After 45 years in the industry, 50 million pairs of shoes sold and 21 years brand-building at Base London, the label’s co-founder and chairman, David Conibere, who is also this year’s Drapers Footwear Lifetime Achievement recipient, talks to us about the changing footwear market and exporting internationally.
“We have managed to sell coals to Newcastle,” exclaims Conibere over lunch at the Base London headquarters in Loughton, Essex.
“We sell Italian-looking shoes with an English twist, which are made in India, to the Italians. And we do one thing you are not supposed to be able to do: we sell Indian-made shoes to the Chinese,” says the footwear veteran.
Men’s footwear brand Base London, which has 250 accounts in the UK, has amassed 450 accounts in 20 markets internationally during its 21 years. Fifty per cent of its £10m annual turnover comes from exports, mostly from Europe and the Far East. Because of these achievements, the label was fittingly awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade in May 2016 – something that Conibere describes as one of his proudest career accomplishments.
“I’m very proud of the award and we deserve it,” he affirms. “One of our most important export markets is Italy, even though it’s an English look on an Italian leather loafer – our product combines the flair of Italy and the look of England.
“I was lucky enough to be the one going to the palace to pick the award up, but the main reason this company is successful is its long-serving staff,” he continues.
We sell Italian-looking shoes with an English twist, which are made in India, to the Italians
“Most people working at Base have been with me for years. Our managing director has been here for 20 years. One of our designers retired after 30 years – and that’s only because he had a heart attack,” quips Conibere.
“Export is hard. Anyone who says it is easy is lying. But I find it sad that Britain, the first real trading nation in the industrial era, is not very good at it any more. The Germans do it so much better. We believe you have to export. If we are to survive and grow, we have to do it.”
John Saunders, chief executive of the British Footwear Association, said Base was a “worthy winner” of the Queen’s award.
“Base has successfully updated and expanded its offering and used its British brand credentials to develop a strong following around the world. At the heart of its success is a great team who understand the importance of strong local business partnerships,” he added.
Despite the success of Base London, Conibere is equally known in the footwear industry for his supply business, Tregarron, which works with various high street names, including Clarks, Marks & Spencer, Next and Debenhams, and Asos. Indeed, Conibere’s career is rooted in the supply world, as he started his career in 1971 as a factory agent on the road for the Leicester-based CWS footwear group, which had five factories at the time.
“I was a graduate trainee and got good all-around training and grounding. CWS supplied the Co-operative but, as it was in decline, it also started to sell to the British Shoe Corporation, which dominated the industry at the time, as it had 2,000 shops across the UK.”
He adds: “After three years I ended up as a salesman. I sold plastic ladies’ shoes to Littlewoods chain stores, all over the UK. They were £2.99 retail with great big platforms at the bottom of them.”
For the next five years, Conibere dipped his toe into several businesses, including a Far Eastern importer, a French shoe factory and a US retailer, before he started working with an Italian shoe factory called Monte Rosa, where he remained for 22 years. During most of his time in Italy, he was the main agent for the firm, selling its product through his own supply firm.
“At Tregarron, we sold men’s fashion shoes. Outside the British Shoe Corporation, there were another 2,000 shoe shops in the UK, made up of chains of multiples ranging from 60 to 350 shops – and Clarks, of course,” he said.
In the late 1980s, the cost of manufacturing footwear in Italy soared, so Conibere “got around” it by moving production to Yugoslavia and Romania.
In the early 1990s, China lifted its trade ban with the west and “decimated” the rest of the industry within two years, says Conibere. He moved production to Shanghai in the late 1990s, as it was becoming “impossible to sell European-made shoes in volume to mass-market customers”.
He adds: “After years of great Italian food, I swapped the local Veronese brasseries for an Italian restaurant in Shanghai, as our American customers couldn’t possibly eat the local food,” he recalls.
“I got lucky in China: a contact of mine gave me the name of a brilliant factory run by honourable Taiwanese people. They were so efficient that they would tell you four weeks beforehand if they were going to be two days late for Next or Clarks. It was a lovely period in my career,” he adds.
The familiar bite of cost increases crept in once more, causing Conibere to pack up again and leave China for pastures new in India, where his supply business has remained.
