For more than half a millennium the Midlands county of Northamptonshire has been the centre of shoemaking the English way.
In the county’s shoemaking heyday in the 1880s, there were more than 100 businesses cobbling anything from shiny, black Oxford lace-ups for City gents to tough brogues with their tell-tale perforations for country squires.
Then came the fashion for leisure wear. Slowly demand for formal leather footwear waned and shoemakers closed or were subsumed.
Joseph Cheaney & Sons was just one. Founded in the town of Desborough in 1886, it was bought by Church’s, another family-run Northamptonshire cobbler, in the 1960s. Prada, the Italian designer, took control of Church’s in 1999. For the next decade Cheaney was just a lossmaking subsidiary fulfilling contracts to make shoes for other clothing brands.
But in 2009, Cheaney’s fortunes changed. William and Jonathan Church, cousins who had been working for the family business, spotted a revival in interest in classic leather boots and brogues and that new markets for ready-to-wear footwear were opening up. They bought Cheaney out from the Prada-owned business.
It has not been an easy path. “At first, we looked at the bank balance every day,” says Jonathan Church, who at 54 is Cheaney’s finance director having spent the first years of his career in the City of London. The financial crisis was at its height in 2009 and there was little chance of obtaining funds from banks. The Church cousins were forced to turn to private backers instead.
Seven years later, their gamble appears to have paid off. Cheaney has just won the Queen’s Award for International Trade for continuous growth in overseas sales over the past six years. The company says its sales of ready-to-wear footwear have never been so sturdy, particularly in overseas markets such as Japan.
In the year to July 2009, Cheaney turned over £4.3m with about a fifth of revenues coming from exporting its traditionally made footwear. Since then sales have doubled and exports have tripled. In the year to July 2015, it turned over £9.6m, up 11 per cent on 2014, and made a pre-tax profit of £1.5m, up 16 per cent on the year before.
The cousins’ strategy was straightforward: to rebuild Cheaney as a retail brand in its own right and expand into overseas markets. They appointed agents in Italy, Germany, Belgium, France, Canada and the US, and distributors in Japan and Scandinavia to establish and beef up exports to the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
The Churches aimed to open one new retail store a year to showcase the company’s products.
Cheaney now has six outlets, mostly in London including a flagship store in Jermyn Street — home to British tailoring since the 18th century — which was opened in 2014. This year it opened sites in Cambridge and Leeds.
At the same time, the company has worked on its identity as a British heritage brand, collaborating with what it calls “quintessentially British” fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Barbour, as well as contributing to Marks and Spencer’s Best of British collection.
Keeping manufacturing in Northamptonshire was a crucial part of the plan, says Mr Church, which helped Cheaney differentiate itself from rivals that produce their goods abroad.
The British make shoes differently, Mr Church says, using the Goodyear welted process that was invented in the 1860s by Charles Goodyear, Jr. of the rubber tyre fame. It means soles are stitched and can be replaced repeatedly. They are in every sense of the word built to last.
Northamptonshire has been a centre of shoemaking in England since the Middle Ages for good reasons, Mr Church adds. It started because the area was a natural stop for drovers taking cattle to London and there were oak trees and water for making the shoe lasts and tanning the skins. With that came a workforce skilled in working leather and making shoes.
Cheaney now sources most of its skins from elsewhere, Mr Church says, and the best tanneries are in Germany, Italy and France. But the skills are still in Northamptonshire. Cheaney has expanded its workforce to well over 100 employees in Desborough. Each has a particular ability, whether it is to “read the leather”, “bottom fill”, or cut, stitch, edge trim and polish the company’s products through their six- to eight-week journey through the factory.
The biggest surprise, says Mr Church, has been the growth of Cheaney’s online business. Fitted footwear is not an obvious product to buy online, he points out. However, about half the company’s web-based sales are exports, he reckons.
Exports account for close to a third of total revenues, which rose to £2.63m in the year to July 2015. Cheaney’s biggest overseas market is Japan, says Mr Church, where “they really do their research” on shoes. “They have magazines dedicated to footwear in the same way that Brits have car magazines.”
Despite the fame of Italian shoes, Italy is Cheaney’s biggest European market beyond the UK. Italian cobblers glue their shoes together and use much lighter leather, making the output of Northamptonshire craftsman stand out from the crowd. The English country gent look also has a certain chic in Europe. And long may that last, say the Churches.