In old industrial neighbourhoods in the slightly rough town of Kettering in eastern Northamptonshire, one of England’s largest manufacturers of Goodyear welted shoes, Loake Shoemaker, houses. Around 4,000 pairs of shoes are produced here each week.
This report was first published on the Swedish version of Shoegazing in 2014.
On a narrow street where two cars can’t meet, on one of all the orange-red brick walls in the area, we find the famous logo that makes it clear that this is the factory of Loake. I am invited here by the Swedish agent Filip Hallerfelt (I paid the trip, they the accommodation) together with two cobblers who sell Loake. From the airport we were driven by Loake’s then European sales manager Richard Utting, a crazy talkative man who laughs loudly and often. We are introduced to Loake’s combined boardroom and showroom, where basically all of the company’s 170 models are lined up, and where black and white factory photos from the early 1900s hints about the company’s long history. Soon Andrew Loake shows up, at the time the company’s Managing Director, an even more talkative man who laughs even louder and even more. Finally, Mark Hadden, who was the International sales manager, pops in, and if possible he is even more talkative and laughs extremely loud and often. These are undeniably people who have fun at work. But, they manage to sell a lot of shoes too.
– I will not swear by it, but if we count the 3,500-4,000 pairs of shoes a week that we manufacture here in this factory, and in our factory in India where we make about 2,500 pairs of shoes, plus a number of other factories where we make casual models etc, we are probably the largest English quality shoe manufacturer. Church’s produces more shoes in its factory here in Northampton, a bit over 4000, but overall we are probably bigger, says Andrew Loake.
At this time, Loake had five ranges (nowadays Legacy and Export Grade have been added). In the one corner of the room we find the Lifestyle models manufactured by various factories in for example Portugal and Italy, which are more causal shoes like loafers and similar. In India they make, L1, which is cheaper classic models which are usually manufactured in corrected grain, and Design Loake, which is a little more fashion-oriented shoes. India also do all the closing of the uppers for the ranges made in England. In the factory we are in, the Shoemaker range is manufactured which is very traditional shoes, also those often in the so-called corrected grain. The current top range is called 1880, here only full grain calf leather is used, and the shoes get the most time in production. It’s noticeable that Andrew Loake is particularly pleased with the 1880 shoes.
– These are very affordable shoes that hold very high level in terms of the amount they are sold for, he says.
At Loake’s factory, 135 people work on the floor. It’s a rather jumbly factory with many different rooms, corridors and nooks. We’re shown around by factory manager Brendon Drage-Dawes, who got the job because he was simply the best at making shoes. He systematically shows the manufacturing process, from the room where the soles and heels are cut and assembled, further to the cutting of the uppers. After this, Brendon has introduced a new station, which is relaitvely unique to Loake. It’s a type of steam sauna where the upper leathers are allowed to stay in a room where the humidity is as high as 95% for three days.
– This moisturises the entire leather and makes it much more resistant to the stresses of the manufacturing process itself. After we started with this steam room, the number of rejects has dropped from 2% to just 0.5%, which is really good, says Brendon.
Following this procedure, the upper leather is pulled over the last and is clamped together with the insole, then they enter the largest room of the factory where the making, the bottoming, takes place, the welt is attached by a Goodyear machine, cork filling and shank is inserted, the sole is sewn on and the heel is put in place. Then it’s time for the finish, which in Loake’s case is really extensive. Here they stand out compared to many other makers of entry-level welted shoes. This includes the whole process of sole and heel edge grinding and polishing, plus very extensive steps to obtain the final finish on the upper leather and sole.
Although many people are aware that quality shoes go through many different steps in the manufacturing process, in reality it’s almost more than many imagine, with loads of different stations with in Loake’s case usually machines that make small, small details. The workers are trained on a few different tasks and work in groups of three to four people, all rotating between the stations, to get more variety in the work.
Loake has been very concerned about having a good employment policy. They have a good cooperation with the trade union at the factory, and partly because of that it has been quite easy to recruit new staff. Andrew Loake:
– We have many more or less whole families here, who also have relatives even further back in the time who worked at the Loake factory in the past. The fact that employees have children who would like to work here just like their parents is only positive, he says.
When Andrew Loake grew up in the 60-70s, working in a shoe factory was hardly having any status. Then they talked about the importance of education, otherwise things could go bad and “you ended up in the shoe factory”.
– Today it’s not the same. Now there are many educated who go unemployed anyway, and have a tough time. At the same time as more crafts-related occupations such as traditional shoe manufacturing have grown in reputation. Not least because sustainable products such as quality shoes have been given high status. It makes it even easier for us, and I think that mindset is here to stay. More and more people are looking for things that last, and want away from wear and tear culture, Andrew says.
In another part of Kettering, in a slightly newer and considerably more boring industrial area, we find Loake’s warehouse. Here are hundreds of shelves with shoe drawers, shoe trees and other accessories. It sounds a bit strange that you have trouble getting shoes out on time to all retailers, which sometimes is the case, when you see all these boxes of shoes.
At one end of the room is the leather warehouse. Here comes all the supplies of leather, and it’s reviewed by Andy and a colleague. When we come in, Andy is checking out the color of a shade of dark brown suede. He has a small suede piece for reference, and puts it over each skin to compare the tone. If it needs to be lightened, he brushes it heavily with a bristle brush. I ask Andy what a suede skin costs.
– This is a suede and it’s not very expensive, maybe about 50 pounds. Calfskin hides cost twice as much, maybe three to four times more, he says.
When you buy leather you get the hides graded in three different grades, 1, 2 and 3, where 1 is the hides of the finest quality and 3 of the worst. Everyone who buys leather gets hides of all three qualities, then it’s different what you do with them. Loake mainly uses skins of grades 1 and 2. Andy shows a skin classified as a third that looks pretty risky, and such a bad skin Loake will not use at all for their production shoes. What then differentiates between premium manufacturers and a budget manufacturer like Loake is that Loake uses more of the skins. Hence part of the price difference. Then Loake buys its leather from virtually the same suppliers as the very finest shoe manufacturers, so the basic material itself is essentially of the same level.
Loake has grown in recent years, and they want to keep growing – by doing less. It’s about reviewing the model ranges, where the addition of 1880 Legacy and 1880 Export Grade is one part, and removing some models that do not yet have a high demand, in order to deliver faster and more of the models they have left. Just by getting even better at service to retailers and customers Loake believes you have a lot to earn.
At the same time, they continue their investment in Asia with South Korea, China and Japan as the most important markets, and are also looking into doing something more proper in the US.
– There’s lots of things to do, that’s one thing that we can always be sure of, says Andrew Loake.