NORTHAMPTON (Reuters) - The small wooden door of Tricker’s shoe factory unexpectedly leads to a smartly polished showroom, its dark wooden shelves home to some of the world’s finest handmade shoes, as a collection of workers visible through clear glass windows go about their daily tasks.
Rows of shiny leather shoes are lined up, toe first, ready for visitors to inspect and possibly purchase straight from one of England’s oldest shoe-making firms which supplies its footwear to Prince Charles, a historic lineage that many tourists are keen to buy into.
Britain’s shoe manufacturing industry is experiencing a revival, as sales of traditional footwear brands like Tricker’s, Church’s and Crockett & Jones have increased year-on-year at luxury department stores like Selfridge’s.
“These are brands which stand for quality and craftsmanship. The leather and stitching quality is consistently outstanding,” said Selfridge’s Buying Manager for Men’s Shoes Richard Sanderson, who has seen a rise in demand for British-made products.
“The use of traditional design methods is really appealing to international visitors, who feel like they’re buying into a piece of British culture.”
“We see markets such as China, Nigeria and our closer-to-home European shoppers ask specifically for this type of brand when they visit our stores,” Sanderson added.
The demand for gentlemen’s brogues, often seen on the feet of wealthy bankers, has seen business flourish at Tricker’s, one of the last remaining shoe factories in the middle English market town of Northampton. Tricker’s was founded in 1829 and makes 1,400 pairs of shoes a week, 1,300 of which are brogues.
Around the factory, workers carefully tend to each of the 250 individual processes that go into making one shoe. Hand laster Scott McKee holds one bespoke shoe he is making steady as he manually stitches the leather to part of the sole.
McKee has worked in shoe manufacturing for 18 years, 10 of which he spent training, after following his father into the industry.
“I didn’t really want to get into it, to be honest. I was working in a sports shop at the time, and then my dad got me a job but everybody got made redundant so I went to another shoe factory, but eventually came to Tricker’s.”
He enjoys his job as a bespoke shoemaker as well as finding solutions to more unusual requests like building four toes inside of a shoe for a client who had lost his own.
“I’m hand-making shoes which I enjoy doing, so I get a good feeling out of it because I’m making a pair of shoes for somebody who can’t buy shoes from a shop. These are specially made, so that’s a good feeling.”
The factory is a small operation based in the centre of Northampton, employing around 90 workers, many of whom are local to the area.
Tricker’s Director Barry Jones attributes the company’s long success to its high standards of quality craftsmanship.
“People all over the world now realize that quality is very important. You buy something and it lasts, does the job. People will come back,” Jones told Reuters.
The company’s strongest growth comes from exports, which accounts for 70 percent of production to countries like Italy and Japan, but UK trade has picked up over the past year.
Jones said the company has yet to venture into China because of concerns over its counterfeit market.
“We’ve not really gone into China, like a lot of companies have, because they tend to take the styles and they do tend to copy them. So we’re treading a little bit carefully there,” he said.
“We have enough work...at the moment not to rush into anything yet. But it will our focus at some point, maybe in the future.”
International expansion plans aside, Tricker’s is suffering from a shortage of young skilled workers willing to fill the places of its ageing workforce, like many other British manufacturing operations.
McKee thinks the government should do more to get younger people involved in the industry but admits this is a hard task.
“They (young people) don’t want to do it. They’re more interested in playing computers or doing IT or whatever, so it’s a shame really,” he said.
Jones agrees and says the skills are just not around anymore and it’s very expensive to train people up.
“There’s not the colleges around like there used to be, to train people in footwear so obviously we have to do a lot of in-house training, which is expensive and time-consuming. Skills is the biggest threat to the footwear manufacturing industry around here.”
However McKee wouldn’t encourage his own son to follow in his family’s long tradition of working in shoe manufacturing.
“The money’s not all that great, to be honest.”
Reporting by Li-mei Hoang, Editing by Paul Casciato