The rise of British handmade luxury goods

Words by
Josh Sims

9th March 2017

Whether it’s handmade shoes, personally tailored shirts or a timeless leather bag, British bespoke luxury goods producers are going from strength to strength

CROCKETT & JONES

Founded in 1879 in Northampton, Crockett and Jones specialises in hand-crafting quality shoes in classic designs.

My wife and I do talk about things other than shoes,” jokes James Fox, who joined shoemaker Crockett & Jones five years ago and where his wife Philippa is a director. In a world of corporate Goliaths and takeovers, the company is very much a family affair — and has been since it was created in 1879. Philippa is the daughter of the managing director, Jonathan Jones, whose brother Nicholas is production director; they are great grandsons of the company’s founder, Charles Jones.

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“There are pros and cons to being a family business,” says Fox about the royal warrant-holding company of which he’s clearly proud to be a part. “There’s always the challenge of bringing the next generation into the business and having to impart a wealth of knowledge to them. You need years of test-fitting experience to get a last right, for example, and that’s “We’re definitely not a fashion company — that’s not the right word for us. But we are more conscious now of making contemporary classics,” Fox adds — outfitting James Bond in Skyfall and Spectre has certainly boosted interest too. “So, instead of making a shoe in the usual black or tan, now it’s dark green or navy. We have to be conscious of the fact that our new customers are educated in style and care about it.”

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Leather goods handmade in Britain by skilled craftsmen, are enjoying a renaissance

Leather goods handmade in Britain by skilled craftsmen, are enjoying a renaissance

Leather goods handmade in Britain by skilled craftsmen, are enjoying a renaissance

That customer is also more appreciative of Goodyear-welted footwear now and the fact that it moulds to the foot, keeps the water out and that the sole can be almost endlessly replaced. If, once, such shoes were dismissed as clunky, heavy and far from comfortable straight out of the box, now customers are more willing to invest in the longer game.

“That we’re a British company making in Britain is important, but not for any reason of patriotism,” Fox argues — indeed, Crockett & Jones is still appreciated more abroad than at home. “As with cars, for example, there’s a new understanding that British producers still make some things very well. We’re very much a manufacturer, not a brand. Historically, the Northampton makers have been rather staid and solid and not fantastic at marketing, but the quality you get from making something well is now being rediscovered.”

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A pair of Crockett & Jones shoes takes eight weeks and 200 separate operations to complete

A pair of Crockett & Jones shoes takes eight weeks and 200 separate operations to complete

BUDD SHIRTS

Situated in London’s Piccadilly, the company has been making bespoke shirts for over a century.

Stephen Murphy tells a tale of the age-old battle between bespoke tailor and shirtmaker over which of them has got the sleeve length just right to allow the traditional show of cuff. “Tailors typically blame the shirtmaker,” says Murphy, the one-time financier who now owns London shirtmakers Budd. “But we had one customer who, when asked by his tailor who had made his shirts, defiantly replied ‘Mr Butcher, the head cutter at Budd’s’. To which the tailor replied with an apology: ‘In that case, it’s us who got it wrong’.”

Although its reputation precedes it among bespoke insiders, Budd remains one of the less well-known London shirtmakers. But Murphy is out to change that. “We make the best bespoke shirts in Britain,” says the man who bought the company in 2011 from the Webster family, themselves shirtmakers who had owned Budd since the 1930s.

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Budd’s bespoke shirts are hand cut in house from an extensive selection of fine shirting fabrics, working to each customer’s unique measurements

Budd’s bespoke shirts are hand cut in house from an extensive selection of fine shirting fabrics, working to each customer’s unique measurements

It’s a bold claim — if only because it sets Budd among the best bespoke shirtmakers in the world. But it is perhaps justified by the very lack of scale that allows the company to spend an atypical time finessing the details. Its three cutters and 12 seamstresses make just 3,500 shirts a year, including those made-to-measure and ready-to-wear, sold online and via its discreet, cosy Piccadilly store.

