Luxury footwear brand Harrys of London uses the latest tech to create high-end dress shoes for the trainer-mad generation
Harrys of London’s creative director Kevin Martel relaxes on a seat next to an ornate bay window in the Burlington Arcade store in London’s Mayfair. Visible through the glass behind him is a blue plaque showing when the arcade was built – 1819 – to prevent “ruffians” from throwing rubbish onto the grounds of Burlington House, now home to the Royal Academy. Around him in the recently revamped store, which reopened in July, this sense of history prevails in the wood panelling on the walls and reclaimed herringbone parquet flooring, as well as the classic men’s styles on display. Yet the materials used to craft the shoes reveal the brand’s true modernity. Founded in 2001, Harrys of London infuses traditional leather and suede loafers, brogues and boots with rubber and gel technology, constructed in Italy using the latest cordwaining techniques.
For the past 10 years, Martel, who hails from the east coast of the US, has stayed faithful to the original idea behind the luxury English footwear brand: to fuse traditional men’s dress shoes with the comfort of trainers. He is particularly obsessed with tweaking Harrys’ signature and bestselling slip-on loafer, the Downing. “It’s like an iPhone; we’re now on Downing 6 because it’s been evolving, getting the fit perfect, working on the lining, the gel insoles, the sole engineering, the materials,” he says. “I changed the leather probably 20 times until I found the right one.”
The Downing is displayed downstairs in the two-storey Burlington Arcade shop, priced at £298 (the business will not disclose wholesale prices). Some are hanging to show off the rubber soles, which were originally designed by Italian manufacturer Vibram for performance windsurfing shoes and come in a choice of five colours or black. Its gel innersole, which was developed by another Italian manufacturing company, Technogel, responds to the wearer’s foot shape like a memory foam mattress. The latest innovation, launching for spring 16, is the Technogel X innersole, which has a built-in heel and adjusts to individual pressure points in the foot for added support.
Martel, who is in his early 40s, says he designs for himself and his friends. “Mine was the first trainer-mad generation. We didn’t grow up wearing painful classic dress shoes; we grew up wearing sports shoes. Our idea of comfort was completely different.” On the day of the interview he models a navy blue Harrys of London slip-on loafer with a pair of chinos and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, encapsulating the brand’s smart-casual tone.
This combination of luxury and sports is not new, but it is something Harrys appears to have mastered. Sam Lobban, buying manager for menswear etailer Mr Porter, which became Harrys of London’s first UK wholesale partner for autumn 15, says: “The shoes are clean, contemporary and stylish, but also very practical. The iconic rubber sole loafer is instantly recognisable and their smart offering in general is very strong.” He also anticipates the Mr Jones leather and suede sneakers, which have a waterproof polyurethane finish and come with a £300 price tag, will do well.
Harrys of London, which is owned by private equity investor Palladin Consumer Retail Partners, refuses to disclose its turnover, saying only that trading is up on last year and sales are split evenly between retail, wholesale and ecommerce. In the US – where it has been wholesaling for the last two years and has nine existing accounts – it will go into department stores Barneys and Neiman Marcus this month. It is also planning a wholesale launch in Asia for autumn 16, with details of how and where still being worked out.
However, the focus in the short to medium term is on retail expansion. “Wholesale is tough; the business has changed and stores are buying differently since the recession,” says Martel. “You want exposure, but for a small brand it’s hard to express yourself if you’re only showing a small selection of who you are. Retail is more fun: you can be who you want to be.”
The first Harrys store opened on South Audley Street, London, in September 2008, on the day US bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. Martel grimaces at the memory. “Lots of my clients are investors and bankers. We were watching them all drown their sorrows and thinking: ‘This is going to be bad’.” But he maintains it was the right decision: “We’ve seen small brands go by the wayside while we’ve grown, which tells me we’re on to something. We resonated with the customer because we listen to them and don’t try to drive some fantastical artistic idea.” The brand has two other stores in London: Burlington Arcade, which first opened in 2010, and The Royal Exchange in the City, which opened in 2012. It is now looking for a fourth in Knightsbridge.
Outside of London, it has three franchise stores in the Gulf, one in Dubai and two in Kuwait. The next will be Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in October or November, followed by Doha in Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the UAE at a date to be confirmed. “We’re doing a much bigger rollout [in the Middle East] because it’s an incredibly thriving market,” says Martel. It is also planning a wholly owned store in New York, due to launch early next year. The Burlington Arcade store concept, which Martel worked on with architectural designer Christian Lahoude and is designed to look like an English library, will be rolled out to the rest of its estate in time.
Martel has been passionate about drawing from a young age and recalls, with some irony, being asked to do a watercolour painting of his shoes on the first day of his after-school art class. “They were 1977 Converse All Stars in blue nylon. I still have the picture framed in my house,” he says. He studied graphic design and typography at Maine College of Art, graduating in 1991, where he realised product design would allow him to make a living from his love of drawing. To this day, he designs all of Harrys of London’s shoes.
His first design job was for US footwear brand Cole Haan, a specialist men’s shoe brand he joined in 1994 just after it had been bought by Nike. In 1998 he moved to Ralph Lauren as design director for Polo Sport men’s footwear between 1998 and 2000. There he had his first chance encounter with Dawn Mello, former president of US department store Bergdorf Goodman and one of his long-time mentors, who was putting together a team of people to help Armani create a big accessories division. “Next thing I know I’m sitting in front of Giorgio Armani. It was an out-of-body experience to sit next to this guy who is such a legend and to have him appreciate your drawing and say: ‘Hey, do you want to work for me?’” Armani offered Martel a position as design director for men’s accessories and Martel moved to Milan in 2000.
Mello approached him about the Harrys of London role in 2005. Martel describes her as “everyone’s fairy godmother”; she gave Michael Kors his first break after spotting his design in New York shop Lothars in the 1970s and in 1990 she hired the then virtually unknown designer Tom Ford as chief women’s ready-to-wear designer at Gucci. In 2005, Mello introduced him to Harrys of London’s chairwoman Marty Wikstrom, whose CV includes a stint as former managing director of Harrods from 2001 to 2003. “Three glasses of Chardonnay later, I was moving to London,” says Martel.
Harrys of London was founded by Matthew Mellon, then husband of Jimmy Choo founder Tamara, in 2001. In 2006, Mello and Wikstrom co-founded investment firm Atelier Fund and acquired an undisclosed but “significant” stake in the business. Palladin Consumer Retail Partners has had a controlling investment in Harrys of London since 2014. Wikstrom remains a significant stakeholder, while Martel and chief executive Steven Newey also hold shares.
Alongside the retail expansion plans, Martel is reviewing the brand’s product offering. He has never been personally interested in designing women’s shoes – “I’m a guy; I design what I want to wear” – but says this is an area the business will evolve into in the longer term. “We have women coming in every day asking: ‘Do you have women’s sizes or versions?’ I don’t think we’ll ever do high heels, but we’ll bring on more women’s experts [in the long term]. For now, we’re concentrating on the men’s business. There’s so much room for growth, whereas women’s footwear is saturated. You’ve got to say something really unique to stand out in that world.”
He is also planning to launch an expanded xx-piece accessories range in January. “We have a couple of briefcases we made using the rubberised casting that’s used for the trainers and that has been selling extremely well. Guys love the look and the easy care of it. We’re working on a much larger expansion of leather bags and goods. Good functional pieces.”
This diversification and Martel’s ability to listen to and respond to what customers want is key to the brand’s future success. Harrys of London has carved out a niche for itself as a modern, luxury footwear brand, which offers an alternative to the traditional English welted brogue. It still has some way to go to get its name out there, but with Mr Porter extolling the virtues of its practical yet luxury design philosophy, combined with the voracious appetite for British and European-made products, under Martel’s leadership it looks set to grow and thrive.