September 14th, 2018
My family has been making traditional English shoes for longer than anyone can remember. My great-grandfather John opened the first Loake factory with his brothers, Thomas and William, back in 1880. Today, five generations and more than 130 years later, the Loake association with fine, handmade shoes lives on.
There’s an inherent problem with long-established businesses, particularly with those that have been owned and run by the same family for generations. The irony is that this problem arises from the very things which many modern businesses crave: History and Heritage.
These are both very valuable assets to any business, but they should be used carefully. Almost every brand wants to talk about and display its heritage and this is understandable – it’s one of the things that can give a brand authenticity; that defines its identity and its values – the trouble is that many of the brands that do try to draw attention to their heritage have created it themselves, or hi-jacked it, to use as a marketing tool. A good example of this would be “authentic” foreign beers that have their bottle labels, or part of them at least, printed in a foreign language. The idea is to appear ‘authentic’ but sometimes, on closer inspection, it turns out that they’ve been brewed and bottled under licence in the UK. In this case, the heritage has been used to give the product a recognizable identity and, if you buy the beer, I guess it’s worked – but, if you ‘rumble’ it, the brand might lose your trust. So History and Heritage can be valuable marketing tools and can be useful for the purpose described above, but they should be used with care and respect. It’s important to remember that history and heritage only ever point backwards. It’s good to know where a brand has come from – but more important that it knows where it wants to be the day after tomorrow.
The Loake Factory in Kettering was established in 1894.
In Victorian times, Britain was a factory for the world and there seemed to be no limit to what we could make and export but, after decades of manufacturing goods, we began to export our nation’s knowledge and skills to the East. Now, interest in British manufacturing is growing again. Globalisation has its pros and cons, but it can’t be a healthy state of affairs when most of what we need has to be shipped half-way round the world. After we leave the EU, we will have to have a slightly more self-sufficient outlook but, in any case, sustainable local economies are a good thing. But we all know that manufacturing in Britain is not without its problems. Because labour is relatively expensive here, much of what we make will, by necessity, be rather expensive and this is particularly true of craft industries where the work content is high. If we cannot compete with the rest of the world on price, the only viable alternative is to justify a higher price by making things that are either unique or intrinsically better than what can be made elsewhere. Branding and advertising can help, but these can only emphasise the authenticity of a product – not enhance the product itself.
Steve Abbott, one of our most experienced shoemakers.
Here in Northamptonshire, there is a cluster of extremely good shoemaking companies who make some of the finest men’s shoes available anywhere in the world. Most are long-established businesses using traditional manufacturing techniques and their biggest challenge is the extraordinary level of skill required by its workforce and the need to pass this on from generation to generation. Effective training can only be carried out ‘in house’ by those who are able to hand on their skills and knowledge but, as production gradually moved away from the UK in the 1970s and 80s, it became harder to find suitable recruits to train. Schoolchildren were encouraged to work hard and pass their exams with the threat that, if they didn’t, they’d end up working in the factories and, as a result, everyone wanted an office job and the chance to keep their hands clean.
The good news is that, at last, things are changing. Universities, after a period of rapid expansion, are now fighting each other for the next intake of students. People are realising that not everyone wants to pursue higher education and there is once again growing interest in craft industries. The language has changed a little: we tend to talk about ‘craftsmanship’ rather than ‘manufacturing’ and ‘workshops’ instead of ‘factories’, but that’s not important. What matters is that is that we’re making things – and the things that we make in Britain have a tendency to be really good.
It’s all in the details – Goodyear Welted Construction
In this industry, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re making something that is not only useful but, in its own way, beautiful and as good as anything available anywhere in the world. We have the joy and the frustration of working with a natural material and the knowledge that we’re doing it in a reasonably environmentally-friendly way and without inconvenience to anyone else. It’s a very congenial way to make a living. But there’s a well-known saying, an equivalent of which exists in most European languages that goes: “Clogs to clogs in three generations” or “Rags to riches and back again in three generations”. The idea of this is that a man with some entrepreneurial spirit starts a business and succeeds with it. In due course, his son or daughter takes it on and develops it further and the business expands healthily – but, by the time it’s passed on again, things have changed. Life for the third generation has been a little more comfortable and they’ve never known the need and hunger that drove the founder to start the business in the first place. As a result, the energy has gone, complacency has set in and the business struggles and eventually fails.
I found these sayings rather sobering and poignant because I am a member of the fourth generation.
