British-made products are capturing global interest and the footwear heritage of Loake shows how a focus on skills and tradition can help brands capitalise.
In the 18 months since Drapers first launched the Save our Skills (SOS) campaign we have scoured the country to find success stories of British businesses keeping local manufacturing alive.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Kettering-based factory owned by men’s footwear brand, Loake. Based in the footwear industry’s heartland of Northampton, this 132-year-old business is still going strong and finding new customers who are on the lookout for British-made products.
“I think there is something to be said for being British,” explains managing director Andrew Loake. “There is a real appetite for British products both in the UK and internationally.
“There are many companies which people perceive as English companies making English shoes, but in fact they may not be made here in the UK.
“What sets us apart is that if we make them outside the country, we stamp them as such. By far the majority of our Welted Goodyear shoes are made in the UK and those will carry the Made in England stamp but we are completely transparent about those that are not.”
Genuine British products are experiencing a rise in demand from certain parts of the world, according to British Footwear Association chief executive Richard Kottler.
“Discerning stores in the Far East and the US are buying these British-made products in ever-increasing quantities and the UK factories are working flat out to satisfy this interest,” he says.
Loake wears its British heritage on its sleeve, proudly displaying its Royal Warrant – one of the only manufacturers in the area to have received the stamp of approval from Buckingham Palace – on the wall as you walk in.
The business has an unbroken connection to its roots, having been started by three Loake brothers – Thomas, John and William – in 1880, and moving to its current site in 1894. The factory continues to use Goodyear welted construction – a traditional process for attaching the sole to the upper of a shoe.
“The English make the best Goodyear welted shoes in the world,” says Loake. “The origins of the Goodyear welted process go back about 300 years. It is a very intricate and complicated way of making shoes and requires a certain level of skill – it is not simply a case of just sticking a sole on.”
This level of craftsmanship quickly becomes apparent while walking around Loake’s factory. The factory employs about 130 people and the processes involved in making just one pair of shoes are impressively intricate.
Everything that is done in the factory – from cutting the leather, stitching the upper, lasting the shoe, sewing on the welt and attaching the sole, all the way to the end of the process when the leather is burnished by hand – takes a high level of skill and craftsmanship.
“When you’ve seen this and everything that goes into it, it really makes you think about what you put on your feet,” says Loake.
He describes the workers at the end of the process who burnish the leather and dress and polish the shoes as “real artists”, and he’s not wrong. Watching as each shoe is painstakingly burnished to the same finish as its pair, it is easy to see why Buckingham Palace has chosen Loake as one of its footwear suppliers.
“To be eligible to apply for a Royal Warrant you have to have been supplying the royal household for at least five years,” says Loake. “We have been doing it for much longer than that but at first we didn’t even realise we were able to apply for the warrant.”
Perhaps some of the kudos attached to being involved in a brand like Loake means it has not struggled to employ staff, despite a general decline in factory skills.
“It is well documented that some UK manufacturers, across all sectors, have had trouble attracting workers as people don’t want to work in factories,” says Loake.
“That isn’t something I have noticed.Maybe we have just been very lucky or maybe people just realise there is something special about being involved in making something so intricate and something that is truly British.”
While he may have no shortage of applicants, it takes time to train any new workers.
“People in this area just don’t have these skills like they used to in the past,” he says. “We have had to accept that we have to train any new staff we take on from scratch and that can be quite a lengthy process.”
Staff are taught a wide range of skills before being let loose in the factory. “We like our workers to be multi-skilled so they can carry out many of the different stages of the process,” Loake explains.
Although the training might take some time, it results in long-term loyalty towards the business, and a very low staff turnover rate as a result.
“Several members of staff have been here even longer than I have – we’ve got one guy who has been here over 40 years,” explains Loake. The business even boasts a father and son team in the welting room, with another of the sons in the warehouse.
“I tend to find that if we employ one person from a family and they are a good worker, then anyone else we take on from their family is also good.”
What is clear from walking around the Loake factory is that people who work here genuinely love their job and staff evidently take a huge amount of pride in their work. But perhaps this is not surprising when you consider that someone in Buckingham Palace might be wearing their shoes.
Story in numbers
200 - operations involved in making every pair of Loake Goodyear welted men’s shoes
75 - people involved in making every pair of shoes
1880 - the year Loake first started manufacturing footwear