A Fine Man Once Said:

"Part of the 10 million I spent on gambling, part of it on booze, and part of it on women. The rest I spent foolishly."

- George Raft

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"English Shoemaking At Its Most Refined" - An Interview with Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, Chairman, Foster & Son/Henry Maxwell Ltd. (Part II)

Foster & Son, the venerable boot and shoemakers, have been producing their exquisite works of art since 1840. Recently, Frank Clune at Foster & Son was kind enough to pass along a few questions to Chairman Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson. Here, then, is second part of  Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson's responses to my emailed questions, which offer his unique perspective on many topics, including the history of the company, the new MTO service, and the state of the industry (you can find part one here). Once again, many thanks to Mr. Clune and Mr. Edgecliffe-Johnson for their time and consideration.

It seems that you recently discontinued your line of RTW shoes made by Edward Green. If you don't mind me asking, can you tell us who is currently providing shoes for the RTW line? I've seen some references to the 337 last . . .

We have had a long relationship with a number of the Northampton makers and have been commissioning ready to wear shoes since the mid-60’s. Each of the makers works to a Foster & Son standard to produce shoes and boots that we put our name to. The relationship with Edward Green has been excellent and they produce some of the best Goodyear welted shoes in the world. We felt that it was time to take our ready to wear in a slightly different direction, using our own lasts with make-ups that were exclusively Foster’s own, from design, through leathers and patterns to lasts.

The Japanese are certainly much more "into" shoes than the average consumer, and certainly much more than the average US customer. With that in mind, do you ever produce a model with a certain geographic demographic in mind? Do you create models that are exclusive to certain markets?

We have always had a global clientele, and so in Jermyn Street a Japanese ready to wear customer with a size 6 foot can be fitted at the same time as an American with a narrow size 13 and a Nigerian with a wide size 10, so we carry a large range of sizes and fittings and are used to different foot types.

In Japan and the USA we have a very healthy bespoke client base primarily served through our semiannual trunk shows.

We have experimented with this idea for the Japanese ready to wear market, however the typical Foster customer is internationally mobile, and we feel that they should be able to find the same shoe in London as in their home country. In our experience one set of well-designed Foster lasts is the way for us to go.

How would you characterize the state of the British shoe-making
industry today? Where do you see things in 10-15 years?

British shoemaking is enjoying a golden age and undoubtedly that trend is being reinforced by the explosive growth of social networking such as Style Forum. The economic shock we are going through, together with demographic and wealth distribution changes, stimulates changes in social attitudes that are in turn reflected in the design and personal style preferences that are favouring the classic style that we are identified with. So we feel that the high demand for goods with heritage and craftsmanship is likely to be a feature for some time to come, and the future for bespoke work is bright. 

10-15 years is a long time, but Terry Moore tells us that in shoemaking “what goes around, comes around”! So we think that in 15 years’ time the classic English shoe will be proudly worn as it is today. We also think that in a rapidly globalizing World, with massive promotion of relatively uniform products by the Luxury conglomerates, demand for handcrafted goods will increase and be accelerated by access to aspirational internet sites.

 With long training times for the skilled workmanship required, production capacity is likely to grow more slowly than demand. In that scenario, add the unique character of Jermyn Street combined with a genuine English craft heritage, with rents rising and supply limited, sadly our shoes will probably become more expensive.

 Here’s a thought: could tomorrow’s bespoke shoemakers be as well paid as today’s bankers?

As someone who is interested in the heritage and history of some of the great English shoemakers, would you say that "healthy competition" goes hand in hand with "professional admiration" for the product that each company is producing?

 Absolutely! It is amusing to see how our Foster design requirements end up in our competitors’ windows, and un-named Northampton makers peep at our archives looking for ideas, but by the same token we are interested to see their designs to see what might be new, and we exchange ideas about what’s in vogue today as well as getting inspiration from archive sources outside our own records. There are many fine shoemakers in England and the Northampton village is a friendly place with very few secrets. Each manufacturer has its own house style, and because a “factory made” shoe is not made by a machine, but by a skilled human being using a machine, inevitably the shoe comes out with your imprint even if you copied someone else’s design.

 So when you buy a shoe from any maker, you really are buying in to that maker’s heritage, which can’t be faked.

In the case of our Bespoke workshop we are responding to specific requests for unique design elements, and so our focus is on the customer, who has very often done extensive research.

Does Foster & Son travel to the US? Is there a place here that interested customers can try on and/or purchase models?

We travel to the US and take bespoke orders in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but through Style Forum we've already had requests to visit Boston and are trying to work this –and maybe other cities- into our travels. Until now we have focused on our bespoke customers there, but envisage giving more support to our ready to wear offering over time. 

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