ISSUE 05 | COMPANY PROFILE

Joseph Cheaney steps up to the plate

Josh Sims has been following the British shoe industry’s fortunes for 25 years. For FURNACE, he puts his best foot forward and discovers that one 130-year-old manufacturer is investing in the future.

By Josh Sims

Joseph Cheaney shoes

From the outside, were it not for the flag-pole and the Union Jack, it’s an anonymous, warehouse-style building that in many other towns would long ago have been turned into swanky apartments. Inside at Northampton shoemakers Joseph Cheaney & Sons, however, it’s another story.

Racks of wooden lasts, and upturned, still sole-less shoes, stand next to giant rolls of leather. From the making room to the closing room, there’s the constant whirr of machinery – much of it looking positively Victorian – as men and women, many of whom have been working here for decades, cut, stitch, glue, mould and pull together some of the UK’s finest shoes. 

It’s been a decade since cousins William and Jonathan Church – of the Church’s shoe-making family – conducted a management buy-out of Joseph Cheaney & Sons. Established in 1886, the business had been owned by Church’s since the 1960s, but was always somewhat in its shadow, with Cheaney largely relegated to making shoes for brands like Ralph Lauren and Gieves & Hawkes. But the Church cousins could see greater potential in the flexibility that this had consequently given the factory in Desbrough, near Northampton. 

Indeed, the last 10 years has seen the company pursue a number of key changes that are not only bringing in record results – last year Cheaney recorded annual sales of £10m for the first time – but are also, arguably, creating a template that the other last few surviving British makers of Goodyear-welted shoes – such as Jeffery-West – should seriously consider emulating. 

Sections of leather are cut and punched on the auto-cutting machine

THE KINDEST CUT

The leather used for high-end men’s shoes is typically cut by hand – this is one of the processes that historically has been a touchpoint of quality. But Cheaney’s recent £100,000 investment in a CAD cutting machine marks a new age for Northampton makers. Rather than cutting leather using a plastic template, the template is projected onto the cutting table, and the leather is then cut automatically, with greater speed and consistency. “It still means the clicker [the industry term for the cutter] has to select and place the leather to best effect,” says William Church. “We’re reducing the necessary physicality of the job, not the brain power required.”

Since much of the process can now be done on screen, tooling costs are greatly reduced, allowing short runs of a new style to now be achievable - 24 pairs versus the previous minimum of 60 pairs. Thus, Cheaney becomes open to more brands seeking third-party manufacture. The system, Church predicts, will also appeal more to young, tech-enabled apprentices. “They relate to the idea of being a ‘clicking technician’ more readily than they do the idea of cutting by hand day after day,” he argues. “But we’d only invest in any tech if we felt it could do the job better than by hand. We wouldn’t otherwise undermine what is historically the hand-craft of shoe-making.”

As a lifelong fan of this hardy shoe-making technique, I have certainly felt my spirits drop when visiting any of these makers’ flagship stores to find the usual 19thcentury decor set for the display of various options in black city brogues. The craft quality was world-class, but unmatched by a contemporary product in a contemporary setting. And this is where Cheaney is getting it right.

First, it has opened a now 10-strong chain of own-brand shops, many in more interesting, niche locations: “It’s tempting with such an old business to just sit here making shoes and, as a manufacturer, to think that’s all there is to it,” says joint MD William Church, “but you have to understand the power of retail now to build a brand and develop sales.” These, indeed, are of footwear – for men but also, tellingly, for women too now – of a much more modern styling than is typical out of Northampton.

“There was a time when the factory felt like a ball and chain – with brands approaching us to make their shoes, and dropping out of that process at will,” says Church, a tall, slender, besuited man, with a passing resemblance to his distinguished’ looking, cousin. “Opening shops has allowed more control over supply and the brand, of what is sold and how it’s presented – and that is deliberately in contrast to the way in which most Northampton shoes are sold,” says Church. “What we make has to feel cleaner (meaning less fussy, less detailed, more obviously contemporary) to be relevant to people now. It’s about having a fashion edge, albeit a fairly safe fashion edge. Goodyear welting is an amazing construction, but it has to be part of a more compelling proposition now.”

Goodyear welting

GOODYEAR WELTING EXPLAINED

Goodyear welting dates back to 1869. In simple terms, it involves attaching the outer sole to the upper of a shoe by way of a welt – a rim of tough leather through which stitches are machine-sewn to link the two together (forming, as it were, the filling in the sandwich). There are two advantages to this: first, it makes the shoe water-tight; second, it allows the sole to be easily replaced once it has worn out, meaning that an initially expensive shoe can, if well cared-for, offer great value over a lifetime. The rigidity of the construction – using a bed of cork filler – means that Goodyear-welted shoes are often hard to break in, but then become very comfortable (and properly supportive).

I, and others, have certainly long suspected that the UK’s traditional shoemakers were effectively on their way out – having failed to adjust both to macro-trends like the breakdown of office dress codes, but also micro-trends, like the generations brought up wearing sneakers and expecting the instant comfort that a Goodyear-welted shoe rarely brings. Not for nothing have Goodyear-welted shoes sold best in Asia, where the ‘Made in England’ tag outweighs most other considerations.

“But even with those issues I think people still covet a pair of Goodyear-welted shoes,” says Church, “accepting as we must that £350 is a lot of money. I don’t worry about the longer-term future of the business because I’ve been in the industry long enough to know demand is cyclical. It’s a question of waiting until the fashion barometer points in our direction again.”

Take-out: Long-standing products are at risk of losing relevance, if they don’t keep looking forward

Cutting templates

Cutting templates for the calf skin

Designing a shoe

Designing a brogue shoe on the last

William Church

William Church, joint MD of Joseph Cheaney

cheaney07

Component parts of leather are stitched together to form the shoe upper

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