We Brits have plenty to complain about – our weather sucks, we’re crap at almost every sport we invent and the last time we won Eurovision Nintendo had just launched the N64. But one arena in which we can hold our heads high is British-made footwear.
With a dedication to premium materials and time-tested production methods, this industry has stayed true to its heritage, keeping UK operations going strong despite economic struggles. Invest, and you’ll be joining a long line of well-shod men, from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra, that stretches back well over a hundred years.
What’s more, demand for traditionally-made, reassuringly sturdy shoes shows no sign of falling out of favour. In the latest available stats from industry vanguards the British Footwear Association, sales climbed 3.6 per cent in 2017, reaching 5.8m pairs.
Built to last a lifetime and complement everything from bespoke suits to fuss-free weekend looks, it’s easy to see why the storied home of British shoemaking, Northamptonshire, is enjoying a renaissance in home-grown manufacturing.
Northamptonshire: The Home Of Shoemaking
The English town of Northampton was once the shoemaking capital of Europe, with around 2,000 individual manufacturers working there towards the end of the nineteenth century. The town’s central position and proximity to 11 rivers running through the county made it an obvious place for firms to set up business.
“There was a leather industry in Northamptonshire long before there was a shoe trade here,” says Loake managing director Andrew Loake. “Our understanding is that there were plentiful oak forests in the county and oak bark was used for tanning leather. So it was a natural progression for the shoe trade to develop in the same area.”
The subsequent availability of leather and Northampton’s strategic importance led to it becoming a centre of military bootmaking, with demand soaring due to the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
In recent years, this demand has returned, much to the joy of John Lobb site director Stephen Johnson. “We established our factory on Oliver Street, Northampton in 1993, but demand has increased dramatically to the point that we are now producing over 30,000 pairs a year – and that means we have had to expand the premises.”
A Sign Of Quality: Goodyear Welted Construction
The most famous shoemaking technique is the ‘Goodyear welt’. Invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr, the process is the footwear equivalent of the off-side rule: until somebody sits you down and talks you through it, it’s quite hard to understand.
The method involves around 75 individual components and 200 separate operations that, on average, takes eight weeks to complete.
The upper part of the shoe is shaped over the wooden last and fastened on by sewing a leather, linen or synthetic strip – known as the ‘welt’ – to the inner and upper sole. The welt forms a cavity which is then filled with a cork material.
The sole is then attached to the welt of the shoe by some combination of stitching along the edge of the welt and sole itself, and a high strength adhesive like contact cement or hide glue.
The main benefit of these types of shoe is that they can be resoled repeatedly, giving them a longer lifespan.
“Goodyear welted shoes offer a near perfect balance of weather resistance, durability, breathability and comfort,” says Loake. “And of course, when it’s time to repair or resole them, they can easily be dismantled and rebuilt.”
While Britain may be famous for this innovation, Loake points out that there are many other constructions, all with different benefits.
“For example, moccasins can be very light and flexible but are not so durable or as well-suited to bad weather. Cemented-soled shoes can look very sleek, but will not feel so sturdy when walking on rough ground, will be less water-resistant and harder to repair.
“Blake-stitched shoes have the soles stitched directly to the insoles. This means that, as the shoes are flexed, they can start to leak through the stitch holes. In our opinion, welted shoes provide a kind of ‘best of all worlds’ solution.”
10 Best British Shoe Brands
With a history spanning back to 1866, Northamptonshire-based Grenson has kept the lion’s share of its production on British shores for more than 150 years.
Best known for its classic brogue designs, worn by everyone from Cary Grant to Fred Astaire, the heritage firm was also the first producer in the world to use the Goodyear welting construction method.
Today, Grenson continues to turn out high-quality men’s shoes, as well as a line of minimalist sneakers, handmade from the finest Italian leathers, suedes and nubucks.
Manufacturing: All Grenson shoes are Goodyear welted. From start to finish, they take around three weeks.
Repair Service: The cost of a full refurbishment is £110 in the UK. All repairs take roughly 10-12 weeks from receipt and can be carried out a maximum of three times.
Worth A Look: Triple welt textured brogues such as the ‘Archie’ style.
Continuing the British tradition of innovation, in 1881 Mr Thomas Church (whose own shoemaking heritage dates back to the 1600s) was the first to produce differently shaped left and right shoes.
