Heritage English footwear brand Joseph Cheaney & Sons has been quietly building its retail portfolio with new stores at Coal Drops Yard and The Icon Outlet at the 02. It now means the brand has 10 stores in the UK. Joint managing director William Church, who’s actually fifth generation of the Church’s shoes dynasty, talks us through the brand’s expansion and strategy.
What’s the modern history of Cheaney?
Cheaney became part of the Church’s shoe group in the 1960’s, and it remained part of it until Prada came along in 1999 and bought the whole group. In 2009, they sold the Cheaney business off and that’s when my cousin, Jonathan Church, and I, effectively did a management buyout of Cheaney. It is now completely independent. We were previously both directors of Church’s, but when we acquired Cheaney we resigned those directorships.
Why is the time now right for retail expansion for Cheaney?
You have to put it in to the strategic context of what we’ve been trying to do. For many years, Cheaney had done quite a lot of contract manufacturing for other brands, and we still do a bit of that today. But the opportunity we saw in the Cheaney business was to grow and develop the Cheaney brand in its own right. It was always there, but it didn’t really enjoy too much of the limelight. We thought we could increase that, and over the last eight years we have gradually, bit by bit, and shop by shop opening, grown the retail network. That has had a huge impact on growing the brand’s visibility.
What spurred the new Coal Drops Yard store?
We liked the fact that Coal Drops Yard is quite a niche and unique retail location, and most of the people there don’t have expensive retail networks. There are brands that people haven’t heard of, or have but want to find out more. For the curious consumer, it’s a location with intrigue. It’s a five-minute walk from King’s Cross St. Pancreas station, and an area that’s been derelict for many decades. There’s a very close parallel to what we’re doing with our brand and Coal Drops Yard, which was an old Victorian dropping point for coal that would then be cut and distributed around London. There’s all this deep heritage, now with a contemporary overlay. Joseph Cheaney & Sons dates back to 1886 so there’s a lot of history there too. In terms of the shop-fit, we have tried to reference the fact that we actually make what we sell, and get the point across that there’s a manufacturing provenance to it all. But it also has a younger appeal in terms of design.
Why was The Icon Outlet at the O2 chosen for another store?
Because we now have ten UK stores, if you include the outlet shop at the factory in Desborough, Northamptonshire, with seven in London, one Cambridge and another in Leeds, there’s always an element of fringe stock to clear at the end of a season. It’s really just a channel to tidy up any end of line stock that’s being discontinued. We also may have a few leathers that are surplus to requirement, so we will make up some stock for the outlet out of those raw materials.
As it’s your family name, would you ever want to buy Church’s back?
I’m not sure I would really. It’s much bigger than Cheaney, and a completely different entity. It’s far more international, and it’s more developed and mature than we are, so, in some ways, the opportunities for Cheaney – in terms of growth at home and internationally – are greater. Church’s has moved in to a different league now, and it’s run more as a global luxury brand. They’ve done a really good job and spent a lot on the factory and retail expansion.
How is the high-end English shoe market now?
There’s only seven or eight factories left in Northamptonshire, and we all have similar attributes in that we all make Goodyear welted footwear, which essentially means the sole is stitched to the upper. That’s a mark of Northampton-made footwear that’s globally recognised. It’s premium product, and we are export driven, so for those of us that have survived and focused on the top-end of the trade, which is a far more resilient place to be, business has been quite strong and solid for the last few years. There is very much an appetite out there for premium footwear. We still make all of our shoes from start to finish in our Northamptonshire factory. We’re not trying to compete on price, we’re trying to be the best in terms of quality, finesse and intricacy. That comes at a price, but with that price comes a more enhanced product.
What is your strategy going forward?
We’re privately financed, so we can’t do things as rapidly as perhaps we’d like, but we have always said that we’d open one shop a year and we’ve pretty much held to that. As, when and if opportunities arise, we will look to expand our retail presence, but only if it’s commercially appropriate to do so. In terms of pairs of shoes sold though, wholesale is still by far and away the most major part of the business. Japan is our largest export market. They have a very high regard for heritage brands and made in England product, so we fit very nicely with those pointers. In the UK, we work with a whole mixture of people including Gieves & Hawkes, Jones Bootmaker and many independents. They can replenish from our in-stock service. The website business got going about six years ago, and that’s also now an important part of the business internationally. It’s your window to the world, and it significantly enhances distribution in areas we wouldn’t otherwise have got to. Ignore the web at your peril!
Do you have any best-selling footwear at the moment?
In terms of pinpointing something, our autumn/winter casual boots are very popular. We do a lot of boots, probably more than most other manufacturers. Some are formal, but they tend to be a bit more on the casual side. Though you can wear them with a suit, you can also wear them with jeans, cords or casual trousers. The fact we have quite a diverse selection of boots is probably our USP. The ‘Jarrow’ boot in black Chromexcel leather, which has a high-wax content, with a Dainite sole, is currently performing very well for us.
Have you embraced the high-end trainer phenomenon at all?
No, it’s not something for us. It has been considered, but we have the view be good at what you’re good at, and we’re good at Goodyear welted footwear. Whilst the fashion vogue can swing for or against that, we believe in sticking to what we know and doing it to the best of our ability. We’ll leave that area to the experts in that field.
What are your thoughts on Brexit?
We import a lot of our materials from mainland Europe, especially France, Italy and Germany, and we turn those in to decent shoes of which a fair proportion then go back to those countries. So, for us, frictionless trade is hugely important. We don’t want to get caught up in another layer of bureaucracy, or indeed trade tariffs, on what we currently enjoy as a seamless trading relationship. It will be about trying to maintain the best of what we’ve got in any outcome that they manage to achieve.