It is one of Northampton’s most reputable shoe factories, producing shoes for what’s probably the strongest brand. Shoegazing visited John Lobb Paris’ well-trimmed complex and documented the production in text and lots of images.
A narrow street north of Northamptons city center with residential buildings on one side, and a factory building in maroon bricks (obviously, we are in England) on the other side. The factory was built in 1895, but first hundred years later, John Lobb Paris moved in here. The slightly winding story about John Lobb started, however, already in 1866, when a workshop that made bespoke shoes started in London. It quickly became successful and recognized, so 1902 they also opened a workshop in Paris. In the 1970s, the French fashion house Hermès bought the Paris workshop from the Lobb family (who still operate the London workshop themselves though), and at the same time had the right to manufacture Ready To Wear shoes under the John Lobb name. Most likely this was the main purpose of the purchase for Hermès, to be able to mass-produce shoes under this strong brand. At the beginning of 1980, they started producing shoes in Northampton, with Crockett & Jones making the shoes. In the beginning of 1990, Hermés bought Edward Green’s factory, which is where we are now, and they made both brands shoes. After a dispute with the owner of Edward Green back then EG left and opened up their current factory in another location. Since 1995 it’s only John Lobb that’s been manufactured in this building.
I’m greeted by the 2 meters tall French Thomas Collette, Commercial Director, and the Ricky Gervais look-alike Paul Brogden, Technical Manager. After a look at the factory’s showroom, including browsing the new ladies collection, we begin the factory tour. As usual, we start from the beginning by visiting the design department where patterns are drawn and pattern templates are produced. For a couple of years, John Lobb Paris has a new Creative Director in Paula Gerbase, also known as the designer of the 1205 luxury fashion brand. She has the main responsibility for the new season collections that John Lobb Paris releases.
“Here at the design department we get detailed sketches from Paula on how she pictures different models. It is then our designers’ and pattern makers work to translate them into real-life models,” says Thomas Collette.
The production of the shoes then begins in the leather storage room. Here, John Lobb Paris of course has a lot of nice hides from the Hermés-owned French tanneries Du Puy and Annonay. However, it’s significantly more hides from many other tanneries too, the leather department is much more similar to most shoe factories than I had pictured it. The buyer tells me that they have to work like most shoe manufacturers, with a constant hunt for the best material, even though they have tanneries under their own umbrella, so to speak.
Clicking, when the pieces are cut out from the hide, is then done by hand. A couple of years ago, John Lobb bought a large laser clicker machine, but it has not yet been used properly for production, only about a tenth of the clicking is made with this machine.
Closing, which is the assembly of the upper leather, is a very large part of the production, where about a quarter of a shoe factory’s staff is located. It is a part that several British factories have placed in countries with lower wages, usually India or China, because they are good at sewing in those countries and you can keep down costs this way, but still do the actual assembly of the shoes in Northampton . The leather is bought in Europe and is cut in England, then the parts are shipped to Asia to be assembled into finished upper leathers, which is then sent back to Northampton. Several British manufacturers in the slightly lower price ranges, such as Loake, Barker and others, make uppers in Asia.
For medium-price shoes and upwards, however, this is still made in England, and it is obviously also the case for a premium brand like John Lobb.
“Here we have split it up so that you work in pairs, where the first person prepares the parts, glues, puts in reinforcements, and so on, while others stitch on the machine. You send parts a bit back and forth between each other before the uppers are finished,” says Paul Brogden.
Next it’s time for lasting, when the upper leather is pulled over the last. A while back they hade some big problems here (more about it in this article). They made a good investment in a state of the art toe lasting machine (which last the front part of the shoe) at a cost of a bit over €120 000. When they began to try the new machine they soon realized a big problem. Since the machine lasted in a different way, the old patterns didn’t work. Over 70 different models had to have the patterns corrected, all sizes and different widths. It took a year or so, now the machine is up and running and started to pay back itself by producing shoes.
After lasting it is bottoming, where they stitch the welt seam in a Goodyear machine, the bottom is filled with a shank and cork paste, the outer sole is pressed, cemented and attached with a sole stitch. John Lobb of course use closed channel soles, so it’s a process to put it down nicely. On the top line Prestige there is also some extra work, including the waist which is cut tighter and is more arched.
As basically all shoe factories, John Lobb uses pre-built heels. It’s much faster to build your heels in advance or buy them pre-made, and then just smack them on the shoes. Here you first shape the piece that is on top for it to fit well, especially on shoes from the Prestige range. Then they are pressed and riveted. It is then an extensive process with different steps where the sole and heel edges are sanded and made nice, the top of the welt is decorated with so-called fudge wheel, and more. This before the last steps with finishing edges are painted and the upper leather polished.
“The actual shoe polish takes about 7 minutes for the Classic range, 15-20 minutes for Prestige shoes,” says Paul Brogden.
The John Lobb Factory is a well-trimmed business, but with Northampton dimensions, it’s not to big. There are 85 employees, with 70 working in production, 15 in the warehouse. Age of the employees are fairly varied, although, as is often the case, it would be appreciated that the more younger abilities came in. The John Lobb Paris factory produces about 500 pairs a week, compared to for example Crockett & Jones, Church’s and Loake’s factories, which make between 3000-4000 pairs a week. In some ways, the ownership of a fashion house like Hermés is noticeable, but generally it is like any British shoe factory, which is a positive thing.