More than a century on, Church’s continues to be the trademark of a well-shod man, entering the hall of fame of brands preferred by James Bond alongside fellow shoemaker Crockett & Jones, shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser and watch giant Omega.
Whether it’s the firm’s supple leather Oxford or Mod-ish Chelsea boots, Church’s remains one of the most stylish ways to punctuate any outfit.
Manufacturing: Church’s produces 300,000 shoes a year from its Northampton factory, employing nearly 800 people.
Repair Service: Shoes are pulled over the original last, repaired, re-polished and returned in a new box with new shoe bags. The service takes up to six to eight weeks and costs around £130 per pair.
Worth A Look: Classic black city shoes and the ‘Shanghai’ – a reissue of a 1929 brogue-monk-strap-hybrid found in the Church’s archive.
Pushing back against the culture of low-quality, mass-produced footwear, George Cleverley still makes most of its shoes by hand inside its workshop on London’s Royal Arcade.
The storied British brand is one of the highest benchmarks in bespoke shoemaking, having kitted out Sir Winston Churchill with a pair of sharp shoes that, at his request, didn’t need to be tied each time he put them on.
Alongside the average ten pairs of shoes the brand makes for its select clientele each week, George Cleverley also produces a no-less-handsome range of ready-to-wear styles, which includes immeasurably stylish monk straps, built using the finest leathers.
Manufacturing: Made to order George Cleverley shoes take up to half a year to create. The brand boasts a client list include David Beckham, Ralph Lauren and Tim Cook.
Repair Service: Some of the oldest shoes to be returned to George Cleverley for repair dated back to 1968. With the uppers restored and bottom resoled, they looked box fresh once again. Price on request.
Worth A Look: The ‘Caine’ Cap-Toe Monk Straps, which feature a sleek marbled appearance
Despite a history that’s as old as the hills (1880 to be precise), Loake continues to be run by the same founding family.
Current managing director Andrew Loake’s great-grandfather, John, opened the firm’s first factory with his brothers, Thomas and William, nearly 140 years ago, starting a business that would go on to supply everyone from British soldiers and officers in two World Wars to British Olympians and high-profile actors and musicians.
The premium grade Goodyear welted shoes continue to be made in Kettering, Northamptonshire, involving some 130 craftspeople, up to 75 shoe parts and 200 different operations.
Manufacturing: Each pair of Loake shoes takes around eight weeks to make, with estimates the company has made over 50m pairs of Goodyear welted styles since its founding.
Repair Service: Loake charges £80 per pair, which covers resoling on the original last with new soles and heels and re-finishing the upper part of the shoes within 21 working days.
Worth A Look: The suede ‘Kempton’ chukka boots, with a studded rubber sole produced by fellow British brand Danite.
Barker has been making shoes in the Northamptonshire village of Earls Barton since 1880 when a skilled craftsman named Arthur Barker invented waterproof peg-sole boots.
So sought after was this innovative design that Barker was soon unable to satisfy demand and employed other craftsmen in surrounding villages to fulfil his growing order book.
While the company’s practices have remained the same, its designs have moved on significantly, with the brand producing modern ‘creative’ collections that sees classic silhouettes given a contemporary twist.
Manufacturing: One of the finest footwear factories in Europe, Barker occupies a 4.5 acre landscaped site at the centre of the village of Earls Barton, producing 200,000 pairs of hand lasted sewn shoes a year.
Repair Service: Repair costs for cemented shoes start from £95 and £99 for stitched welted shoes and generally takes six weeks to complete.
Worth A Look: Classic finely stitched black ‘Arnold’ Oxford lace-ups.
One of the pre-eminent names of the Northampton footwear industry, Cheaney has excelled in traditional, bench-made shoes and boots.
Based in the same Victorian red brick factory for 130-years, it isn’t just Cheaney’s premises that is built for longevity, with its footwear using the Goodyear Welted construction.
Refusing to rest on its laurels, in 1966 the British footwear brand earned the Queen’s Award to Industry for its excellence in exporting, before being snapped up by Jonathan and William Church, from the Prada-owned Church’s shoe family, bolstering its reputation.
Manufacturing: Cheaney received a patent in 1901 for its unique welting technique that offers a much more watertight shoe than a traditional blake stitched model.
Repair Service: The same skill and care of Cheaney craftsmen and women go into repairing and rebuilding the brand’s shoes as when they were first built. The cost of a Refurbishment is £110 and takes six weeks to complete.
