Joseph Cheaney & Sons: Creating a lasting impression
The Rake meets William Church, Joint Managing Director of Joseph Cheaney & Sons, and goes backstage to the firm’s Northamptonshire shoemaking facility.
The county of Northamptonshire is as synonymous with shoemaking as Savile Row is with bespoke suiting. The availability of plentiful raw materials nearby, including oak bark and water for tanning, and leather from local cattle markets made the county's central location in England ideal for trading - alongside the need to re-shod the armies engaged in the Battle of Naseby in 1645, all of which spawned a nascent shoe industry. Indeed “Northamptonshire remains the shoemaking capital of the world”, the BFA (The British Footwear Association) - who have represented the industry for the past 120 years - proudly announced as it gathered together the county's leading manufacturers for a party to celebrate its 120th anniversary in 2019. Chairman Robert Perkins said despite Brexit uncertainty and increased global competition, British shoemaking was in the ascendancy. One of the companies to reap the benefits, and also in attendance that day, was Joseph Cheaney & Sons. Let’s rewind 134 years to the time when a certain Joseph Cheaney established J. Cheaney, Boot & Shoemakers. Cheaney, a skilled cordwainer, was a local councillor, prominent local figure, and churchgoer. The company changed its name to J. Cheaney & Sons in 1903, after Cheaney’s two sons joined the fold. Eventually Cheaney was sold to Church & Co of Northampton in 1964. Of the original seven shoe factories established in Desborough, Cheaney, with its red-brick Victorian headquarters and Union Jack soaring proudly above, is the last surviving in the town. “There were many dozens of shoe factories throughout the town of Northampton and the surrounding county,” says Cheaney Joint Managing Director William Church. “Cheaney chose to focus on quality and as the cost pressures increased from competition from the Far East, Cheaney and a handful of other brands were able to survive.” While some manufacturers have outsourced the initial production of uppers to Asia, Cheaney shoes are still cut out and ‘closed’ in the same factory on Station Road in Desborough, as they have been since 1886.
Church himself is a descendant of the Church’s shoemaking dynasty, which completed a management buyout of Cheaney in 2009, following the sale of Church’s to Italian fashion house Prada. Just as he is about to walk me through the various stages, unique to shoemaking, which culminate in the finished product, my eyes are drawn to a black and white picture attached to the wall. The grainy image depicts Cheaney's factory floor in Desborough circa 1900 with the workforce momentarily downing tools to pose for the shot. With the image still ingrained in my mind, we head to the Leather Room, where the whole process begins: rolls of premium leather and suede protrude from all four walls around us from the likes of Charles F. Stead et al. Imagine a vertiginously stacked stock room in a carpet warehouse but with the carpet rolls replaced by top grade leather, and you get the picture. These raw materials are meticulously checked for growth, wire marks, blemishes and colour inconsistencies, ensuring only the highest quality is selected. From here it’s on to the Clicking Room where each piece of leather is cut by hand using a template by Cheaney’s band of skilled craftsmen. The term clicking is derived from the sound the cutter’s knife makes against the brass-bound pattern templates - which are piled high around the cutting benches and resemble gilt-edged cards. While the majority of processes are conducted by hand, some are machine-operated. Cheaney’s Teseo machine, administered by a skilled machinist, performs more complicated cutting patterns such as gimping; the company’s trademark logo is pressed into the socks while an Ultra machine will cut the linings. By contrast, the quarter section of the shoe is rendered by hand with the Made in England insignia straight on to the leather by Teresa, along with the last number and the order number. Around 1,500 pairs of shoes a week are cut in the clicking room before heading to the closing room. The firm employs highly-skilled workers rich in leatherworking adroitness, sourced predominantly from the neighbouring villages. It's a loyal workforce they are rightfully proud to retain. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that having so many long-serving members of staff leads to consistently impressive levels of craftsmanship. Strolling around the factory it is clear that Cheaney is a very family-focused company with generation after generation joining the fold. With one employee recently celebrating 50 years of service, I ask Church what is the key to holding on to staff? “We are a close-knit business with over 80% of our employees living within a three-mile radius so we are very much part of the local community and one of the largest employers. We provide belonging, a sense of security alongside recognising and rewarding key skills.” Is Church concerned there is a skills shortage in the next generation? Fifty years’ service is remarkable by today’s standards, but once these distinguished servants retire, how does he go about replacing them? “This is not a concern but always a challenge. We represent a huge cross-section of age here in the factory and we are committed to train and provide the necessary skill set for the right people who will be the future lifeblood of the business”.
