Combining traditional shoemaking excellence and standards with a slick, minimalist and fresh shop front is enabling Cheaney to power forwards
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Dating back to 1886, there is tradition and excellence behind Cheaney. Formerly part of Church’s shoes, with its larger brother it became part of the Prada group until 2009 when William and Jonathan Church bought it out. As Prada was rationalising its brand laydown in the run up to its Hong Kong IPO, Cheaney was put to market.
At this point neither of the Church cousins had been actively looking to do anything independent, Joanthan had been working at Churches for 20 years, William for 15, both of them under the Prada umbrella for a decade of that time. “Just after the first few interested clients started to nose around Cheaney, we suddenly looked at each other and realised what an opportunity was there – there was also that slight feeling of ‘now or never’ about the situation,” William recounts.
On buying out Cheaney – the firm remains privately owned and financed – the joint managing directors clearly bought the physical workshop but in William’s eyes acquired something far more precious, “the key attribute was the firm’s artisans; the skill base and experience in making a shoe from start to finish – those skills are the jewel in our crown.” He goes on, “it’s ironic that it’s something that can never show up on the balance sheet – it’s intangible but everything else flows from it. We’ve been able to nurture and enhance that skill and talent to drive the firm forward.”
Over the past nine years, Cheaney has been on a journey of resurrecting and building the firm’s brand. The workshop had become white label house, “we had the opportunity to bring Cheaney out of the shadows,” William says, “with our experience, we wanted to proudly show off our own skills and capabilities under our own name.” In 2018, over 80 per cent of the workshop’s output is under its own name and the firm has been in the process of opening its own shops, the current plan sees one new opening a year. Still UK focused bricks and mortar wise, the firm has seven shops (five London, one in Cambridge and one in Leeds) with its eighth opening north of King Cross in October 2018 under the Victorian railway arches of Coal Drops Yard. “These shops critically allow us to grow and control our own message and distribution. It is far more resilient to build your own brand.”
Cheaney has the advantage in the experience, skill and consequent gravitas it can bring to the marketplace can be shown off in a new way – it has not been bound by the residual geographical laydown or décor of having older shops. There was a useful blank slate to project a young and vibrant look. “From the start we wanted our shop décor to be a little different – no dark, old school interiors – from everyone else. You need to establish your own aesthetic,” William comments. “The key thing for us was to reference the fact we are a brand that makes what we sell with the confidence that comes with that. We wanted to display that in a clean, fresh and contemporary way.” As such, the workshop itself is referenced through the cut outs of the tools used by the shoemakers that decorate the shop walls. Slick, minimalist details such as burnished leather lampshades (done in their own shoe room) are used to show off the most traditional of English craftsmanship in a modern environment. “We’ve been able to go to edgier postcodes with a different audience where perhaps you wouldn’t expect a more traditional brand due to this aesthetic.”
Despite recent trends in trainers and other extremely casual shoes, “the classic always endures,” in William’s words. Buying out and setting Cheaney independent a year after the 2008 crash, the Church cousins had seen many workshops at overcapacity and taking the subsequent hit. Despite that, William gratifyingly reports that in Cheaney’s case every year has seen incremental growth, “much of this is about the sheer strength and requirement for men’s classic shoes, our most popular remains the plain cap black Oxford, but much of this success is down to fact since 2009/10, people have begun to buy less but buy better. They are more careful and less frivolous about their purchases.”
Cheaney’s largest market remains the UK according to William, abroad Japan continues to be critically important, “they love quality, heritage brands and the made in England idea.” The firm has a distributor in the country who has been consistently successful in placing Cheaney shoes into the large department stores. Since 2014, Cheaney has had e-commerce and four years on William sees decided commercial trends, “Australia and the US are very developed e-commerce wise whereas other countries, for instance Italy, remain wholesale oriented.” Off the back of the firm’s strength in Japan, it has established inroads into the South Korean market and more unusually diversified into countries including Russia and Taiwan.
Moving round the workshop, the amount of investment over the past couple of years is obvious. Design is CAD driven and automatic cutting machines have been installed. “We will always embrace technology when it helps us to do the job better and enhance what we offer,” William remarks. At the other end of the scale, Cheaney retains the knowledge to construct Veldtschoen shoes. Popular in Japan over the past three years, “it’s a technique very few people still do but one we don’t wish to lose.”
The team of 140 at Cheaney turn out 1,500 pairs of shoes a week, each shoe spending eight weeks going through the workshop undergoing over 200 individual processes. Like other Northampton shoe firms, William says rubber soles (of all types) are becoming ever more popular but leather soled boots and shoes still account for 75 per cent of output.
Though Cheaney does not offer a bespoke service, at their Jermyn Street shop they offer a made to order option, “One of One by Cheaney.” Based on one of their classic and most iconic lasts, it allows the customer to customise their shoes with one of the 1.3 million possible permutations of leather of detailing that the firm can offer. Taking about the same length of time to construct as their off the shelf equivalents and coming in at £695, for those who have a certain design in their head and lack the bespoke budget, this is worth investigating.
Like many other shoe firms, Cheaney now offers two collections a year alongside their perennial stock; seasonal winners are moved in core. The firm also displays at Pitti in Florence, its major trade show focus for each year. For those still slightly put off by the more old school emporiums of Jermyn Street but looking for the best of English tradition and craftsmanship in a sleek, younger and quietly funky package, you should certain consider this Kettering firm and their rather fine shoes.
Enquiries: Cheaney, London shops in Jermyn Street, Covent Garden, Spitalfields, Bow Lane and Lime Street. Shops in Leeds and Cambridge, factory shop in Kettering / www.cheaney.co.uk/
Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip