A few years ago, a friend asked me for advice about what shoes he should buy, wanting to move away from overpriced and poor quality designer brand shoes and into high quality men’s shoes for work (Banking, specifically). He’s from Manchester and really liked the idea of wearing an English shoe, but he didn’t see the value in spending circa 1000£ on the top end of the market for ready to wear. My recommendation was to buy a couple of pairs of shoes from Crockett and Jones. He bought a couple of pairs, loves them and says they still look a good as new, a couple of years later and with multiple wears each week. I’ve been a big fan of Crockett and Jones since I developed an interest in menswear and that was only solidified when I met the family at Pitti Uomo a couple of years ago.
Now in their 5th generation of family ownership, Crockett and Jones are among the best known names in English (Northampton, specifically) ready to wear shoemaking and have been for the better part of the last 140 years. They’re the best serious first step for those wanting an authentic English shoe, made well, with quality materials. The breadth of their range covers everything from driving shoes and loafers, through to dress shoes and the iconic, rugged “Coniston” boot.
From a price perspective, between Crockett and Jones and the other best known, more expensive English makers like Edward Green, Gaziano and Girling and John Lobb, there’s somewhat of a chasm (a jump of around +500£, give or take).
That’s partly to be expected (although it is a huge jump in price) and the major reasons for this are scale and materials. Crockett and Jones strength lies in their scale, making many thousands more pairs of shoes than England’s other best known makers. Additionally, their Main Line collection (comprising the bulk of the their offering) doesn’t go to the same levels as the other makers in finishing and materials (more on that below). This comes back to my earlier point about Crockett and Jones being the first serious step in wearing English shoes – A very well made product using quality materials, thoroughly fit for purpose and fairly priced.
Crockett and Jones Hand Grade offering bridges that gap between their Main Line shoes and the likes of Edward Green, moving up to a shoe which approaches (in many ways matches) the finish and quality of other makers 1000£ shoes, for close to half the price.
Making a shoe is effectively a breakdown of the costs incurred in labour and materials and about 80% of the cost of a shoe will be taken up with the quality of the leather (better grades of skin cost more and this relates to all parts of the shoe including the outer leather, lining and sole), as well as hand finishing. How you finish a shoe (hand channeled soles, burnishing and hand polishing take a significant amount of time and therefore add significantly to the cost.
Just as in any other industry, the scale that Crockett and Jones has allows their margin per sale to be significantly reduced, making their profit through volume (though they’re hardly mass producing shoes, by any means). Additionally, their buying power means they can buy the same leathers as other, smaller makers, for far less. Same materials + greater volume = lower price.
Materials: The quality of the leather on your shoe comes down to the grade of leather used and the tanning process. Leather is sold in grades and for the Hand Grade collection, the leathers used are Grade A or Grade 1’s (if the handbag manufacturers haven’t already bought them all first) which is the highest quality of leather available. These hides come from younger calves, with softer skin and a finer “break”. The break refers to the creases formed when the leather is bent. A finer break equates to smaller creases and more supple leather which both feels better and will last longer. Secondly, the tanning process has a significant impact on the finished product and certain tanneries have greater expertise in tanning high grade leathers. The end product is a calf leather which, in quite a literal sense, is the best available anywhere in the world. The soles in the Hand Grade range also undergo a similar level of quality control.
Handwork: The other side of the equation is how the shoes are finished. The Hand Grade collection puts more emphasis on the internal finishing (using a higher grade full leather lining), hand channeling (where a channel is cut into the sole, the stitches hidden, then covered with a cement and hammered down to create a clean, stitch free sole). Additionally, there’s a great deal of effort put into burnishing and polishing the shoes, which is particularly noticeable due to the lighter colour of my tan Cavendish’ loafers (having worn them for months already, I’ve since partially stripped them back and polished them myself). All up this adds about 2 weeks to the process.
I’m hoping that we might get to see some additions to the Hand Grade collection in the future, specifically in terms of the icons like the Cavendish loafer. Being able to buy Cavendish’ in Hand Grade quality, even if just in black and dark brown calf would be ideal and incredible value for money, particularly when sat alongside Edward Green’s (equally iconic) Belgravia loafer.
Having had the chance to get to know the brand better over the last few years and having spoken with James Fox quite a bit in preparation for this article, I’ve had a number of my own preconceptions overturned. The assumption that if Crockett and Jones (hand grade, specifically) are half the price of other makers literally down the road then there must be a significant difference in the quality of the product, is false. Yes, there are still differences, but they’re more idiosyncratic about how each brand wants to make and finish its shoes. In terms of leather, construction and finishing, there’s not a great deal to tell Crockett and Jones Hand Grade apart from Northampton’s other higher end makers… and they’re half the price.
Note: Full disclosure; I paid full retail price for my Hand Grade shoes.