Sole awakening

For Grenson Shoes, the long journey back to success began with the new owner’s first bold step – retiring the moccasin.

Grenson Shoes are  famous for their Goodyear welted soles.
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"Let's say that it really has made a massive difference between sleeping at night and not," says Tim Little of his decision not only to run Grenson Shoes, but to spend millions buying it. "I could see that we had turned a corner and I was terrified of walking away and someone else seeing it all take off. Or of someone else messing it all up. But that's the arrogance of being certain that your way is the right way."

In Little's defence, so far it has been. The company, a classic men's shoemaker for 20th-century style icons such as Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and David Niven, has recently undergone an overhaul that has given it a modern appeal without throwing out the traditions of hand-crafting that give English men's shoes a world-class reputation. Grenson shoes may still be made using thread, hammers, nails and clackety Victorian machinery by artisans whose skills are often still passed down through family generations, but now they have a fashion edge to rival those made in Italy - and with a solidity of construction that, in many a shoe buff's opinion, outclasses most continental shoes.

Indeed, when Grenson opens its second London store next year, launches its e-commerce site - which will make finding a pair of dependable, chic but understated shoes in the UAE considerably easier than it is now - and pushes on with collaborations it has built with a number of up-and-coming menswear brands, including Albam and Rag & Bone, Little's case for taking the hallowed traditions of a company established in 1866 down new avenues might well be proven.

That the likes of Oasis' Noel Gallagher and movie icon Jack Nicholson wear Grenson shoes too now just adds to the brand's new cool status.

It was five years ago that financier Christian Purslow's father retired and he inherited Grenson. But shoes were not Purslow's thing and he began to look around for a suitable boss to move the company forward. He found Little, an ex-advertising man who, with pioneering foresight, had set up his own eponymous shoe brand in 1997, taking the best of British shoemaking but updating the style and presentation for a younger, more fashion-savvy audience.

The temptation to take the job was there. Little is a shoe fiend and Grenson is a star name in elite English shoemaking, alongside the likes of Church's, Crockett & Jones and Tricker's. And the need was there too: Grenson was at the same crisis point facing most of the 10 remaining men's shoe manufacturers in the UK. But it would be a huge challenge.

"It was clear there just wasn't demand for Grenson's products," says Little, who has also acted as design adviser to the likes of Dunhill, Tod's and Gieves & Hawkes. "They just weren't modern enough, while the company had come to rely on sales of a moccasin shoe that not only didn't fit with the brand but was sold to an older customer that was dying off. It wasn't alone - much of English shoe manufacturing is stuck on an old-fashioned, stuffy presentation, banging on about quality and nothing else. They understand manufacturing but not the market, because they have grown out of a time when that wasn't required - not marketing in the sense of putting an average product in a fancy box but making the product fit the market. And as far as I was concerned, the moccasin was dead from day one."

Killing the moccasin was not an all-round popular decision. Little faced a barrage of livid callers telling him he was killing an august institution. "They were telling me I was taking the company to the dogs. They felt like they had ownership of the Grenson name," Little explains, "while I felt like I was taking over a beloved football club, given the reaction I got."

He ploughed on with radical changes regardless. Branding and packaging were overhauled. Aware that, as Little puts it, "there are not that many men willing to pay £300 or more for a pair of shoes", he introduced a more accessibly-priced range made in India from designs and materials provided by Grenson, and returned the domestic factory to making only top-flight Goodyear-welted classics, strong on the claim of being 100 per cent genuinely British-made, rather than merely finished in the UK. Customers of the Indian products are now aspiring to trade up. He opened a shop in London's financial heartlands and began to work on making shoes for younger fashion brands that would help win Grenson a new credibility.

And a new emphasis has been placed on the company's apprentice scheme - the lack of sons following fathers in donning the shoemaker's leather apron and learning the 200-plus intricate steps required to assemble a pair of bench-made English shoes are the greatest single threat to the continuation of a centuries-old tradition, Little says.

Little has also taken a new approach to the very way the shoes were made, seeking to maintain the benefits of Goodyear welting. The specialist process by which a sole is affixed to the main body of a shoe allows it to mould to the foot shape for comfort and can be re-soled for longer life, without its associations of weight and stiffness. Lightweight soles and less structured, unlined uppers "suit the more casual way of dressing we have now and are wearable in warmer climates, yet tend to offend traditional shoemakers," says Little. "There is the idea that a Goodyear-welted shoe should be very solid and shiny, an idea that came out of more formal times of dressing and one that has been passed down through generations of shoemakers. It has been easy for me to say 'let's do it this other way' because I'm from outside the industry."

It has been a creative move that Little remains convinced must eventually be made by all English men's shoemakers using Goodyear welting, if use of the process is to survive. The process may remain valid, but the results expensive. "There are a tiny number of aficionados who understand why Goodyear welted shoes are worth the money, but most men don't get that until they have experienced wearing them, and see that a pair of shoes can still look great after years of wear," says Little. "The fact is that the shoes have to look like they are worth the money. That's what gets men wearing the shoes in the first place."

It is a lesson not lost on the new Grenson, with collections that speak of English shoemaking craftsmanship, but with a lightness of touch, literally and figuratively, to bring it up to date. For example, the new spring/summer range includes unlined calf suede boots with crepe wedge soles, or what Little is calling a "summer brogue", not just with a less heavyweight construction but visually lighter too, with the brogueing underlaid with white leather and the sole hand-painted white as well. And there are suede and leather correspondent shoes in homage to the The Great Gatsby, which is soon to see a new movie version; Grenson made the shoes for Robert Redford in the original.

"The new approach has been possible because we were lucky in that Grenson was hardly selling any shoes, so the brand had not been ruined, so much as just left to die," says Little. "But I had this moment about four months into the job when I thought it was all too much to fix and Grenson was too far gone. You start with the idea that it's 80 per cent OK and you just need to correct 20 per cent of the way things are done. Then you find it's the other way around. It was when I showed our plans to some of the big fashion footwear buyers and they said, 'That's exactly what we've been looking for', that I was persuaded to keep going."

All the way, as it has turned out. During a break from Grenson early this year to allow Little to refocus on his own label, when he served as an adviser to Grenson, Purslow asked him an unexpected question: would Little help him find a buyer for the business?

Little decided he liked the product so much, he would buy the company, with help from the bank and a few investors. With Little now the sole owner, and decision-maker, it offered the opportunity for Grenson to develop further still, even perhaps to provide something of a template for just how other English shoe manufacturers might consider their own futures.

"English shoes are well known to be among the best in the world, and it is a craft that is in danger of being lost," says Little. "But it's all about having a product that's relevant. English shoe manufacturers need to understand design and most don't even have a designer. It's just bizarre.

"I hope Grenson might be an example of the need to have someone who understands design. That doesn't mean making wacky or weird shoes. It does mean realising that, although English shoes may be fashionable at the moment, that is not a trend that can be relied on indefinitely. When fashion changes, the tills will stop ringing unless we're doing something new."