is being run by the former bosses of Marks & Spencer, Burberry and Jonathan Saunders.

International interest in heritage brands is likely to continue, as is small-scale re-shoring, as overseas labour costs rise. Although the British footwear industry’s destiny lies with higher-end, quality, aspirational products, there is room – and appetite – for the Made in Britain badge at every level and price point.

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