“It was a disaster at the start. We found a factory through my Italian connections but [the owner] was still setting up and not at a stage to start manufacturing. We didn’t work with him initially, but we went back and we’ve grown together. One thing you have to do if you work in any country is ensure you have an ethically approved factory, so we showed him how to do that.”
Sheldon Smith, group director of children’s product at Clarks, one of Conibere’s clients, says the veteran has vast knowledge and experience of the industry.
One of the things I realised after many years supplying multiples was that their decline was inevitable
“I have known and worked with David for more than 15 years, and have never in my career come across a person with such broad shoe experience, from last making and sole making to leather and shoe manufacture. He certainly helped me to develop my shoe knowledge. David is extremely hard working and dedicated to footwear and, as a result, has been instrumental in defining the UK dress category. David is a shoe legend,” Smith says.
Derrick Hoyle, buying director at Sole Trader, echoes this sentiment: “I have known David for years and we have worked on both private-label and branded footwear projects. David’s knowledge of footwear design, the impact it has on sourcing, sourcing itself and production is thorough, complete and extensive. What David doesn’t know about footwear is not worth knowing. He is a tremendous asset to the footwear industry.”
Conibere said his supply business had changed “dramatically” as the shoe trade transformed from a footwear-multiple business to a business in which shoes are sold predominantly in fashion multiples.
“When I started, I could go out and spend three days seeing customers in Leicester – now I have one customer there [Next]. There are very few shoe multiples left. There’s Dune and Russell & Bromley at the higher end, and I still sell to Clarks, which remains a force on the high street, but to a large extent that middle market has vanished, as shoes are sold as accessories.
“The mentality now is: why would you go to a shoe shop when you can go to Primark and get it for a fraction of the price? Women’s footwear is pretty much throwaway now. Men’s shoes, fortunately, last considerably longer. That’s why I only sell men’s shoes – it’s easier, as men aren’t as fickle as women.”
It was that change in the market and decline in footwear multiples that led to Conibere launching branded product.
“One of the things I realised after many years supplying multiples was that their decline was inevitable. They didn’t sell sportswear, and Nike and Adidas only wanted to supply sports shops, and they weren’t fashionable enough to have good branded product. So I decided to set up my own brand.”
In 1992 Conibere established Fly London with Perry King before selling it on two years later to Portuguese manufacturers – a little-known fact in the footwear industry.
It’s about finding the formal shoe of the moment
The following year he founded Base London with Marc Verona, who also founded Hudson. The style of the brand was based on the loafer trend that Patrick Cox had made popular at the premium end of the market.
“Cox had done a very good job with his loafers, and the boys from Essex were buying them, but they were expensive – more than £120 at the time – so we came out with our version of it for £50 and we cleaned up. It was natural for us to go into that style, as it was a moccasin made in an Italian moccasin factory.
“The designer shoes were made with higher-quality materials – I don’t kid you that – but they were made in the same factories and the punter in the street wouldn’t have seen a £70 difference in the shoes,” he adds.
Wholesale prices for Base’s autumn 16 range start at £27 and range up to £45.
Conibere bought Verona out nine years ago, but insists there are no hard feelings between the pair.
In 1996 the footwear mogul also established a smaller, Mod-influenced brand called Icon, which had a lower price point than Base (wholesale prices range from £25 to £32) and remains popular with independents.
Reinventing the shoe
Conibere says one of the biggest challenges for a brand is to ensure it is not a “one-trick pony”.
“The problem with brands is that they mushroom when driven by one product. You have to bring your other products alongside that bestseller, so that, when it dies away, you have developed your other products. It’s one of the hardest things to do. You can fall off your pinnacle quite easily.
“It happened to us [at Base], like a few before us, so we had to reinvent ourselves. We have always been in formal and semi-formal shoes, but it’s about finding the formal shoe of the moment. For a long time it has been all about brogues, but now we’re selling more plain-toe shoes. It’s all about getting that balance right to stay on top.”
So what is next for the father of two and grandfather of one?
“Not retirement, that’s for sure”, he says as he leans back in his chair. “I have a two-year visa for India, so I’m locked in. At the end of that two years I will probably apply for another one. I don’t work full time any more and I don’t know all the ins and outs of the businesses, as I don’t need to. I have some damn good people to do that for me, but I’m still involved with the shoes and I’m still as passionate about it 45 years later. One day maybe I’ll wake up and pack it in, but I don’t feel that will happen any time soon,” he says with a smile.