Northampton is less than an hour’s journey from London, but the urban sprawl quickly gives way to bucolic vistas of rolling, verdant fields. Indeed, it is the town’s location that has helped make it the spiritual home of shoemaking worldwide; materials necessary for the process are within easy reach of Northampton’s factories. “You might be sitting in a typical middle England town here, but two or three minutes outside of Northampton in any direction, you have the most stunning countryside,” says Martin Mason, managing director of Tricker’s, the oldest shoemaker in the area. He says that the nearby oak forests were essential for taking bark to be used for tanning leather. Agriculture has always had a strong presence here, and with leather being a by-product of the meat industry, this was also in abundance. The town’s location on the Grand Union Canal also offered logistical ease for transporting goods to hubs like London and Manchester.
Tricker’s started making shoes as early as 1829. For the majority of its existence, Tricker’s has made the country boots and shoes of choice for monied landowners and successful farmers – as well as the army. “At the turn of the century, Tricker’s created a genuine waterproof solution for boots and shoes – the ‘reverse split welt’.” This revolutionary advancement in the shoemaking industry allowed the landed gentry to tramp through wet, straw-ridden cowsheds and leave with dry feet. Mason says that for the early part of the 20th century, Tricker’s was frequently advertising in Farmer’s Weekly.
The company’s shoes were considered expensive – but the quality craftsmanship that went into every pair appealed to those with money to spend. “It was an investment purchase,” says Mason. “The gentry tended to buy something of very high quality, keep it for a long time and repair it. That’s exactly what still happens today with Tricker’s shoes.” Mason and the team are proud to repair customers’ old shoes – production director Barry Jones says that this way, “the customer gets his money’s worth.” About 40 repairs are completed in the factory’s bespoke room each week.
By the 1970s, Tricker’s’ clientele began to expand and evolve, as the Japanese market started to show interest. “The Japanese took it back and wore the boots and shoes on the streets of Tokyo,” says Mason; by transporting Tricker’s from Britain’s fields to “the most urban environment in the world”, the Japanese made it into a “desirable item that is still there today.” Japan is still one of the biggest international markets for Tricker’s – the boots and shoes being embraced for their functionality and quintessentially British look. “The Japanese are incredibly discerning,” says Mason. “They will find the very best pieces and they want to buy that. Tricker’s is a must-have item if you’re Japanese.” He says that the brand is stocked in every major department store in Tokyo, as well as smaller independents such as BEAMS.
Tricker’s does not target a specific demographic, and Mason says that it transcends ages and industries. “We still have people coming into our shop whose father and grandfather bought Tricker’s, and they wouldn’t wear anything else. It’s the shoe of choice at Eton – we know that from friends of ours; but Tricker’s is also widely embraced by what I would call ‘creative media’ types in London.” Despite the increased interest in the brand, Mason does not want Tricker’s to be perceived as ‘trendy’. “We don’t want Tricker’s to become too popular – we certainly don’t want it to be fashionable.”
The “vast majority of sales” come from the brogue shoe and the country boot. The boot – a British style classic – was introduced in 1840, and was a crude version of what customers can try on today. It is still made from a last that was created in 1937, just before the brand opened its Jermyn Street flagship (after relocating from another site on the street). The store remains almost identical to how it looked on opening; even the pre-war cabinetry is made from Northampton oak, and retains scratches from where the store windows were blown out during the war.
The refined Jermyn Street store is a different beast to Tricker’s’ Dickensian factory, where each room buzzes with the sound of machinery. Up steep stairs, hides are cut, stitches are punched into leather, and materials are manipulated to achieve the brand’s signature look. Towards the bottom of the factory, the uppers finally make contact with Tricker’s’ heavy duty soles; a woman works a machine filling soles with cork, while a man artfully buffs away any rough edges. Everything is considered, to the minutest detail. “You can do a pair in a day, but that’s not proper shoemaking,” says Jones. “Because we make a quality product, we don’t do it the quickest way – we do it the belt and braces way.”
The key reasons for the respect and cachet Tricker’s enjoys are varied. Firstly, craftsmanship is considered the most important aspect of the business, rather than sales. Each shoe goes through around 250 processes before it is ready to leave the factory and enter stores – either at the brand’s premises on Jermyn Street; online retailers like Mr Porter; or in London’s department stores. Of the core collection, Tricker’s sells around 900 shoes a week.
Though Tricker’s is dedicated to the craft, finding a new generation of shoemakers to take on the mantle is no easy feat. “It’s not getting easier – it’s a struggle to get people in here,” says Mason, disappointedly. “If you had advertised for a role 30 to 50 years ago, you’d probably get 30 applicants. Now, you might get two.” Since arriving as managing director in 2015, Mason has brought in initiatives to help those interested in shoemaking develop their careers. “I opened a training school when I joined, and we’re very open and keen on developing apprenticeships. But it is getting more difficult; a lot of people don’t want to make things anymore,” says Mason. He thinks that the local councils and the government could do more to ensure that the craft of shoemaking continues to be healthy. “There used to be a fantastic shoemaking training college at Wellingborough that they closed down. Northampton University has some shoemaking, but it’s not what it used to be…”
But Tricker’s refuses to become part of history. In fact, Mason’s appointment was primarily to take the heritage brand into unchartered territory, adapting to newer forms of commerce and marketing. “The family are shoemakers; they’ve always worked in the manufacturing of the shoes. I think they were looking to bring in somebody with experience of working with international brands who could tackle the challenges going forward while respecting the brand.” The biggest change since Mason’s arrival is that Tricker’s now trades online. “Now, it’s not an option for any brand to not have an online presence.” Mason says that he has no interest in opening more retail shops – but is committed to developing Tricker’s’ digital marketing. Despite moving into the future with its business model, ultimately, Tricker’s is dedicated to creating shoes that transcend any particular era. “It’s got to be enduring – it’s not about changing things too much.”
67 Jermyn Street