Crockett & Jones

Leather Buying - An Interview

Buying leather may sound easy. Pick up the phone. Place an order. Leather arrives… not at Crockett & Jones where great importance is placed on buying the most expensive element to our high quality English footwear. To accompany our articles ‘Material World’, we thought it appropriate to hear from the voice of experience, Mr Steve Horne, on the encyclopaedic topic of what a leather buyer does.

Leather Buying - An Interview
Can you give us a brief rundown of what did you do before you joined Crockett & Jones?

For the majority of my career I worked for R Griggs and Co Manufacturers (famously known for producing Dr Martens). I started as a Clicker and after cutting my teeth for a mere 10 years, stepped up to Room Supervisor which quickly became a position of Clicking and Closing Manager. After a period of time in management this was followed by Upper Production Directorship, which incorporated Head of Quality, Clicking & Closing with responsibility of 220,000 uppers per week. Across the whole group this equated to the purchasing of 750,000 ft of leather each week.

Eventually times changed and as the brand developed and manufacturing outputs were stepped up I was under tremendous pressure. With the introduction of a new board of Directors the brand become very successful whilst in my opinion, the product quality dipped. My position became more administrational and of a cost cutting mentality, buying on price and not quality. After all, due to the volume of leather, I was able to have a marked impact on profit if my buying was efficient and astute… naturally pressure was exerted. This was hard to deal with for me as my affiliation and commitment was to the founding family and the original direction of the company and product. This clash of opinions eventually resulted in my moving to Crockett & Jones, where product quality is important above all else.

What do you believe your responsibility is at Crockett & Jones?

My responsibility is to ensure all materials, upper and sole, meet our requirements. By this, I mean that they are suitable for Crockett & Jones’ production expectations. Controlling costs for upper materials and informing the board of Directors of any components that are going to cost ‘extra’, which results in lost profit. If we purchase or test a new leather, I will look at the efficiency of that leather and the usage that it should yield and produce a costing. This puts the Managing Director (Jonathan Jones) in a position to make an informed decision around that particular material.

Quality control is an ongoing and ever increasing part of my position which comes to the fray when introducing new materials into the business. Making sure this is done smoothly, without creating havoc in the factory is seriously important! I get heavily involved when our factory report a quality issue or if they see a change in an existing leather, which is a regular occurrence and ongoing headache for any footwear manufacturer. Best practise from the factory floor is the beginning of the quality chain and is something that I continually instil in the next generation of staff and supervision.

A lot of your work is focused on quality and supply, can you tell us why these are so important for a high quality manufacturer like Crockett & Jones?

Unless we get the previous point right, the rest of production cannot follow. If we send leather into the factory that is not up to the Crockett & Jones standards the product suffers, the factory struggles and we cannot meet wholesale customer delivery dates. Leather buying (and Clicking) is link number one of the supply chain (in production) and if we allow cut leather sections go that are the wrong colour, wrong substance or are sub-par it will cost C&J further down the line: extra production costs, high reject rates and the shoes will not stand up to our Managing Director’s exacting standards.

This is of course one of the reasons why management must be hands on. If leather issues are not flagged up by our Clickers it has a knock on effect throughout the next stages of production – Closing, Lasting, Finishing. The difficulties come when leather issues are only apparent after Lasting or Antiquing, these stages are so far into the production process it means heightened costs have already be incurred and time wasted. These types of latent issues are often unavoidable and simply have to be absorbed as a cost of remaining dogged in producing fine aniline, full-grain calf shoes.

Our relationships with the various tanneries around the world are extremely important. What do you expect of your suppliers?

We expect leather deliveries to meet our pre agreed standards. We work very closely with our tanneries so that they understand our aims, particularly when we are working with them on new leathers. Myself and our Managing Director are at the stage in our careers where we have exceptionally good relationships with all of our tanneries. If we decide to put in a claim or send leather back for quality issues they rarely quibble because they believe us. We have built a trust, understanding and respect that if we deem there to be an issue, there is an issue.
Over time, we have helped to up-skill our close suppliers. This means that they are developing new leathers that are already at the level that we would require.

One thing I learnt very early on in my career; tanneries view leather in very different way to shoe manufacturers. As an example; they would say flesh cuts were the biggest issues out there, but from our perspective, they are easy to see, are in one location and we can easily cut around them. Yet issues that are not so obvious can cause us no end of headaches, such as growth, disease or chatter.

Is there a concern that high quality tanneries will eventually disappear?

Five years ago I would have given you a different answer but today, the world of tanning is quite stable. Many of our main suppliers have been bought out by cash rich groups who invest heavily in their businesses. Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, they all own tanneries whom we deal with… We deem this to be a positive as they are in it for the long haul. You’d think they would take all of the good skins for themselves, but they can’t use the skins we use for footwear as the patterns for Hand Bags are large. Initially, the only downside was the prices of skins went up because the hide suppliers knew tanneries had plenty of backing. This has since stabilised.
Tanning is hard work and requires high investment. Machinery is expensive and is doesn’t last long because of the working conditions and they were making little return on investment. Now, with financial backing, tanneries are developing new systems for management and traceability so from our perspective the future looks bright. The one thing that this investment hasn’t yet impacted on is improving the feeding habits of the calves to reduce growth in the skins, this might yet come. We hope.