Worth A Look: The Goodyear-welted ‘Godfrey’ Chelsea boots.
Crockett & Jones
Crockett & Jones’s number one principle has always been quality. Well, it has to be when wearers such as British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and more than a million WWII soldiers rely on your footwear to keep the elements out.
Since 1879, the firm has dedicated an eight-week gestation period to every pair of shoes it creates, resulting in the business receiving a Royal Warrant from The Prince of Wales in April 2017.
Though many of its production processes have evolved since the early days of shoemaking, the brand remains committed to traditional craftsmanship, quality and service, evident in everything from robust cap toe Oxfords to elegant velvet slippers.
Manufacturing: At record levels during the 1930s, Crockett & Jones was producing 13,000 pairs of shoes per week.
Repair Service: Crockett & Jones shoes can be repaired in-store and via stockists as well as being sent to its factory in Northampton, priced from £110.
Worth A Look: The ‘Norwich’ cap toe Derby, worn by Daniel Craig in Skyfall
One of the oldest shoemakers in England, Northampton-based Tricker’s remains a family-run business, with five generations of the Barltrop family heading up operations since 1829.
Reassuringly sturdy, each pair of the label’s winter-ready boots and summery suede Derbies are handmade by skilled craftsmen and women using a rigorous 260-step construction process.
In addition to upholding a commitment to its heritage, Tricker’s has also moved with the times, collaborating with contemporary names such as Danish brand Norse Projects and streetwear retailer End in recent years.
Manufacturing: Tricker’s makes around 1,400 pairs of shoes a week, which over a year is more than enough for everyone in Greenland.
Repair Service: The Tricker’s repair department claims to be able to bring any pair back to life within three weeks but operates on a price-on-request basis.
Worth A Look: A huge 93 per cent of the shoes Tricker’s produces are brogues.
A boy wonder of the boot world, Edward Green learned the craft of making shoes at age 12 before opening his own workshop in Northampton in 1890.
The way the company makes its shoes has remained largely unchanged since its founding. And for good reason: the finest materials paired with skills honed over 130 years add up to some of the best footwear on the market.
Today Edward Green is one of the few British shoemakers of which it can be said its suede models, ranging from sharp Derbies to tasselled loafers, are more handsome than its leather options.
Manufacturing: Edward Green shoes are available in strictly limited quantities: the company produces no more than 350 pairs a week.
Repair Service: Each pair of Edward Green shoes is finished by hand with the brand’s signature antiqued patina, which can be reapplied as part of a full restoration costing £250.
Worth A Look: The slim-profile ‘Portland’ leather-trimmed suede tasselled loafers
When it comes to top-shelf British shoes, few names are as recognisable as John Lobb. However, the brand is one with an international history. After gaining acclaim in Sydney, Australia, for his boots, Cornish-native Lobb returned to British shores to set up shop in London in 1863.
In the five successive generations of the Lobb family that have followed, the brand has established stores in Paris, Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia, all the while retaining a distinctly British feel.
Persistent in its goal of setting a high-watermark for home-grown shoemaking, today John Lobb strives for models that will last a lifetime, whether it be leather penny loafers or modern suede sneakers.
Manufacturing: Pulling on the added expertise of its owners, Hermès, John Lobb now turns out 1,000 pairs of shoes per week using the finest leathers.
Repair Service: John Lobb applies the same skill and attention into repairs as the original manufacture. Most models can be re-heeled for £35 while a full restoration costs from £245.
Worth A Look: John Lobb’s casual footwear range, including the full-grain tan leather Levah sneaker
Shoe Care Tips
- Always use a shoehorn when putting on your shoes. This will keep the backs strong and sturdy.
- Look to wear your shoes in dry conditions on the first few occasions – the fine grit picked up by dry leather soles assists water resistance.
- Where possible, give your shoes at least 24 hours between wears.
- Try to avoid excessive wetting. Should this occur, always let the shoes dry away from sources of direct heat.
- Invest in quality shoe trees (cedar wood versions come highly recommended) and use when storing your shoes to ensure that there is no loss of shape.
- Before polishing your shoes always wipe them over with a dry cloth to get rid of any surface dirt.
- Your shoes will benefit from a regular application of quality wax polish. This helps to moisturise the leather, keeping it supple and helping to prevent cracks.