“An Old Company with a Young Heart”
Grenson comes full circle with their new pop-up store on Jermyn Street
In 2005, heritage shoe company Grenson was floundering. Despite crafting first-rate leather shoes with traditional English methods since 1866, the firm was struggling to find its modern market. Fast forward to 2018 and Grenson is a business revitalised, still creating fine leather shoes but with a distinctive, modern twist. I met with Tim Little, the owner, to discuss the company’s history (not to mention its future) and the launch of an exciting new pop-up store on Jermyn Street.
Tim’s journey to that of creative director of a 150 year old shoe brand is an interesting one. Before taking the helm Grenson in 2005, his background was firmly rooted in advertising, chiefly for sports brand Adidas. He learnt a lot during his years with the company; not only was Adidas extremely creative in how it developed products, packaging and events, but it was fantastic at creating stories around the footwear which people connected with. When out buying shoes, Tim realised that in comparison to the bright and exciting branding of Adidas, the shopping experience when buying “Goodyear, welted, bench-made shoes” fell flat. The store had “the same shoes they’d had for 50 years…[it] was really drab and boring…there was no imagery or story attached to it.” Always yearning for more control and input in his work, it was at this moment that Tim had the thought that would define his career: “What if I could take a really beautiful, traditionally made shoe, but give it a more interesting story and put more design into it? What if I could bring that sports shoe mentality to a traditional shoe and bring it up to date?”
From that moment, Tim spent two years visiting factories to learn about traditional methods of English shoe manufacturing. He hoped to take classic English shoes and give them a contemporary revamp, by bringing back forgotten styles and modernising them by experimenting with materials and last shapes. In 1997 Tim took the leap from advertising and set up the Tim Little brand, creating a small but unique collection of eight styles housed in his store on The King’s Road. Taking such a risk both financially and professionally, Tim gave himself two years to build the business with the idea of returning to advertising should the venture fail. He needn’t have worried. His very first order came from Barney’s in New York, swiftly followed by London department store Selfridge’s. Tim didn’t look back as his shoes were swiftly picked up by the likes of Harrods and Liberty. The advertising world’s loss was the shoe industries gain.
As Tim was taking his first dive into shoe making, Grenson had already been at the industry’s heart for close to 150 years. A traditional family business, it had been doing things much the same for decades. Passed from father to son in 2005, it was then that they sought Tim’s advice to help get Grenson back on track. Tim had admired the brand for years and couldn’t resist such a “lovely challenge.” He said he’d give himself three months – years later he is now the owner and managing director of the company. During those 13 years Tim has nurtured and transformed Grenson into a brand that is relevant to today’s modern market, while retaining traditional craftsmanship at its heart.
The first step towards making the brand more relevant was to appeal to a younger audience and prove the product was for everyone, whether they be age 25 or 85. Tim felt that there was no reason why “a beautiful, old, traditional product” couldn’t be “designed, built, packaged and storied in a way that appealed to anybody.” He believes it is largely down to the way Grenson presents itself that has changed, as well as putting an emphasis on experimentation and creative design. Becoming “more approachable, more down to earth, more relevant, a bit younger, a bit more quirky”, the brand expertly combining the old with the new, the traditional with the innovative. This has also influenced their design process; whilst previous shoe companies didn’t focus on design as they continued to rehash old standards, Grenson began experimenting and collaborating with other brands to put exciting twists on traditional shoes, most recently with New Balance to produce a sneaker five years in the making, half made in the Grenson factory and half made in the New Balance factory. This all goes far beyond the process of simply lumping two brands together to appeal to the mass consumer market. Ultimately, Tim feels the fundamentals of their products have remained the same. Although Grenson has released a line of sneakers, “nearly everything [they] make is Goodyear welted, which is the traditional English way of making shoes, so the fundamental core of what we do is similar to what we’ve done for 150 years.” The firm has maintained its heritage and traditional craftsmanship status, melding this tradition with unique design.
Although Grenson has a number of stores across London, it’s with the opening of the new pop-up shop on Jermyn Street, which Tim describes as “the Savile Row for shoes,” that the company has come full circle. It was in the 1800s that William Green, the company founder, would travel to London and take orders from the best stores across the Mayfair district and quite possibly on Jermyn Street itself. Tim can’t help but feel the company has come back to its roots. Customers visiting the beautiful new store can enjoy not only the fine selection of ready to wear shoes but a beautifully curated range of products and services which Grenson has become famous for, including, accessories, fragrances and bespoke services, as well as the Grenson Lab – a service where customers can customise their procurement.
Tim is adamant that the key to Grenson’s future is to keep adapting while still staying true to the roots of the company. Although the brand will continue to be creative and innovative with design, Tim says it’s important Grenson remains genuine to the core values of English shoemaking, which Tim views as “quality, longevity, craftsmanship and absolute simplicity in design.” Grenson now likes to think of itself as “an old company with a young heart.” As ever, it strives to make sure the shoes maintain a traditional style, but with unique twists, hoping for “beautiful lines, beautiful shape, beautiful fit, lovely leathers – maybe a quirky sole.” Certainly, as much as Tim loves traditional shoes, the quirky soul that he’s brought to Grenson is a massive part of what has reinvigorated the company to be the vibrant brand they are today, appealing to audiences who value tradition, craftsmanship and bold design.
Enquiries: Grenson, 37 Jermyn Street & shops in Soho, Lamb’s Conduit Street, Hanbury Street & Liverpool Street / www.grenson.com/uk/