Tricker’s, Northampton’s oldest footwear manufacturer of top-end Goodyear welted English shoes, celebrates its 190th anniversary in 2019, and is reissuing a special “190 Tramping Boot” hand lasted by its master craftsmen. The brand also features heavily in the BBC2 series ‘Made in Great Britain’ today (on Friday 14 December at 9pm). Managing director Martin Mason gives an insight into what makes Tricker’s so special.
What was your focus when you first joined Tricker’s?
I’ve been at Tricker’s for four years, not very long considering the company is 190 years old next year. The first thing I did when I came in was put down a business plan and ask ‘what is the brand all about?’ With an old established British brand, really understanding the company is central to anything you do. It’s the oldest footwear brand in Northampton, which I guess makes it the oldest in the world, dating back to 1829. Northampton is the epicentre of the world for high-end Goodyear welted footwear, and we’re right in the middle of town having been in our current factory since 1903. We still manufacture 100% in our own factory, and that’s something we are really proud of, as are the people who work here as their fathers and grandfathers worked here before them. Our product comes with emotional investment. It’s a story worth telling, and people like to hear it.
Where is the majority of your business done?
Our business is 80% export, and that’s not going to change. In the UK market, we’ve seen continuous growth in the last two years, but it’s been a bit sticky in the last six months. There’s a lot of uncertainty around in the UK. I think people are nervous generally, and feel incredulous about what’s going on surrounding Brexit. Our export business, however, is growing at a fantastic rate, with the weak pound helping enormously. The whole town is an exporting success really. Northampton shoemaking is labour intensive and very highly regarded globally. We’re incredibly strong in certain markets like Japan, South Korea and the USA.
How big is the bespoke business these days?
Believe it or not, it’s growing. We do between three to five pairs a week, which may not seem a lot but that adds up when you’re talking £2,500-£3,000 for a pair of shoes. We’ve traditionally made for Prime Ministers, Presidents, famous actors and singers, but we don’t band names about. We also have the Royal Warrant from his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, so we obviously supply the royal household. Aside from bespoke, we produce around 1,000 pairs of shoes a week, that’s about our capacity because we do absolutely everything from start to finish in our own factory.
What do you think is the real appeal of owning a pair of Tricker’s?
Our best-selling products are always the classic designs, the ‘Bourton’ shoe and the ‘Stow’ boot. They are still crafted and manufactured on lasts that were built in 1937, so people buy in to Tricker’s because they want something original and authentic. Like a Burberry raincoat or a John Smedley roll-neck, they are iconic. Tricker’s built its reputation really in the early part of the 20th Century supplying the aristocracy and the landed gentry with boots and shoes for the weekend. They’d get to their country pile and put on their Tricker’s because they were functional and waterproof, and absolutely the best footwear you could buy. They then came in to the urban environment and became something desirable and aspirational, which they have maintained to this day.
How do you keep the brand relevant for new customers coming through?
We do create new designs and styles for each season, more of a play on existing styles, but with different executions of leathers and colourways. We look at new leathers and innovation in leather and see how we can implement them, but they will be variations on what a core Tricker’s item looks like. We’re not going to move our DNA away from what people love us for. We don’t bring in designers to create new lasts. We wouldn’t want a young Italian designer of the moment coming in and ditching our old lasts in favour of new fashion interpretations. That’s not what we’re about at all. We are always trying to push the boundaries on things, but there’s only an element of our offer which is about newness because our customers are generally looking for the classics.
Are you still doing many collaborations?
We do, but we’ve toned it right down. We’re a little bit more selective in who we work with. We still work with Junya Watanabe and Comme des Garçons, and we’ve had a long relationship with Margaret Howell and Paul Smith, going back nearly 30 years. They are joint branded shoes. But, in general, when I came in as managing director, I really wanted it to be about the Tricker’s brand rather than the collaborations.
What’s new for AW19 that you will be taking to Pitti Uomo?
There’s a couple of styles we’re revisiting from the archives to make relevant again for today, and also for AW19 we are using some kudu leather, an African antelope hide. It’s quite rough and rugged as you would expect from an animal running wild in West Africa. The hide is a by-product of the food industry. The other leather we are very proud to be working with, and are using exclusively globally, is a leather called ollivia, which is leather tanned using olive tree leaves in Italy. It’s a bit like how they used to tan hides with oak bark. In fact, one of the reasons Northampton originally became the centre of shoemaking was it had fantastic oak forests around it, as well as a lot of farming which meant easy access to leather. So, we’re returning to a very natural product to use it for tanning the leather.
How is your own retail shop on Jermyn Street performing?
Our shop on Jermyn Street is trading incredibly well, but it’s mainly tourists. It’s unique, in fact London is unique in that it’s almost its own economic climate compared to the rest of the UK. I’m glad we’ve only got the one store at the moment though. You can go in to the shop almost any time of the day and they’ll be a customer in from Japan or China, and there’s been quite a lot of Americans in this last few months. We don’t do refurbishments. The shop-fit was put in when we opened in 1937, made from oak from Northamptonshire. It’s wonderful. It feels right and it’s got that sense of history. That’s what people like because it has its own unique charm. Having said that, our online business is growing as well, and that really helps.
What’s special about the ‘190 Tramping Boot’ launching for your 190th anniversary in 2019?
Being the first of the Northampton shoe companies to hit 190 years, and still be owned by the fifth generation of the Tricker family, next year is a big year for us and that’s why we are developing this special boot, which we’ll be taking to Pitti. It’s based on a ‘tramping boot’ from 1926. ‘Tramping’ as in walking around the countryside. All the materials and components for this 190 boot are from UK companies. The English ‘cruiser’ upper leather is sourced from Pittards, a company also driven by a history of innovation and expertise that dates back to 1826. They once provided the leather for the gloves of Spitfire pilots. The boots also feature an original J. & F.J. Baker & Co oak bark sole. Established in 1862, J. & F.J. Baker & Co. Ltd. remains a family business to this day and supplies the most exclusive shoemakers, saddlers, interiors and leather workers in the world. The last of the boots is numbered ‘Trickers 190’. We were going to keep it limited edition and only make 190 pairs, but we had our Japanese partners in last week and they want more than that!
What is the documentary at 9pm on BBC2 on Friday 14 December all about?
It’s a whole one-hour programme, as part of the BBC’s ‘Made in Britain’ series, about Northampton shoemaking. Our master shoemaker, Scott McKee, features on it and a lot of it was filmed in our factory, because they were filming the making of a medieval turn shoe, a derby shoe, a brogue and WWII army boot. It’s all about promoting craftsmanship and the history of Northampton town, so it should be superb. The last time our factory featured so heavily on film was for the ‘Kinky Boots’ movie, shot in our factory with all the Tricker’s workers as extras. We still get foreign visitors to the UK turning up thinking they can just walk in here and see the original film set! The film actually wasn’t about Tricker’s, it was about another shoe firm from Earls Barton, but they wanted to use our factory for authenticity.