A Shoe for All Seasons
Still in family hands, Tricker’s blends tradition and evolution to very English effect
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Celebrating 190 years in 2019, Tricker’s is one of the jewels in England’s shoemaking crown. Established in 1829 by Joseph Tricker, the firm’s first years were spent in the East End of London before in the late 19th century, in search of bigger trade and more leather, Joseph headed for Northampton. By this time, the renowned home of English shoe production was well established with firms drawn by the amount of livestock farming for leather hides, a good supply of water and bark needed for the leather tanning purposes.
Tricker’s modern factory dates back to 1904 and walking round it with David Jeffery the firm’s Head of Global Sales, there is a marvellous warren-like, rather Dickensian, feel to the building. From selecting and cutting the leather to the final perfect polish, everything is done on site. Starting from the top of the building, the shoe wends its growing way through the factory, the average shoe spending between 16 – 18 weeks in the factory going through no less than 260 individual processes.
Starting in the clicking room, the leather is cut by either hand or press cutting machine. Tricker’s uses calf leather, mostly from Europe due to the scarcity of the British equivalent, and also uses small amounts of cordovan and kudu leather.
Also tucked away on the top floor is Tricker’s small bespoke division. Next to its own last storage room, where the lasts from generations of customers hang with the names of their owners discreetly written on the side, the small team of no more than half a dozen cut and stitch everything by hand, even making their own threads and waxes. Their newest apprentice bespoke maker is a third of her way through her six year apprenticeship working under the team head of 23 years’ experience who in turn was trained and nurtured by his predecessor of 53 years craft and service; there is a strong thread of continuity running through this firm. Though only five per cent of the firm’s output, at a starting price of £1,600, this is far more attainable point for the shoe aficionado looking to make that elegant step into bespoke than other firms out there.
From the clicking room, the basic parts of the shoe is moved down a floor into the closing room for the vamp, toecap, quarter’s, linings and so on to come together. The edges are fed through a machine with a rotating knife in a process called skiving to very slightly shave down the leather to make the parts easier to stitch together. David points out this room employs the largest percentage of Tricker’s workforce, every individual on a different part of the process though most are trained on up to five separate areas for both flexibility and cover.
All the Northampton shoe firms cherish their own little descriptions and traditions, in Tricker’s case the warm damp room where the completed upper is left to relax and soften has, since time immemorial, been known as the mulling room. This pause is needed so the leather can stretch and enable it to be pulled precisely around the last; once lasted the shoe is left on its last for four to five days to allow the leather to set.
Moving down on the ground floor, to the last room, the firm continues, uniquely, to use the old English broadfoot form of measurement where the width sizes range between a four and a six. Their most iconic last (number 4444), off which their famous Bourton shoes are still constructed is aptly named, “all the fours” and has been in continuous use for 80 years. In the last room, the insole is attached to the last and the upper is formed around the shape of the last. Then the welt is sewn in with the Goodyear welting machine, which was invented by Charles Goodyear. As David points out, these were the machines that put Northampton shoemaking in the map, enabling a high quality sole to be robustly and precisely attached to the shoe at speed rather than relying on an individual stitching by hand. Throughout the whole factory, many of the machines date back to the 1920s and are tended carefully by both their users and Tricker’s in house mechanic.
Tricker’s is famed for its country shoes, indeed 60 per cent of its business still revolves around two of the firm’s quintessentially English styles, the Bourton shoe and Stow boot. These models can have either a full leather or Dainite sole, David reports that Dainite is currently the most popular. Many of their country boots are also available with commando soles; generally seen as the heaviest duty these should be able to take a decade of constant pounding before replacement. “Our repair business is growing as we are finding more and more customers want to send their shoes ‘home’ for repair, it may be a sign of the times people wish to care for and cherish what they already have rather than spend on new pairs” comments David, “being repaired on the original last is by far the highest quality way of maintaining the shoe as it does not lose it shape.”
The final steps in this shoe making odyssey are the finishing room where the sides of the sole are trimmed down and sanded before having a layer of hot wax applied. Last of all in the Shoe Room, the shoes are given many applications of polish to replace natural oils any lost in construction and lovingly burnished to the high shine that the customer will enjoy.
This is a close knit family, in the 85 strong factory many have worked for Tricker’s for up to 40 years and one woman recently came out of retirement as she missed it that much. “Just no one leaves,” remarks David. With an eye to the future, the company has in early 2018 begun to roll out a formalised three year apprenticeship programme with one apprentice in each specialist room.
Time waits for no shoe maker and Tricker’s have had to quietly evolve with the times. In recent years they have refined their City shoe’s lasts giving them a more elongated and elegant shape; they are now quite distinct from their country footwear. Behind the scenes though the company has evolved; David, who has been at the firm two and a half years, points to the appointment of Martin Mason – the first non-family managing director in Tricker’s history as a key point in the evolution of the company. “Nick Barltrop, the current chairman, took the very far-sighted and enlightened view Tricker’s needed new eyes to take it to the next level in a very congested global marketplace,” David says, “together over the past couple of years we have driven forward seasonal collections and increased our presence at Pitti.”
The UK, Japan and Italy still account for the bulk of sales, “Japan is critical for us and is getting stronger,” David remarks, “off the back of there we are able to pursue leads into markets such as South Korea and Hong Kong – which in turn is a long term widow into China.” Tricker’s has two new North American agents and has due to the popularity of its shoes on the East Coast, opened a high profile retailer out in California. “Given our heavier, country shoe DNA, we didn’t believe how popular we were out there, but due to tracking e-commerce we could see the laydown of buyers and how the new shop was at the epicentre of this sales pattern – customers want to look, feel and pick up the shoes and then buy electronically.” E-commerce has seen much focus with David and his team working to streamline the buying experience.
With further agents in France and Scandinavia, Tricker’s is quietly thriving. The collections have driven new eyes and custom to this venerable brand on top of consistent sales of their core “in stock” offering. New options are constantly being added, for Autumn Winter 2018, the firm is using deer skin for the first time and their Ultra Flex unlined and deconstructed sole has proven to be a hit in Europe. With their elegant London shop – unchanged with the same mahogany fittings since 1906 – Tricker’s blends tradition and evolution to very English effect. With the firm still in family hands, it is hardly surprising David emphatically states, “we are only the custodians of a fantastic shoe firm.” Long may it continue.
Enquiries: Tricker’s, 67 Jermyn Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6NY / 0207 9306395 / factory shop, 56 St Michael’s Road, Northampton NN1 3JX / 01604 630595 / www.trickers.com/
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