We move on to the Closing Room, where raw edges of the leather are stained, perforated and skived, saddles are stitched and eyelets are punched. A process that has remained largely the same since the company's inception - only the designs have become more intricate and complex. From here we make our way to the Making Room. “This is the engine room for Cheaney’s Goodyear welting process,” adds Church. “Readers of The Rake will need no introduction, but a Goodyear welt is a strip of leather, rubber, or plastic, measuring around 12mm, that runs along the perimeter of a shoe outsole. The machinery used for the process was invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr., the son of Charles Goodyear, he of vulcanized rubber invention fame. The stitcher requires an unnervingly steady hand; one false move and the shoe is ruined. Goodyear welted shoes retain their shape and have greater longevity in terms of wear. Due to the application of the welt, the soles and heels can be replaced by the Cheaney Refurbishment Team, which in essence affords the wearer the luxury of being able to break-in the leather upper part of the shoe and have a whole new sole attached.” Church picks up an example sole which has just had cork added to the mix: “Once the upper is lasted, the welt is sewn through the upper and into the rib and these two components create a cavity, leaving room for the cork and the shank. The shank provides arch support to the wearer and the cork is then added to the bottom of the shoe, which will eventually mould gently to the wearers foot over time, providing a custom fit once the shoes have been broken in. Then the welt gets stitched again, this time sewing the outsole to the welt and this process is what makes the shoe repairable later.” I ask Church to define which shoe or collection he feels defines Cheaney, and what makes the brand rise above its competitors, to which he replies: “Without doubt, our comprehensive boot collection: regular-lined, fleece-lined, veldtschoen construction. Cheaney represents good value when set against the other genuine/ purely Made in England makers”. From here it’s on to the Shoe Room: the final destination for the Cheaney product. “It takes around 8 weeks from the shoes’ initial inception in the Clicking Room for the tissue wrap to finally envelop the shoes and the box lids to be closed tight ready for dispatch,” says Church. He points to a rack of Mahogany grained leather Jackie Chukka boots which are being readied for shipping - “one of our best selling shoes on The Rake,” he adds. Before this happens though, the shoes are socked, cleaned and dressed, ensuring any discrepancies are corrected. Each shoe is then creamed and burnished to bring out the leather’s natural lustre, before they are polished on a hard mop containing a small amount of wax and then buffed by a soft mop.
The Shoe Room is a hive of activity as we pass through, with members of staff manoeuvring trolleys around us at quite a pace, shoe boxes piled high from web orders being prepared for shipping. I ask William if he ever imagined internet sales would be more profitable than standalone stores? “No,” he says. “As brand owners and makers the opportunities to develop into e-commerce are open to growth and as shopping trends change, this is evermore important.” Cheaney has developed a strong digital presence. While online sales are vital to the growth of the business, I ask him how does he get around, for want of a better expression, the lack of sales patter, selling online as opposed to face-to-face in-store? I know that’s something he prides himself on, training employees with the heritage and ethos of the brand in order to better educate customers in his stores. “You just have to be as informative as possible in the web presentation. Face-to-face in-store purchasers are more emotionally engaged.” Despite the e-tail success, (Japan and Italy are currently the biggest markets) Church admits he is most proud of the growth of the retail side of the business during his first 10 years in tenure. “From the outset I remember customers calling the factory asking where they could find Cheaney shoes in central London. The embarrassing reality was that there really was nowhere with decent representation of the collection. That of course has now changed with the advent of our stores. We now have 11 Cheaney standalone branded stores which is great for the brand’s profile. My first 10 years at Church’s was all about learning the shoemaking business, very much a kind of apprenticeship. At Cheaney the experience has been very different. As a co-owner (with my cousin Jonathan) there are all the business skills and responsibilities to consider. The role is far more strategic with the goal of growing the profile of the Cheaney brand and its distribution.” Cheaney is regarded in the industry as offering excellent quality and value for money. I ask Church why the balance between price and quality is so important to him? “We represent good value to the customer. To a certain extent price can be led by brand as well as product, and Cheaney really does provide that. It is a balance, but I would say price is less sensitive at the premium end.” The word Church has figured prominently in the history of the brand - from its founding father churchgoer Joseph, to the Church cousins themselves, it’s gone full circle. With the black and white image still resonating in my mind, I consider that while the framework of the factory has remained largely intact and aesthetically little has changed in the 120-odd years since, one thing is for sure, the pair are carrying on the religion of shoemaking in this unassuming corner of Northamptonshire - turning what was a private-label business into a thriving consumer heritage brand of the 21st-century.