Last month Drapers headed to Northamptonshire, the heart of the UK’s shoe manufacturing industry, to find out how “made in Britain” footwear brands are getting fighting fit for a bumpy future.
With its plentiful supply of raw materials – oak bark, water for tanning and leather from locally reared cattle – as well as its location in the heart of the country, Northamptonshire has been synonymous with footwear manufacturing for nearly nine centuries (even its football team is nicknamed “the Cobblers”).
Although the industry is now a shadow of its former self, after many retailers shifted production abroad from the mid-20th century to lower costs, it is still the epicentre of UK footwear manufacturing thanks to its rich heritage, an unwavering dedication to good-quality materials, and time-tested production methods.
Now, faced with tricky times ahead, including the latest Brexit conundrum, a rising sustainability agenda and a new generation of customers to satisfy, many manufacturers are uncertain of what the future holds. Drapers headed to the home of footwear manufacturing with the British Footwear Association (BFA) last month to visit an eclectic mix of Made in Britain brands and find out how they are future-proofing their businesses.
John Lobb: Capturing a new customer
First stop on Drapers’ tour of Northamptonshire is John Lobb, which has been manufacturing and retailing men’s and women’s luxury shoes and boots since 1849.
“The product we’re producing today is symbolic of hundreds of years of shoemaking,” says Paul Brogden, John Lobb technical manager. “However, what we’re trying to do for the future is to entice the younger demographic. Typically, our core customer would be the successful businessman, mid-forties to fifties onwards, looking for something very formal for functions and around the office.
“But, of course, money is now getting into the hands of a much younger audience, so we’re looking to evolve our ranges into something that will be more enticing to that younger crowd.”
The company appointed its first artistic director, Paula Gerbase, in June 2014 to help appeal to this new audience.
Brogden adds: “It’s obviously getting to understand that market because it’s not something we’re particularly familiar with. Gerbase is young [in her late thirties] and has certainly more understanding of what those trends are likely to be.”
To cater to a younger demographic, John Lobb has added more “casual” products into its collection. It introduced trainers for the first time in 2015 and is looking at extending its sneaker offering in response to customer demand. It also introduced a men’s leather sandal range for the first time this year.
“The new products are being ‘John-Lobbed’ to look like what we represent,” explains factory manager Lee Wood. “We still want to retain the brand’s identity. You have to be different to what everyone else is producing and stay true to the roots that have always been here to be fit for the future.”
The eponymous footwear brand opened workshops in London at 296 Regent Street in 1866 and in Paris in 1899 before it was bought by Hermès Group in 1976. The London bespoke workshop, John Lobb, remained in the hands of the family, and continues to operate independently from its premises at 9 St James’s Street. The Paris bespoke atelier, as well as the 25 John Lobb retail stores and concessions, are all now part of the Hermès-owned company.
Under the ownership of Hermès, in 1994, John Lobb opened the Northampton workshop, where the ready-to-wear line is designed and made by hand. Retail ready-to-wear prices range from around £585 for sandals to £1,520 for a single leather sole – a rare type of shoe made entirely from a single piece of leather.
Jeffery-West: Beating Brexit
Next on the agenda was “rock ‘n’ roll” footwear brand Jeffery-West – purveyor of flamboyant prints, bold colour combinations and high-quality footwear craftsmanship.
Founded by friends Mark Jeffery and Guy West in 1987, the brand makes men’s and women’s boots, brogues, loafers and accessories. It has five standalone stores in the UK, a store in New York and sells via third-party platforms including Asos and Zalando, and in Flannels.
Retail prices range from around £235 for a sneaker to £595 for a leather zip boot.
Unlike other traditional brands in the county, Jeffery-West does not manufacture in its own factory. It sources product from fellow Northampton footwear brands Barkers and Cheaney, but also has manufacturers in Italy and Spain.