My family business is now 138 years into its history and in the hands of the 5th generation and we have a phrases or motto that allows us to pay homage to our past but encourages us to keep the entrepreneurial spirit that must propel us in the future: “Look to the future. Learn from the past”.
In an earlier article, we wrote about leather and why it’s such a good material for shoemaking. It covered the history of leather, from prehistoric times when early man used animal skins to make basic clothing, through to the modern leather industry of today.
Here we look at the different types of leather that are available for shoemaking, consider the various features, advantages and disadvantages of each and explain some of the terminology that’s used to describe them.
What is real leather?
Leather can be made from the tanned skins of many different animals. The most common are cattle, goats, sheep and pigs, but it can also be made from antelopes, camels, snakes and lizards, crocodiles, ostrich, seals, sharks, etc.
If the finished leather has a surface coating which is more than 0.15mm thick or which is more than 30% of the overall thickness, then it should not be described as genuine leather, but as ‘coated leather’. If the tanned hide is broken up into fibrous particles, and reformed into sheets with a binding agent, then it should be called ‘bonded leather’. Neither of these are suitable for high-grade footwear.
Sheepskin is often used for clothing leather as it has a soft feel and is comfortable to wear. It is very good for lightweight moccasins and slippers, but doesn’t have enough tensile strength for shoes of heavier constructions.
Pigskin is plentiful and relatively cheap, but it does not have a fine grain structure and tends to look a little coarse.
Bovine leather (i.e. from cattle) tends to be the most popular for shoemaking and it blends fine appearance with strength and durability. Calf skins are usually best for the finest footwear as they are softer and have a tighter grain structure than the bigger skins of older animals.
It is generally recognised that European countries such as Italy, France and Spain have the best climate, pasture and farming methods for breeding the best cattle and therefore produce the best skins. Although there are large quantities of leather produced in other areas of the world, much of it is not of good enough quality for high-grade shoemaking.
Shoe upper leather
Most shoe upper leather is chrome-tanned – a process that gives it the water-resistance, durability and suppleness needed to withstand the constant flexing that occurs when we walk.
Shoe lining leather
Our lining leathers are usually taken from kips, which are young cattle from India. These hides are soft and therefore very comfortable and suitable for using inside the shoe where they are near the foot.
The best lining leather is vegetable tanned, or semi-chrome (with a higher vegetable content than chrome-tanned), which makes it more porous and allows it to absorb natural perspiration during the day and then disperse it again when the shoes are taken off.
Shoe soling leather
Good quality soling leather comes mainly from Europe and the Americas, and is vegetable tanned. This produces a lovely plump, round feel which is resistant to abrasion. The leather is compressed to compact the fibres and increase its wearing properties.
The leather industry is beset with mystery and myth and, when it comes to identifying the various types of leather you cannot beat proper training and experience. But, with a little knowledge, care and patience, anyone can do it. Ask yourself how it feels. Aside from appearance, how the leather feels and handles is a big clue to its type. ‘Aniline’, full-grain leathers feel like real skin – supple and flexible, whilst a heavily pigmented (or protected) leather can feel rather like plastic. Leather upholstery in cars is almost exclusively pigmented to protect it from years of heavy use, as is most domestic upholstery leather. One of the current challenges facing the leather industry is to produce lighter, aniline-type leathers that have the durability and resistance to soiling that pigmented leathers have.
Here is a mini glossary of some terms that you may have come across and wondered what they mean:
Full grain – the grain surface is left intact before applying the finish, so the hair follicles can usually be seen. This type of leather requires a little more care than corrected-grain, but it will reward you in the long term. When the shoes are flexed, any creases that occur in the leather tend to ‘recover’ and, if looked after, this type of leather can be incredibly long-lasting. It moulds to the shape of your feet and provides the best level of comfort.
Corrected grain – sometimes called ‘polished’ or ‘smooth’ leather. The grain surface is sanded or buffed to remove imperfections before the finish is applied. This type of leather usually has a shiny, smooth finish. It looks smart and, because of its smooth surface, is relatively easy to clean. However, it tends to be a little firmer in feel and is perhaps less kind to the feet than a full-grain calf leather. Another characteristic is that, when the shoes are flexed in wear, the creases tend to remain in the shoes and after heavy wear, the finish can start to crack.
Suede – this type of leather is made, either by abrading and dressing the flesh side of the leather (as opposed to the grain side) to create a velvety ‘nap’, or by dressing a split (the middle or lower section of a hide).
