While the company boasts plenty of heritage — 152 years of it, in fact — there are several other shoemakers in the British cordwaining mecca of Northampton with a history stretching back to the mid-19th century. What sets Grenson apart is its blend of traditional craftsmanship and old-school styling with contemporary design savvy and attitude.
That’s the work of the shoemaker’s owner, Tim Little. In the early 1990s, Little was an ad man handling clients including Adidas and Timberland. A longtime devotee of proper British footwear, while working with Adidas, Little had become involved in the occasional bit of shoe design, and discovered a passion for the process. He came to the conclusion that the only way to really get stuck in and actually create shoes from scratch was to establish his own company. In 1996, Little left his job in advertising to begin a career as a shoe designer, launching his eponymous brand, which specialised in Goodyear-welted British-made shoes that were not only built to the highest traditional standards, but also designed to catch the eye of the contemporary customer.
While still working in advertising, Little had dropped in to the flagship store of a leading UK brand to buy a new pair of office shoes. He was deeply disappointed with the entire experience, which didn’t come close to matching his high expectations for such an auspicious purchase. Little found the shop dour, the shoes’ packaging tatty, and the styles on offer beyond traditional — to the point of being desperately dated and anachronistic. He felt that the retail environment and service didn’t do justice to the level of workmanship and quality of materials he knew went into making the footwear. He reckoned he could do better, put his money where his mouth was, created a first range and opened a shop on the Kings Road, London, in 1997. Via the Tim Little brand, the freshly minted footwear entrepreneur developed a working relationship with Northampton shoe manufacturer Grenson, and by 2010, was able to put together an offer to buy out the owners – members of the founding family.
Grenson had been established nearly a century and a half before by a self-starter named William Green. Green’s father had died when he was a young boy, meaning the lad had to help the family make ends meet by working in Northampton’s local shoemaking industry. He started out as a runner, bringing materials to the many shoemakers who at the time primarily worked from their homes, and eventually progressed into becoming a shoemaker himself. Green’s shoes were of sufficiently outstanding quality to catch the eye of a London distributor, who made regular purchases and encouraged him to expand his business, farming out work to others making footwear in their homes.