Chris Sullivan, is, and has been at various times been a DJ, author, nightclub host, pop star, painter, style commentator, entrepreneur and fashion designer. He has always been proud of never having a ‘real job’.
October 22nd, 2015
As George Frazier once said, “If you want to know if a guy is well dressed? Look down.”
The esteemed sixties fashion columnist was, of course, referring to a man’s shoes. The foundation for any well-considered sartorial statement must be solid, staunch and well made by a shoe maker of repute. And, as any style-monger will tell you, the universally acknowledged global centre of traditional cordwaining is Northampton. The Midlands town houses no less than 18 different shoe factories including some of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious shoemakers such as Grenson (who make Tim Little’s product), Church + Co (now owned by Prada), Hermes owned John Lobb (who collaborate with Paul Smith), Tricker’s (who produce shoes for Prince Charles) and Joseph Cheaney and Sons (who make for Barbour, All Saints and Superdry).
It is always worth a trip to Northampton’s shoe factories and their outlets, where samples and slight seconds are sold at vastly reduced prices. But now, as autumn prepares us for winter, there is no better time; every man needs to ditch those plimsolls and trainers and find himself a proper pair of gentleman’s shoes. Luckily, Northampton is smack bang in the middle of the country, just off the M1, so it’s easily accessed by motorway or country lane alike.
Any style-monger will tell you, the universally acknowledged global centre of traditional cordwaining is Northampton.
The first factory I visited was Crockett & Jones who started in 1879 and supplied the shoes for H.R.H The Duke of York (and later, King George VI) and more recently for James Bond in the movie, Skyfall. A 5th generation family business that embodies quality and a timeless aesthetic, they’ve been based in the same red brick Victorian building (that looks more like a school than a factory) since 1897. The factory tour informed us that neither the building nor the production methods have changed since the 1930’s, when a rather gorgeous Art Deco styled wing was added.
The first thing that hits you is the delicious aroma of leather, glue, polish and wax that certainly overwhelms, while the building’s aged parquet flooring, huge windows and hordes of workers plying their time honoured craft seems like a scene from another era. I watched clickers – so-called because of the noise of the knives they use – cut the world’s finest leather, machinists sew it together in the Closing Room, craftsmen tack it on to its last in, naturally, the Lasting Department, while in the Finishing Room the shoes are welted, shaped, soled, the edges finished with hot wax, the lasts removed and the shoes lovingly hand polished.
Crockett & Jones shoes enjoy two hundred different manufacturing processes over an eight week period before they leave the factory, which is a beautifully admirable accomplishment in this day and age. As I made my way up the stairs to their outlet atop the factory, I was rather excited to say the least, and exited with a fine pair of Durham split toe Derby shoes in Pebbled leather (that I didn’t need) for about £200, which is roughly 50% of what you’d pay for them in Selfridges.
I knew that the shoes would serve me exceedingly well through rain, snow, sunshine and divorce.
After C&J, we headed past the cabs full of Japanese and Chinese tourists with their suitcases full of shoes and past the racecourse to the John Lobb factory outlet – a rather unimpressive 19th-century red-brick building on Oliver Street, just 150 yards from the factory – and saw a vast array of shoes, many of which were marked as seconds but I couldn’t tell why, all discounted at around 40% the cost of retail. Dizzied by the smell of leather and my new found retifism, I needed to clear my head so, after Lobb’s, I walked for 20 minutes to Trickers – ‘English shoemakers since 1829‘ who still enjoy a royal seal of approval – and was met with a huge array of styles that, with prices starting at £175 for men’s footwear and less for the ladies kit, are certainly enticing. But, for yours truly, Tricker’s are either too chunky or too effete.
I left empty handed and made my way back towards Church and Co., another big rust coloured brick Victorian building with a rather commanding edifice, just a few minutes walk from the rail station. Open all week, the factory is another old school operation, while its neighbouring outlet proffers footwear which is roughly half store price. And, even though I shouldn’t have, I shelled out another £240 for The Shannon – a triple soled, light ebony polished binder with a smooth upper, no toecap and no stitching. In other words; fat chunky wing tips without the holes.
And so, I headed back to London with two remarkable pairs of traditionally made English shoes for under £500. If I was one of those sensible fellows I really should have spent the dosh on bills, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that the shoes would serve me exceedingly well through rain, snow, sunshine and divorce, look the business with all manner of outfits, last longer than my teeth and end up in my will.
If you love fine footwear, a drive to Northampton is a must.