You can keep your beanbags and your beers on tap; spare me your breakout spaces and your nap pods and your dress down fridays. Crockett & Jones is a real place of work — a whirring, hammering, laughing, clicking, stitching, stretching, buckling, living factory; a stalwart from a previous era that has big plans for the next one. There are more than 250 employees here, and over 140 years of history. And when you stand on the balcony above the shoe room, you begin to realise why a properly-made shoe is quite so special.
But the last year has been a tough time for any business — let alone one that needs its team members to be working hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder every single day.
There’s a dizzying cascade of processes, skills and hunches that go into each pair of shoes at Crockett & Jones. So many hands, so many minds, so many hours of thought. You can’t build a brogue over a Zoom call. You can’t cut a leather skin from home. But it would take more than a global pandemic to knock this place off course. At the end of August, we visited the storied Crockett & Jones factory in Northampton to discover just how this place has survived (and sometimes thrived) in the trickiest of years — and met the people who make the place tick.
“Unprecedented — that’s the word,” begins Nick Jones, the production director at the Perry Street factory and a Jones family member. “I’m 69, and in my life I’ve never seen anything like it. But this workforce has been phenomenal. Throughout the lock down, I can count on one hand the problems we’ve had through the 250-person workforce. We’ve helped them out, and they’ve helped me. We’re trying our best to get through a crisis, and, touch wood, we’re succeeding.”
The toughest bit, Nick explains, is the sheer uncertainty. “I’ve farmed all my life — and we plan ahead,” he says. “The last few months, my brother and I have sat down for hours and hours planning. And everytime we make a plan for the next month, we don’t know where it’s going to be. We are dependent on sales coming from retail — we’re down 61% last week. Today we’re driving out orders, rushing around to get stuff out to Japan. But by next month, we might not have any. It’s very difficult.”
But you can’t keep Nick down for long. He is an infectiously enthusiastic person — a born optimist with a mischievous smile and a playful spring in his step. “It’s rewarding — always immensely rewarding working here. We’ve had tough days, we’ve had tears, and we’ve had laughter. And we get through it.”
“Whatever you do in life, you’ve got to be positive,” Nick continues. “I say to people I employ: ‘keep a smile on your face. You’ve got to stay happy.’ It’s all about knowing people, working together, and actually staying positive.”
That unique atmosphere comes down, in no small part, to the fact that this is still at its heart a family-run business. “It makes an enormous difference. I’m in a position where I can do things. I can make decisions and I don’t have to hang about.” There is a relaxed rigour here, too — an acute expertise leavened by a sense of camaraderie and good fun. It’s notable that so many of the team members bring their family members into the business, too — you’ll often see brothers, sisters, cousins working side by side on the factory floor. “It’s a family tradition” says Dan, the assistant leather buyer at the factory at one point during our tour. “My dad has been in the shoe industry since he left school, and he’s still here now.” Many companies these days like to boast, sometimes disingenuously, that they are ‘one big family.’ Crockett & Jones is the real deal.
“I’ve stood on that balcony up there [above the shoe room] since I was this tall,” Nick Jones says. “And I’m very proud. I don’t want this to go. And it won’t go. My son’s here, my nephew, my niece — so we’ve got to go forward. From the early seventies, when we were struggling, we’ve built up reserves. And they have carried us through this.”
Chay Cooper is the factory manager here, and one of the key orchestrators of that ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ ethos. He’s the Phil Knight of Northampton — what he doesn’t know about handmade English shoes isn’t worth knowing. “It’s really hard to put your finger on what makes this place so special. It’s like a recipe with numerous ingredients,” he says. “I think a family company is a nice place to work. It’s a fantastic atmosphere.”
“But something that makes this company really special are the lasts,” explains Chay. “The variety of lasts that we have is unbelievably good. We’ve got thousands downstairs — it’s like a library. They are predominantly all still in use, which means we have thousands of different styles here. It means we can work on a style that hasn’t been seen in decades, and bring that last back out into production.”
And the production, of course, is everything. It’s impossible to capture in words the journey that a single shoe undertakes on the factory floor. You need all five senses, and a good three hours, to understand the particular brand of magic that goes on up there on Perry Street: the warm tang of the leather skins; the hiss and fire of the piston press; the burnished sheen of an Oxford toe cap. “When I first came into Crockett & Jones a while ago, I said to my father in law ‘you really need to tell people about this’”, explains James Fox, who heads up the marketing here.
“I got onboard because I just felt so passionately about the people that work on the factory floor,” says James. “I did not know that this still went on in the UK, and that a product like a Goodyear welted shoe was still being handmade. Then when I really got under the skin of the industry, and realised how few factories are left, I couldn’t help but feel that passion, that energy.”
For Jonathan Jones, the manager director at the very top of the business, it all comes down to the people on the ground. “In any business, continuity of employment is a key issue. We’ve had very little short term workers. The shoe trade has always been very big in Northampton, so a lot of our people have parents who have worked in the industry before. So there’s a kind of natural progression. There’s always been a good deal of respect between the family running the businesses and the employees, and there’s contact. Our business is not so big that you don’t have that visibility. Skilled craftspeople like that kind of contact. We don’t have the business people sitting in offices — that’s too distant.”
Shoemaking, of course, is in Jonathan’s blood. “I’ve been here since the 1980s, and done a lot of different things in the business,” he says. “It’s not just shoes — it’s the contacts, the customers, all the different markets. You build up a certain knowledge of expertise — whether it be sourcing leather, or shoe design. And it’s always interesting working with high quality materials.”
That ingrained understanding of the business, at every level, means Crockett & Jones is a difficult ship to blow off course. What struck me most, during the visit, is the sheer respect and love for shoes that defines every worker, from the pattern cutters to the clickers to the closers to the inspectors. They really know their eggs, in other words. If God is in the details, then this place is a cathedral. “Of course, the more you get into it, the more interesting it all becomes,” concludes Jonathan. “you’re continuously learning, even if you’ve been here a long time. And you then want to pass it all on to the next generation, and the next one.” Pandemic or not, one suspects there will be many more of these to come.