Cheaney: Stepping Out On Its Own
It’s an undeniable pleasure to witness one of the UK’s best-kept shoe secrets making its own mark in the world. For many years if one thought of handcrafted shoes with a hallmark of artisan workmanship, synonymous with quality in the UK – you thought of Churches shoes. Few would have known that nestling behind that illustrious brand name was another brand that silently, diligently got on with the task of actually making the shoes for it parent, Churches and others: Cheaney.
Established in 1886 Joseph Cheaney & Sons, or ‘Cheaney’ is a UK heritage brand with a solid ‘maker’ reputation screaming out to be developed. William Church (of Churches shoes) and his cousin saw the opportunity around four years ago and bought out the brand from the parent company, now owned by Prada.
It’s now slowly earning its own brand recognition for discerning city boys (and women) and a styling kudos that can go from city to country, styling both suit and jeans and country tweed look, with the in vogue explorer-work boot that seems to be still hitting the mark with Edwardian throwback long-bearded hipsters roaming the Shoreditch environs, defying the fashion demographics they are meant to fit into. Good design and style is timeless, I guess. Just to prove the point, in the window of the Best of Britannia (BoB) exhibition, (where Cheaney’s recently showed) there was a pair of stunning Cheaney boots from the ‘Aviator 1945 RAF AW15’ range due to be launched and a sure-fire success.
William Church, the joint MD (pictured left) explained the strategy is to create visible retail brand awareness for men and women by steadily building a one-store a year high street presence. Currently there are four London stores – one in close proximity to the BoB event on the perimeter of Spitalfields market with a Dickensian paneled window shop front – and a flagship store on Jermyn Street.
What they represent is the higher-end quality shoe choice that may be more expensive, but in actual fact represents sensible purchasing. One pair of Cheaneys well looked after can and should outlast a number of poorer quality, impulse buys. Martin Grey, one of the senior representatives imparted some shoe wisdom to me. “Footwear is one of the most abused items of clothing. Shoes are better for being rested up a day, allowing the damp and moisture to dry. In the same way if you wore a Gieves & Hawkes suit every day it would soon not look as good.”
William Church is clearly very proud of their brand UK DNA. “We unashamedly make in England and do not subcontract any of it.” Best of Britannia was an event they were very happy to support, knowing that “we meet trade people with a little bit of retail.” But it isn’t just a flag waving exercise. At the previous event last year, collaboration was formed with a wholesale buyer from Hackett. “We like to work with brands that can bring a bit of scale. With Barbour for example, we bring made in England heritage, they bring marketing clout.” They enjoyed a two-season collaboration across 7-8 styles, exploiting a natural synergy between a well-established brand and its distribution and scale.
Another key strategy for growth for Cheaneys is in the export markets, particularly Japan – a market with a huge respect for well-made, tailored goods and brand UK by-association. One clever entre into Asia is the collaboration with Paul Smith in Japan with a 250-store brand presence. “The Japanese are very knowledgeable buyers. There is a lot more opportunity in Japan in specialty stores and department stores.” It’s a relationship that dovetails well for a brand that can satisfy close scrutiny from Japanese distributor gatekeepers and adroit wholesale buyers. “There’s no secret in how we make the shoe. It’s all about the skillset we have – the hand-eye co-ordination. It can’t just be copied.” One senses Cheaney will always deliver on its promissory note with its integrity and quality signature intact in any market it chooses.
Strength of brand comes from strength of manufacturing character. “The average age of our employees is in the 40’s, with younger staff 18 to 20, often their son’s and daughters.” Local staff have been retained and trained through the generations, with a factory workforce often drawn from several extended families over the years. An archive black and white photo serving as a backdrop to their stand, displays a rich legacy of smiling employees in artisan aprons. “We are the largest employer in the local community for lots of families. In those days you peddled or you walked – you had to be two miles from the factory. And now, most people in fact live very close to the factory.” This English handcrafted shoe history goes back to 1886 and to the Joseph Cheaney & Sons Desborough factory in Northamptonshire, where “it takes around eight weeks and 200 hand or hand tooled operations to make a pair of Cheaney shoes, as they pass from one ‘room’ to another.”
The web side of the business will be key to promoting their brand to the world, alongside a relatively modest bricks and mortar strategy, allowing them to control the distribution channels and add more margin per shoe. “The web-based strategy and international expansion will push the boundary and test the edges of our classic contemporary styling code,” says William.The ranges currently include: the City Collection; The Country Collection; The Imperial Collection and The Cheaney of England Collection – ‘an eclectic mix of classic lasts and current styling.’ It’s extremely satisfying to see this brand flourish, drawing from its own UK pedigree of trademark slimmer styling and a contemporary blending of leather and fabric providing new textures for the discerning, modern shoe wearer.
By Paul Markevicius