Treading Lightly | St James's London


Treading Lightly

A laser-etched Cheaney shoe reveals how technology can be used to enhance the craft of Jermyn Street’s outfitters.

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Northamptonshire has been at the centre of fine British shoemaking for generations. Today’s heritage manufacturers have weathered the swirling tides of progress and globalisation thanks to the expertise of their workforce and the qualities of their products, which remain unsurpassed.

Joseph Cheaney & Sons is a relatively young brand when lined up alongside some of its esteemed neighbours in Jermyn Street. Back in 1886, Joseph Cheaney was a pillar of the community in his Northamptonshire home town of Desborough. Traditionally, shoes had been handled by a series of specialists, often working from garden sheds on one particular task. Cheaney was among the pioneers of bringing the entire process under one roof. Years later, when other manufacturers began outsourcing the initial production of leather uppers to the Far East, the brand persisted in keeping everything under that very same roof, as it has been since the turn of the last century.
This unflinching Midlands heritage led cousins William and Johnathan Church to sense an opportunity, and buy out the Cheaney brand from their then Prada- owned family business Church’s. With a resurgence of popularity for quality shoe and boot-making, it was a shrewd move.

They opened on Jermyn Street in 2014, and the shop is now their flagship. “When we took over eight years ago, the brand had been in the shadows of the larger Church’s group,” joint owner William Church tells us. “I’d often cringe back then when people asked where they could find the shoes in central London, as we’d have bits of the collection dotted about, a small outlet in Piccadilly Arcade, but nowhere really showcasing what we were all about.”

With at least sixteen other high-end shoe shops on Jermyn Street, it’s a competitive environment for any footwear company, but equally essential to the Church cousins’ plan to put their heritage brand up where they felt it deserved to be. “We’re very much the manufacturer,” continues William, “and we tried to reflect that connection to industry in the design and fitting of this shop. We can honestly claim that fact, while many others can’t, so it’s important we make the most of it.”

For this edition of The Correspondent, we wanted a striking cover image to illustrate a wander through the streets of St James’s. Combining a map with the intricate quality footwear available in this neighbourhood proved the winning idea, but one that would previously have taken an unmanageable amount of detailed work.

The latest laser technology put this vision within reach. Where previously innovation may have threatened artisanal traditions, here it’s being harnessed to enhance them. Laser cutting allows greater levels of workmanship in the quality shoe and other industries, as William explains. “Traditionally ‘clickers’, as we call them, would have brass bound patterns that they’d place on the leather
and cut around with a knife,” he says. “That evolved into press knives, where metal in the required shape was pressed down to stamp the leather section out. More recently we invested in software-based cutting tables, where we can develop and grade a pattern and project it directly onto the skin for very detailed precision cutting. You’re not losing any of the skill of the clicker who cuts the shoe, because how they use the leather is still really important, but you are letting the machine do the graft, which is essentially cutting around the shape. For a Victorian shoe factory, when an opportunity arrives that supports and assists what we’re already doing, we take it. We’re labour intensive, with 140 people making around 1500 pairs of shoes each week, so it’s still very intense.”

It would be incredibly difficult to achieve this detail by human hand, so it’s not replacing a skill, but complementing what already exists. And although Cheaney’s don’t usually offer laser work on their shoes (unless you ask very nicely), William is a fan of the results. “These kinds of technology can promote traditional products to a new level, and make the craftsmanship noticed in ways it might not otherwise have been. It’s a tool for enhancing what we’ve done in Northamptonshire for hundreds of years.”