Leather is a vast topic, what are you looking for in the leather that you buy for Crockett & Jones?

The leather used by Crockett & Jones is almost certainly going to be calf (other than a few specifics) and the main factor that we put great focus on is the ‘break’ of the leather because this translates into the performance of the leather as it is required to flex over and over again and continue to look good. (More on smooth calf and ‘fine break’ can be read here.

We are looking for a top grade selection which has more to do with our pattern mix. We want aniline finishes which gives you depth of colour and sets you apart from main stream footwear. Finally, we keep a close eye on cost. Our ethos is to produce fine footwear that represents value for money and we don’t want our end product pricing to get silly!

Crockett & Jones remains heavily focuses on using top-grade European calf and these are getting scarce. What affects the supply chain of leather?

Eating habits mainly. Less veal is being consumed all over the world and there is a movement towards health conscious consumers eating less red meat. There is also the wave of vegetarian or vegan diets that is gripping the world.

Feeding habits of the calves. Bearing in mind all of our leathers are a by-product of the meat industry, farmers want to grow their animals quickly for the consumption of meat. This causes extended growth marks on the skins of the calf and often renders the skin unusable for the production of fine shoes. Growth was always present in the neck area, but today this has crept down to about 18 inches above the ‘but’, the main cutting area for vamps.

I still believe top footwear brands require top materials. You get long term wear and the appearance is maintained (if cared for well).

The Crockett & Jones MTO collection is extensive, as is the leathers available for product development. Are you continually developing new leathers with suppliers?

They bring the development to us, but we are continually feeding back to our tanneries to make good materials even better. A good example of a tannery working closely with us is Baker’s Russian Grain. We first started working with Bakers (an English tannery) in October 2013 and it took them 5 years to develop a leather suitable for footwear. Other than the odd skin here and there, Crockett & Jones has exclusivity for use in footwear.

Don’t forget that Crockett & Jones air on the side of conservatism and are far from a fashion brand. We are never going to look for five new colours a season. We are far more interested in leathers that can perform well for our customers year after year and when they finally wear out are replaceable because they are still in our collection.

How do you work with your suppliers if a leather is not quite working as well as you might have hoped, will they make changes?

Tanning process no. Production methods yes. For example, we had a ‘milled calf’ that was incredibly soft but it just wasn’t holding up as well as we want it to. Rather than throw it out of the collection, the tannery agreed to stake it (a machine that gradually flexes the leather), instead of milling it which was loosening the fibres too much. The new process still gives us a lovely soft feel and finish to the leather, but the fibres are now strong enough for our footwear.

People are always amazed at how much of the leather is discarded because it is not deemed suitable for production. Can our customers do anything to help us use more of the skins, given that the tannage is still excellent?

Customers can absolutely help by accepting the natural beauty of leather. To reduce the massive amount of wastage customers and retail staff can help educate their peers on growth, which can be likened to the grain in a piece of English oak. To be honest, some customers wouldn’t even notice them if there were included, but for now, the management provision is to not include growth…

In my previous role, we had an issue with rejects, so I invited a random selection of customers to the factory to inspect a collection of substandards. I asked them their opinion without giving any prior information, but nobody mentioned leather faults. Women tended to comment on stitching and the indent made by the sewing machine feed wheel. Men commented on issues with the soles. When I pointed out the leather issues, all parties said that they thought that was the natural leather… I have since always asked myself whether or not shoe manufacturers are focusing on the same issues an end consumer might.

Leather sections cut with a little growth are still cut from the same skin as no growth and are thus utilising the same high quality tannage, which ultimately benefits the customer. At the moment this leather is being throw away. Surely this section with some natural character is better that than a corrected leather that has been coated in some sort of man-made material to offer uniformity!

How can a customer decipher between what is a high quality leather and what is not?

Performance, but this means you have to be wearing the shoes before you find out how good they are! Before performance you can spot high quality leather through its depth of colour, which we call Anilinity. Every pair is different and not uniform. Natural looking, uncovered grain.
In simple terms a painted door is pigmented and a waxed/stained Oak table is aniline. At Crockett & Jones, it makes my job far more pleasurable that we are only looking for aniline finishes.

What would say to the next generation of custodians, whose job it is to ensure Crockett & Jones remains as a highly respected shoe manufacturer?

Have a good and trusting relationship with your suppliers. That is so important. Make sure you understand and appreciate issues from both sides of an opinion. Know and appreciate your production headaches as well as your tanneries. Always look for something better and never stop looking. Enjoy your work and take time to realise what Crockett & Jones means. Your first cost is not always your true cost…