The English shoemaking industry is booming. It's a phenomenon that few people would have picked, especially in the 1980s when UK shoemaking factories were closing their doors – how things have changed.
After weathering decades of decline throughout the 1970-90s, many of the surviving UK manufacturers are now expanding as men around the globe seek heritage, quality and style.
"It's definitely a renaissance," says George Glasgow, CEO of bespoke English shoemaker GJ Cleverley on a recent visit to Melbourne. "Last year was the best year we've ever had and it's looking again that way this year."
Cleverley is at the sharper end of the English shoemaking business, producing just 5000 pairs of shoes a year, of which 1500 are fully bespoke. And with a handmade pair of bespoke black Oxfords setting you back just under $6000, it's easy to see why production numbers can be kept so low.
Glasgow is firmly aware that GJ Cleverley's success is built on its reputation as a small, luxury producer, so there are no major plans to expand the family-owned business. In saying that, he has no objections to the current demand. "If I can have the next five years like last year," he says, "I'll sign a contract for that right now."
The basic construction is still the same; however, we've moved from being a commodity item to being a luxury item.Andrew Loake
It's not only the luxury bespoke shoemakers that are smiling. Business is booming for many heritage English shoemakers including Crockett & Jones, Alfred Sargent, Joseph Cheaney & Sons, Edward Green and Loakes. This means Northampton, the home of British shoemaking, is winding back the clock to a time when a pair of Goodyear-welted leather shoes was a staple of every man's wardrobe.
Located 70 kilometres north of London, Northampton's history as a shoemaking centre extends back to the 15th century. Although the town's craftsmen successfully made the transition from small artisanal workshops to the mechanised factories of the 19th century, things took a dive in the 1980s. Numbers of shoemakers could no longer withstand the onslaught of cheap imported products, and many factories were converted into apartments and offices.
Luckily for a new generation of dapper gents, those that remained continue to produce some of the highest-quality welted shoes. While the rising movement to support artisanal and heritage manufacturing over the last decade has spurred the industry's resurgence, the reason Northampton's shoemakers are once again standing firmly on their leather-soled feet lies beyond England's shores. International interest in Northampton heritage shoemakers has sky-rocketed.
Made in Japan
It's no small irony that much of the demand is coming from China and Japan, whose production of cheap shoes once had the very same industry on life support. The turnaround now sees Northampton's shoemakers export $40 million in shoes to Japan every year.
"What they seem to look for in those countries, in particular Japan, is quality," says David Evans, a London-based blogger and vocal supporter of British-made menswear.
"English shoemakers will acknowledge that even though their shoes are high quality, the quality they sell in Japan has to be even higher. And that has upped their game."
What they haven't had to change is the quintessential British look. On hundreds of Instagram accounts, fashionable men of all ages have embraced traditional English brogues, Oxfords and Derbies as they continually re-imagine them as part of a more modern look.
Loake and load
The British shoe revival has come as a very pleasant surprise to many, especially Andrew Loake, managing director of the renowned Northampton shoe manufacturer of the same name.
"The type of shoes we make – the traditional Goodyear construction – many decades ago they were normal shoes," he says. "If you go back to the 1950s that's what everybody wore. I wore them to school ... they were a sort of commodity item, and now we're not really doing much differently in the way we make them, albeit better. The basic construction is still the same; however, we've moved from being a commodity item to being a luxury item."
Loake says his shoes enjoy strong sales in Australia, as do many other brands thanks in part to the work of brothers Nick and Chris Schaerf, who opened their store, , in Melbourne's Fitzroy in 2012. The brothers are planning to open a second store in Sydney later this year.
"Some of the big names up until the very end were not going to supply us because of their reservations about the about the Australian market," says Nick Schaerf. "But Chris really did a great job in pleading our case and persuading the bigger companies to get on board.
"Crocket and Jones, for instance ... it's the core brand that we hold very close to our heart, and we're continuing to sell more and more as time goes on. Our working relationship with them is very good ... we've got a very good, close working relationship with all the companies."