As a result of manufacturing overseas, owner and co-founder West says he is “very concerned” about Brexit, but has various strategies in place to combat potential business disruptions. These include stockpiling, setting up a Jeffery West subsidiary in Europe and absorbing extra duty costs.
“Business has been tough since June 2016,” West says. “We’ve had to do so much more just to stand still. For instance, we looked at setting up a Jeffery-West subsidiary in Europe, but at the moment we haven’t done that because of the costs involved and the uncertainty.
“Also, there are going to be no tariffs on footwear for the first year if we crash out. We’ve still got a year to be able to put things in place, so we understand exactly what we have to do. We have been to see the solicitors, and can push the button on that if and when it happens.”
However, the “biggest concern” is exports: “We send quite a lot of single pairs out to Europe. Depending on the outcome of Brexit, customers might have to put their VAT number on everything because of customs. Businesses are used to doing that, but most customers aren’t. So, is that going to put people off buying? We’re very concerned about that.” West says the company will pay extra duty to combat the issue if necessary.
To avoid potential delays at the ports, West says they will order shoes a month in advance: “That would be a disaster, but at least if I’ve ordered them a month earlier, then we might be OK.
“We’re also looking at renegotiating rents. Landlords doubled our rent after Brexit and obviously that is not sustainable. We’ve got two leases coming up next year, which obviously we need to renegotiate. All the big retailers are doing it, too.”
West says that, despite the current uncertainty and issues surrounding Brexit, he hopes that “once it is all sorted, there will be a bit of a lift in this country”, and that consumers will purchase more “made in Britain” products.
Tricker’s: A sustainable strategy
Tricker’s was founded by Joseph Tricker in 1829 and has become best known for its tan-coloured country boots and chunky brogues, which are popular with farmers.
Today, the company makes leather boots and shoes for men and women, “with incomparable character, comfort, individuality and excellent quality.” Retail prices range from around £175 for a house slipper to £625 for a country brogue.
Drapers heads to its current factory, at 56-60 St Michael’s Road in Northampton, which first opened its doors in 1904. There was still a buzz in the building after the Prince of Wales visited the factory on 28 January, to unveil the brand’s 190th anniversary commemorative plaque.
Managing director Martin Mason says: “That was a very exciting moment for Tricker’s.” He goes on to explain that, as the company is a royal warrant holder, “[it has] a responsible approach to sustainability issues” and must “fully understand the environmental and social impacts of our business activities and to do what we can to manage them”.
Among other things, royal warrant holders are required to demonstrate they have an appropriate environmental and sustainability policy, and action plan. These cover a wide range of issues, including the principal raw materials and services used, the company’s approach to environmental and social responsibilities, and the traceability of raw materials, processes and products, including how the business works with its suppliers.
Are you a champion of sustainable fashion?
Drapers has launched the Drapers Sustainable Fashion Awards to highlight and reward best practice in the industry.
Categories include Retailer of the Year, Brand of the Year, One to Watch, Sustainable Store Design, Sustainable Textile Innovation and Sustainable Fashion Champion.
In 2017, Tricker’s announced a partnership with Olivvia Leather, whose tanning process uses waste olive leaves. It is entirely chrome free and the olive leaves are a waste product of the olive oil industry – millions fall during the olive harvest and are usually burned. Around 15% of Tricker’s shoes are made using Olivvia Leather, and this has been doubling every year since 2017.
Mason’s “goal is to get to 50% of [products made] using Olivvia Leather” within the next few years.
The company is constantly looking at developing new ways of working towards a sustainable future, by reducing its carbon footprint: “Climate change is a global problem and business has a big role to play in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the threat of climate change.
“Operating in a sustainable and responsible way is good for our business. Benefits include lower running costs, increased efficiencies, motivated employees, an improved reputation with local communities and wider stakeholders and a far more resilient supply chain.”
Mason concludes: “Tricker’s has never deviated from the high standards of craftsmanship laid down at the outset 190 years ago. Quietly and perhaps rather unassumingly … it has kept in step with modern techniques and the latest innovations.”