Maintaining the Highest of Standards
From its Northampton workshops, Crockett & Jones continues to maintain the highest standards of English shoe making to the point of bringing skills in-house to prevent them dying away
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
The first thing that strikes you about Crockett & Jones’ workshops is their size; the second largest of Northampton’s many firms still dedicated to producing the finest English shoes, the company produces just over 2,700 pairs of shoes per week. Not the oldest shoe firm in operation (that honour goes to Trickers), Crockett & Jones was founded in 1879 and will celebrate 140 years of trading in 2019. Quickly successful, the firm had to move to its current premises within a decade of being founded. It made its initial name as a bespoke shoe maker though during the Great War Crockett & Jones made over 3.1 million shoes for British Army officers as a War Office approved supplier.
Crockett & Jones no longer deals in bespoke footwear, but James Fox, head of marketing, believes the firm’s long experience and expertise improving and refining lasts that are comfortable for the moving foot means that there is little to chose between their shoes and a bespoke pair. In 2016, the firm received its first Royal Warrant from Prince Charles, “an exceptionally proud moment and testament to the skills of our workforce” James recalls.
Chatting with the firm’s pattern cutter, Mark, despite computer aided design having a place in the evolution of a new shoe, the most important parts of designing can still only be done when on a last. Differing patterns, various skins can only be truly appreciated, and the proportions perfected when working in three dimensions. Due to its size and reputation, Crockett & Jones has nurtured relationships with leather suppliers across Europe and the UK going back decades. With this buying power, on occasion it has been in the beneficial position to save tanneries from having to close. Only full grain calf is used, and James explains the firm has been quite prepared to send what it deems sub standard skins back to the tanneries. Over the decades, Crockett & Jones has worked with several tanneries and skin merchants to create certain finishes – the firm’s distinctive Scotch calf is a recent example.
The firm also produces a small range of cordovan leather shoes and boots working with the Horween leather company in the US. Cordovan comes from horses rather than cattle. Exceedingly robust, the skin sits in tanning pits for up to nine months, the end product having a very rich lustre.
Leather is bought in three to four months before it is used and given the attention to quality, only 25 – 30 per cent of any given skin is actually used, the remainder is discarded due to imperfections (veins, scratches, scars…). This heavily scrutinised leather moves onto the clicking room floor to be cut; Crockett & Jones bought out the press knife manufacturer to ensure that they continued to have a future supply of the correct tools. James comments that over the past decade, the firm has attempted to become as self-sufficient as possible, such as making leather heels in house. As well as doing everything they can to ensure consistency and security in their supply chain, James shows off the small in-house training centre on the top floor where all new craftsmen and women come to train under the firm’s senior artisans before moving into the various clicking, closing, lasting or finishing rooms.
Like many firms, the largest single department of the Crockett & Jones is the closing room where the various leather components that make up the shoe’s or boots’ upper come together; a third of the firm’s workforce of 300 are employed here. Once in the lasting room, boots are also still blocked to shape the curve of the instep and ankle, “we’re one of the last firms to still take the time to block our boots properly,” James comments. Moving down into the bowels of the building, James shows us the last room; there are some 40,000 lasts in storage and walking through the cavernous basement gives a sense of both the scale and history behind Crockett & Jones. Many lasts have been in continuous use for decades such has been their enduring popularity and timeless shape, “our 200 model last dates back to the 1920s,” remarks James, “we bought it back a couple of years ago and it’s continued to be a consistently good seller.”
Sitting next the storage rows of lasts lies Crockett & Jones cobbler. Handling some 10,000 repairs (of all descriptions) per year, their head cobbler has been at the firm for well over 30 years. All repairs are done on the original last and (should the shoe be returned to be re-soled), the outer, mid and in sole are all renovated and replaced.
Each of Northampton’s shoe companies have developed a house look over the decades and Crockett & Jones is no exception, “we offer a very refined shoe,” says James and there is no doubt the elongated and elegant silhouette with a slightly squared toe is very distinctive. Leather soles remain the most popular, though in common with other manufacturers James remarks they are seeing rubber soles becoming ever more popular, now accounting for 40 per cent of sales. The firm has enjoyed a long relationship with Danite (who are owned by the directors’ cousins), the rubber sole maker, whose latest City Sole is unique to Crockett & Jones shoes.
Like all Northampton shoe makers, Crockett & Jones has long been held in high esteem in Japan; it is the number one wholesale brand in the country with the thick end of 100 stockists in Tokyo alone. James also remarks that in late 2018, the firm will be opening their second standalone shop in New York, the first opening back in 2010. In recent years, the firm has stuck to a more wholesale and brick and mortar strategy than other English makers, some 60 per cent of their output is still wholesale and James comments that they still see many customers wanting to go to one of the shops for their shoes, it is part and parcel of the Crockett & Jones experience. Nonetheless, e-commerce and the digital future waits for no brand and James is hugely excited about the comparatively blank canvas the firm has to work with, “it offers wonderful opportunities for growth as we are lucky to have that strong bricks and mortar base to launch from” he says.
Like many of Northampton’s shoe firms, Crockett & Jones remains family owned, fourth generation Jonathan Jones has been managing director for 40 years with the fifth generation already an integral part of the company, Crockett & Jones’ future looks to continue in the same vein. This ability to think long term, in terms of handing the firm on between generations is one of the reasons Jonathan has allowed the firm’s white labelling to shrivel on his watch; the firm at one point made for numerous brands – a well-know “secret” was it made for Ralph Lauren’s Purple Label – but now only a couple of trusted Mayfair and St James’s firms are supplied. “Jonathan saw the intrinsic quality of our shoes, the skill of our artisans and wanted them to stand proudly under Crockett & Jones’ own name to move the firm forwards” James comments.
With the amount made in house and the focus on using only the flawless parts of the skin, Crockett & Jones shoes are not cheap but as James points out, the scale of their operations, procurement strength and the resulting economies of scale allows them to offer a stunning shoe at half the price of smaller peers – some of whose price points are well north of £1,000. Many consider Crockett & Jones the finest ready to wear gentlemen’s shoes in the world; those that don’t and point to other firms may…. find out this marvellous workshop still makes that other firm’s shoes anyway. There are few things a chap needs to really invest in in life, but shoes are one of them and for a refined shoe for town or country this family firm is damn hard to beat.
Enquiries: Crockett & Jones, London shops Jermyn Street, Burlington Arcade, Royal Exchange, Canary Wharf and Knightsbridge. Other UK shops in Birmingham / www.crockettandjones.com/