Exports help to revive the high end of Britain’s decimated shoe industry.
FROM the attic of his cramped old factory in the middle of Northampton, Stephen Etheridge, the head of Church’s, a shoemaker, gazes down on the deserted bus station next door. He explains how his company will soon be expanding to fill the four-acre (1.5-hectare) site, creating 100 or so jobs in the process. The move has caused a stir in Northampton, about 70 miles north of London, as it is the first time in living memory that a shoe company is growing rather than closing. The recent success of a venerable old firm like Church’s, founded in 1873, reflects a wider revival of Northampton’s luxury shoemakers, buoyed by the insatiable Asian appetite for a bit of old English craft and class.
There was a time when the city of Northampton and its surrounding towns did little else but produce shoes. The industry there employed tens of thousands of people in hundreds of factories, small and large; fortunes were made making millions of boots for the army during the first world war. But that era of mass manufacturing came to a calamitous end in the 1980s as production moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labour. Now Britain imports almost all its shoes. There were fears that the whole industry might become extinct. But posh bootmakers like Church’s, Joseph Cheaney and Loake clung on. They employ hundreds of people each, rather than the thousands of old Northampton, but they have now found a very profitable niche in the global market and are prospering as never before.
Loake is still a family-run firm, making shoes in the same factory in nearby Kettering that the founding brothers built in 1894. Like all the area’s luxury cobblers Loake only makes “goodyear welted” shoes, a 300-year-old process whereby the shoe is stitched together. This time-consuming and expensive technique gives the footwear strength and durability. As Andrew Loake, the current head of the company, explains, all shoes used to be made like this until the advent of cheaper injection-moulding. “So,” he explains, “our shoes have moved from being mass-commodity items to being specialist and different.”
In that sort of market, argues Mr Loake, the only way to go is to make shoes better rather than cheaper. His company now uses higher-quality leather than it did in the 1980s. Each shoe takes eight weeks to make, involving about 200 processes. Some of these haven’t changed for a long time. But that is exactly what new consumers, particularly in Asia, want to pay for. Exports now account for over one-third of its sales, and have been increasing steadily over the past decade. Loake’s biggest export market is Sweden. Its second-biggest is South Korea, reflecting, says Mr Loake, “a hunger for high-quality goods” in Asia.
Church’s is also doing well in the East. Although it is now owned by Prada, an Italian luxury-goods company, it sells itself as the quintessential English manufacturer. To control the Church’s brand, it sells almost half of its products through its own bespoke shops—four in Hong Kong, two in Shanghai, and one in Singapore. It is trying to open one in Beijing, too. Prices are steep, rising to £1,000 ($1,500) a pair. But, even producing 5,000 pairs a week, the company cannot meet demand—hence the expansion of their factory in Northampton. If the 21st century does belong to Asia, at least its masters will be well-shod.