Cheaney & Sons: The changing business of brogues
William Church of the Northampton-based shoemakers talks about the future of British-made brogues
There aren't many of us old Northampton shoemakers left, since the low and middle market moved offshore. With nearly all shoes worn in the UK now imported, we at Cheaney & Sons have to do more to tell our story. What Northampton shoemakers produce is regarded highly – it's labour-intensive and skills-dependent, and most of the people who work here are proud of what they do. Our product comes with some emotional investment.
Of course, some people look at £300 or so and say that's an incredible price to pay for a pair of shoes. But they need to understand the value in a pair of Cheaney & Sons brogues is much more than that, because of Goodyear welting – a process by which the sole is stitched into the upper to make it watertight and replaceable. Some people have heard of this and know it suggests a well-made shoe, but don't understand specifically why it's better. And changing that is not easy, even though the concept of Goodyear welting is hardly new.
Driving new interest will come, in part, from pushing new styles too. You can't have a contemporary shop-fit that looks the part and just fill it with black brogues. And those makers resting on their laurels because they have a few old winning styles should know it's time to worry. There's a balance to strike – people cherish the brand and what they expect it to give them. But you have to bring in new customers, which means not just making the kind of classics that Dad wears. At Cheaney & Sons, we recently made a range of aviator boots based on a 1940s RAF style, for example.
We also have to get around this idea that Goodyear welted shoes are uncomfortable, especially to a generation that has grown up wearing trainers. Thankfully, they are also part of a generation that has grown up with buying online, so they're happy to try things out. They are aspirational and into dressing well, to the point of becoming aficionados on what they wear. There's room for all kinds of shoes in the male wardrobe now. The idea that Northampton-made shoes are for old men has long gone, even if its idea of innovation is subtle – it's in the last shape, or the leather finishing, for instance.
Crucially, there is now at least an understanding in the industry – which is much more collaborative than it used to be – that it must bend to accommodate new markets. The Japanese market, which is very enthusiastic about English men's shoes, recently asked us to make a Goodyear welted sandal. Not long ago, most Northampton makers would have just said "no thanks" to that request; it was certainly new to us. But we worked on it and achieved what the market wanted. There has to be a recognition that the idea of a man having four pairs of black shoes and a pair of brown for the weekend is over.
WILLIAM CHURCH is the joint managing director – with his cousin Jonathan Church – of the Northampton shoemakers Cheaney & Sons, which has just opened its latest shop, in Covent Garden, London. Part of the family behind Church's shoes, Church has been in the footwear industry for 25 years; cheaney.co.uk