Pull-up leather – sometimes called ‘waxy’ or ‘oily pull-up’. This is usually a full-grain leather that lightens in colour when stretched during lasting or wear to produce a two-tone or worn-in effect with time.
Nubuck – aniline dyed leather which has been lightly abraded on the grain surface to create a velvety finish or nap. In some cases the grain pattern is still visible. The nap is very fine because of the tight fibre structure in the grain layer.
Embossing – a process that heat presses a ‘grain’ pattern into the leather. If not sanded or buffed, these leathers are still considered to be full grain. Embossing produces a much more consistent pattern than the more natural methods of ‘tumbling’ the leather in a drum or shrinking it to obtain the ‘grain’ look.
Aniline – actually, there’s no such thing as aniline leather these days. ‘Aniline’ is a chemical that, in days gone by, was used in the dying process, but it was found to be carcinogenic and was banned. So nowadays the term is used to describe a leather that is dyed rather than pigmented and has a more natural appearance.
Pigmented Leather – perhaps the most durable and used in the majority of furniture upholstery and almost all car upholstery. The durability is provided by a polymer surface coating which contains pigments. The surface coating allows the manufacturer more control over the properties of the leather, e.g. resistance to scuffing or fading, but it will also lack some of the desirable properties of full-grain leather. And, if the thickness of the coating is more than 0.15mm, then the product can’t be sold as leather.
Finished split – the lower layer of the hide, below the top or grain. You need to find a cut or torn edge to distinguish a finished split from full grain or corrected grain pigmented leather. In a full-grain leather, the fibres are much more tightly packed near the grain surface, while in a finished split (lower layer of the skin) the fibres are equally loosely packed all the way to the pigment coating. The lack of a grain layer will also be apparent if a finished split is torn.
We all fall for sales talk at some time. But, when you buy a leather item you expect quality, comfort and durability… and you expect it to be leather too! It’s reassuring to know that, when you buy a pair of English Goodyear welted shoes, they’re likely to have been made from some of the finest leather produced anywhere in the world.
In the fourth of our series My Loake Life, we talk to Kevin Thomas, Quality Control Manager at our factory in Kettering. Kevin has worked with us for 25 years, having started in the Bottom Stock department, and happily his son Samuel is now apprenticed with us. Because of the nature of his job, Kevin is almost always to be found on the factory floor, overseeing the quality inspections at various stages of production.
What does your typical day involve?
I don’t think I’ve ever had two days the same! I start off each day with a clear set of goals, but this usually has to be adapted. I begin by visiting all the departments to speak to the supervisors and then go from there.
What are you most looking forward to today?
My visit to the shoe room and seeing rows of finished shoes ready to be boxed.
What is the best thing about your job?
Being part of the Loake team and considering myself a ‘Loake man’.
Have you always been interested in footwear?
When I was younger, all my close relatives worked in the shoe trade. So I’ve always had an interest in footwear, but I don’t think I really appreciated the level of skill required until I got involved.
What is your career background prior to working at Loake?
Before joining Loake I worked in the production of shoe components for seven years. That’s it – only two jobs!
What has been your career highlight?
Being given the opportunity to help achieve and maintain the highest quality standards possible in Loake footwear.
If you weren’t working in footwear, what would you be doing?
I’d like to think I’d be playing in the centre for Northampton Saints! Failing that, I think something within the care industry, probably with young adults.
Why do you think Loake shoes are still popular after 135 years?
Quality, style and amazing value for money.
Do you think there is a revival in British manufacturing and what do you think the future holds for home grown producers?
Definitely. I think most of the world loves a ‘Made in England’ product. We may not be able to compete with other parts of the world on volume or price, but what we do make in this country is difficult to beat when it comes to quality.
Have you got any hidden talents?
I like to think I’m quite artistic. I once had a picture on show in the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering.
What is your favourite pair of Loake shoes and why?
A style called ‘Heston’, a full brogue with a half leather/half rubber sole. It has a timeless, classic look and the fit is perfect for me.
How do you spend your time relaxing outside of work?
I love spending time with my family and I’m a season ticket holder at Northampton Saints. I also run the occasional marathon!
Who is your mentor?
Brendon, our Factory Manager. On a day-to-day basis, he’s a huge source of knowledge and a great support.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, quite apt considering my career choice.