Most of the bespoke details are hidden — for example, the extensive in-built overlap of fabric at shoulder and cuff, which allows for a stronger, neater finish. Others are tangible — the use of the best Swiss, silk-like fabrics, for example, or the cuff pleating. As Murphy notes, pleating can be done to almost the same standard by machine in 40 minutes, but Budd chooses to do it by hand, which takes more than four hours — “almost” is just not the same. “Such are the little details you come to appreciate in bespoke,” Murphy says. “And once you notice them, there’s no going back, I’m afraid. There is not enough appreciation for good shirts, despite the fact men have such an intimate, daily relationship with them. I think that appreciation is tainted by the need for ironing. You need a good laundry service or a suitable domestic situation.”

But Budd’s difference is as much cultural as it is physical — it encourages extending the life of its clients’ shirts by offering a service that will replace worn collars and cuffs. And, unusually for bespoke menswear services, most of which prefer to railroad a customer towards a house style, Budd embraces a challenge. Recent projects have included making technically complex shirts with one-piece sleeving and even a safari shirt-cum-jacket. “That’s the advantage of being a smaller company. If we like the idea of something, we can try it. We can experiment,” says Murphy.

Not that such moves aim towards Budd getting a higher profile. Indeed, Murphy, like his customers, rather appreciates that Budd is something of a carefully protected secret among shirt cognoscenti. He even plans to do away with all labelling, as was the tradition among bespoke suit and shirt-makers. “After all, the only person who needs to know where their shirt is from is the person who’s wearing it,” he says.

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Mulberry’s first pieces, plaited belts and chokers, were made by hand at founder Roger Saul’s kitchen table by family members and sold on a London stall in Portobello Road.

Mulberry’s first pieces, plaited belts and chokers, were made by hand at founder Roger Saul’s kitchen table by family members and sold on a London stall in Portobello Road.

MULBERRY

With its humble roots in the sleepy Somerset village of Chilcompton, Mulberry has grown from a British leather goods brand to an internationally celebrated fashion label.

London, New York, Milan, Paris, Chilcompton. If the name of this Somerset village doesn’t strike the right fashion note, be aware that this is also the home of Mulberry, the £163m turnover leather goods company started with capital of £500 in 1971 by Roger Saul. This is the company behind such covetable bags as the Roxanne and the Bayswater, snapped by paps on the arms of “It” girls.

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The Kite Tote is a popular and practical style.

The Kite Tote is a popular and practical style.

And despite the fact that, over recent years, Mulberry has attained a certain “London cool”, as brand director Anne-Marie Verdin puts it, its heart is in those English backwaters. “As a result, what Mulberry makes is very different from a bag by an Italian maker. Prada, for example, is very urban; Mulberry makes practical, robust products with a no-frills, countryside feel. What’s great is that by using very talented creative directors we’ve been able to build on that and find an unusual, wonderful osmosis with the capital’s creative scene. I think that contradiction of being able to express heritage and be rebellious at the same time is perhaps one you can only get away with if you are British.”

Indeed, its long run of fashion hits is more by luck than judgement — “after all, if there was a formula, everybody would be doing it,” says Verdin. “You can’t make an ‘It’ bag. You just make a good bag and hope it gets picked up. There are bags that go fast and others that go long — and we’re good at the latter.”

Besides, behind Mulberry’s chi-chi persona of late is more of a welly-wearing rootsiness, making bags sufficiently workaday that they get passed down from mother to daughter rather than shelved at the end of a season. The company may no longer operate from Saul’s kitchen table, as it once did, but it retains the “buttery, visceral” love of leather he inherited from his father — who worked for Clarks shoes, itself a Somerset company — and still makes most of its products in local factories, the second of which opened only two years ago.

“There’s certainly a commitment to the people of the community there, where we’re a major employer,” says Verdin. “But it also points to the fact that you can produce in the UK and make it work economically. Not everyone cares of course, but I think more and more people do want to know about the origins and authenticity of the things they buy.”

Staying in the UK is no small task however. The company’s skills base has had to be underpinned by bringing in an apprenticeship scheme that has seen some 70 apprentices graduate in leather-cutting and sewing since 2006; it’s telling that 49 of them are still with the company. “Craft always sounds dry and dusty, but young people are actually really engaged with the idea of working with their hands again,” suggests Verdin. “Besides, this is a world of crafts worth protecting.”