It was a tremendous pleasure for Loake to work with Paul Costelloe for the exclusive unveiling of his Spring/Summer 2018 collections at London Fashion Week. Loake shoes were chosen to complement Paul Costelloe London’s signature tailoring for menswear. Loake styles in luxury leathers and suedes were paired with sharp, two-piece suits in light summer-weight wools and heritage linens to accentuate the story of a collection designed and created in Britain.
Now one of the most established names in British fashion, Paul Costelloe and Loake have a lot in common. In the same way that Loake combines traditional manufacturing techniques with contemporary classic design, Paul Costelloe takes inspiration from the traditions of fine British tailoring and reinterprets this into relaxed but elegant, contemporary menswear. The Loake family has been making shoes for five generations and over 130 years. Paul Costelloe is also very much a family concern, with each collection designed from central London where Paul resides with his wife, daughter and six sons!
To celebrate the collaboration, Paul Costelloe had a chat with Andrew Loake about Loake’s history, design and development process, and what it meant to partner with another British brand with shared philosophies and values.
The heritage of Loake is British design, materials, manufacturing and aesthetic, something Paul Costelloe values greatly in his menswear collections. Is the Loake customer the quintessential British man or has the heritage found new appeal internationally?
Loake is definitely an authentic British brand, having made footwear for British soldiers and officers in two World Wars, British Olympic teams and other high profile British sportsmen, actors and musicians. We’ve also produced some iconic designs that have become synonymous with British youth culture, such as our Brighton loafer and Royal brogue, which were first introduced in the 70s and are still in production today. Fortunately, British craftsmanship is valued around the world and the word is spreading. We now sell to over 50 countries around the world.
One thing Loake and Paul Costelloe have in common is that we are both family businesses. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities of working in a family company?
One of the traps that a long-established family business can fall into is trying to maintain tradition; doing things as they have always been done. At Loake we have tremendous respect for that tradition and heritage, but we also try to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit that our forefathers had. They were pioneers, not slaves to their past. So despite our notable history, we are very much a forward-looking company. We still specialise in fine, Goodyear welted men’s footwear, but the range on offer has been extended to include alternative constructions and a choice of both classic and contemporary designs.
This Loake style and the ones featured below are the designs chosen by Paul Costelloe for the SS18 catwalk presentation at LFW
How has the Loake outlook, ethos and business changed in the last 130 years? Are your shoes made the same way for example? What is next in shoe technology for Loake?
Our shoes are still made in the same way and using the same traditional techniques. The main difference is in the position that they hold in the marketplace. In previous generations, Goodyear welted shoes were commonly worn and regarded more as a commodity. Today, there are alternative constructions available (including direct moulded shoes, PU soles, etc.) and Goodyear welted shoes are regarded as something of a luxury. So, our aim now is to make really high quality footwear affordable and available to everybody.
Can you take us through the main design and manufacturing steps of a pair of Loake shoes?
That would take longer than we have time for. There are approximately 200 separate operations involved in making a pair of Loake Goodyear welted shoes. We estimate that, on average, 75 people will handle each pair and the entire process from start to finish takes 8 weeks. he single thing that most people underestimate is the amount of work that happens below the insoles (making the uppers is the easy bit).
What have been a few of the big breakthroughs, game-changers or innovations for the business during its long history?
While our shoemaking continues to favour the traditional Goodyear welted construction and manufacturing techniques, advances in technology have enabled us to develop other areas of our business. We were the first of the traditional Northamptonshire shoemakers to launch a retail website and operate a comprehensive in-stock service that can despatch within 24 hours. Perhaps one of the most significant changes is opening our own retail shops. We have been shoemakers for over 130 years, but now we have a means of demonstrating our craft more directly to our customers.
How does a British shoemaker stay ahead of its rivals in such a competitive market and product area?
Simply by making the very best shoes that we can. Really high quality and value-for-money are not mutually exclusive concepts – it’s possible to provide both. It’s important to communicate with those who understand the importance of good footwear, listen to what they want and make it available to them. I suppose the single biggest factor in facilitating this has been the advent of the internet and the opportunity to engage with a community of like-minded enthusiasts.
What is the appeal for you of doing something at London Fashion Week? Is this something you have done before? Have you ever worked with a designer fashion house in a collaboration before?
Loake has worked previously with Tim Soar at LFW and Kent & Curwen at London Collections Men, and some time ago worked on a limited edition style with Puma. Each time it was by request. We’re not natural self-promoters and we prefer to concentrate on what we do best – making shoes. That said, we appreciate the importance of LFW to both the domestic and the international stage, so to be able to participate alongside another brand with shared values is an exciting and welcome opportunity.
What’s next for the company?
We are a craft-based industry and shoemaking skills have to be learnt and honed over many years. One of the most important challenges for us is to pass these skills on to the next generation. In terms of product, we will continue to combine traditional manufacturing techniques with our own interpretation of fashion trends in order to offer contemporary classic footwear that appeals to a diverse range of customers, from loyal Loake fans to younger wearers who are just discovering the pleasure and benefits of well made, handcrafted men’s footwear.
When people think of Loake they think of …
I’d like to think we demonstrate that there’s definitely a place for enduring style and timeless elegance in a modern, transient world.
In the beginning
We know that prehistoric men used animal skins to keep themselves warm and this is the beginning of mankind’s love affair with leather. Like every other species, humans had to forage and hunt for food. Fruit, berries and vegetables were relatively easy to source in the wild, but we also needed protein – and that usually came in animal form – so early man needed to hunt. The animals that he caught would provide meat, and the skins and fur could be used for rudimentary clothing. As livestock breeding became more prevalent, skins were in greater supply and could also be used for making tents.
In future generations, life became more sophisticated and we would learn how to cook our food and also how to process our leather. Unprocessed leather becomes stiff when it gets cold and it rots when it gets warm, so the various things that were done to improve these properties eventually became the basis of the tanning industry. To begin with, animal fats would be rubbed into the leather to make it more supple and durable, but an alternative method was to smoke it over burning leaves and branches. In time, the processes were gradually refined and developed and one of the world’s oldest industries was born.
The next stages
Still in ancient times, it was discovered that the tannin contained in the bark of some trees, notably oak, had a positive effect, as did the use of alum, a mineral which was widely available, particularly in volcanic areas. As the properties of leather became more controllable and its appearance was improved, it became more widely used for footwear, shields and harnesses, furniture, water containers and even as a covering for rafts.
Possibly the biggest changes in the last 100 years or so were the discovery of the tanning power of chrome salts and the replacement of tanning pits with the rotating drums that can be seen in most modern tanneries. These two revolutionary changes shortened the tanning period from months to a few days and led to the growth of a much more productive and efficient industry.
The modern process
The main stages in the modern process are:
a) Curing with salt. To stop putrefaction and infection and remove excess water from the skins.
b) Soaking. In water to remove the salt and bring the moisture content back to a desirable level so that the hide or skin can be treated with aqueous chemicals.
c) Liming. To remove the hair and get the skin into the right condition for satisfactory tannage. The remaining hair is removed by a dull knife or machine (Scudding).
d) Pickling. The skins are treated with a mixture of salt and acid to bring down the pH to a very low level so as to facilitate the penetration of mineral tanning agent into the substance.
e) Tanning. This can be either vegetable or mineral. Vegetable tanning uses tannin, which occurs naturally in bark. Vegetable tanned leather is flexible and is used for luggage and furniture and the soles of shoes. Mineral tanning usually uses a chromium salt. In the raw state chrome tanned skins are blue and therefore referred to as ‘wet blue’. Chrome tanning is faster than vegetable tanning and produces a stretchable leather which is excellent for use in handbags and garments.
f) Finishing. Depending on the finish desired, the hide may be waxed, rolled, lubricated, injected with oil, split, shaved and, of course, dyed. Materials such as suedes and nubuck are finished by raising the nap of the leather by rolling with a rough surface.
So, why leather?
So, now we come back to the original question: Why do we use leather? Or, more appropriately, in an age of modern synthetic materials, why do we still use leather? The short answer to that is simply because, as a material, leather is absolutely brilliant! But the longer answer is a strange one – because it’s born out of compromise. If we think of all the properties that we want our shoes to have, leather isn’t really the best answer for any single one of them.
Fine leather Loake Goodyear Welted shoes
But, if you want a material that is reasonably water-resistant, breathes, is flexible and yet durable, there is simply nothing like leather (particularly a full-grain calf leather). After thousands of years, and in an age when scientists are constantly exploring and discovering new materials, leather, along with other natural materials like wool, linen and cotton, continues to provide an absolutely unparalleled balance of all these features. And, when made into fine, handmade shoes, it can look just great!
Leather ages with dignity and, over time, can take on a lovely patina and character. At Loake we would even go as far as to say that it can, especially when in the form of fine handmade shoes, take on a little of the personality of its wearer.