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25 (120) 2016
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Interview

Sustainability through tradition

Michael Dembinski talks to shoemaker Andrew Loake
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Andrew Loake is the fourth generation of Loakes to run the family firm.

“I am appreciative of the fact that this is a family-owned business with no institutional investors or venture capital funds – they can only take a short-term view, with a maximum perspective of three to five years. On the other hand, I can take a real long-term view, doing the right things for the right reasons. Making the business sustainable the day after tomorrow,” he said.

The shoemaking business was established in 1880 by Andrew Loake's great-grandfather, John Loake, along with his two brothers, Thomas and William.

This ability to take long-term strategic decisions kept the business alive. “The big change for us hasn't been what we do – but the environment in which we do it. Forty years ago, there were many factories in Northamptonshire making shoes the traditional way, with Goodyear-welted soles. I wore them when I was at school. I grew up in them, everyone did. Goodyear-welted shoes were normal - a commodity. Over the 40 years, the world has changed. Today, schoolchildren wear trainers, many shoes have polyurethane soles, moulded soles, and mass-production has moved to the Far East. Northamptonshire could no longer compete with the world on price. Most of our competitors went out of business.”

Not having to satisfy external shareholders meant the company could quietly change its strategy. “The only way Loake could survive was to make our shoes better. Sell them at a higher price, but justify that higher price – by making a better product. Quality beyond measure.”

Today Loake still makes its shoes the traditional way. Some of the company's workforce are third-generation employees – their grandfathers made shoes for Loake. Maintaining the highest standards of craftsmanship, yet selling at a lower price-point than comparable products by other UK shoemakers, some of which today are parts of global luxury-brand portfolios with institutional investors to satisfy.

Loake shoes offer robust traditional British style. “Not fashion – style. We do style well. British-made products have the reputation for being solid and wearing well. Our hand-made shoes are stylish, durable, and comfortable.”

Fashions pass, but style endures. The style of an English gentleman is noted around the world. There is a canon of styles of men's shoes – the Oxford, the buckled monk's shoe, brogues, the Chelsea boot for instance – classic styles that have been around for over a century. The way this quintessentially British style has endured is also seen in the automotive industry – the leather-and-wood interiors and long heritage of Jaguars, Land-Rovers, Aston-Martins, Bentleys or Rolls-Royces is what distinguishes them from mechanically functional but less charismatic German brands – or fiery, beautiful but temperamental Italian brands. “One buys a Jaguar not only for what it is – but for what Jaguars used to be. New ones still have that classic vibe.” Heritage and history – a modern-day classic.

The distinction between fashion and style is very important for Mr Loake. “The whole point of fashion is – when you're in, you are in. But when you're out – you are out. Fashion makes choices for you. Style is a personal, independent choice; understated.”

The British do understatement well. Look at the well-dressed gentleman. It will take you several minutes to work out why he is well-dressed. British style does not shout. That tradition and culture is extremely important, especially when backed up by a royal warrant from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

I ask Mr Loake why the company chose Warsaw for its second shop outside the UK, after Prague. “For many decades we have been too dependent on the UK market. We took the view that Central Europe is at the right stage of economic development, with rapidly rising disposable incomes. Poland itself is an expanding economy with more people with the money to choose their own things. The mechanism – the market potential – is there. Fashion is already available.

“Across the developing world – take Russia for example – when the free market arrives, the first thing that people with money want is fashion. It's a statement that you've made it. When you get beyond that early stage, you find consumers who've become far more knowledgeable and make their purchases for the right reasons. No longer is someone else telling you what to wear. Loake is not the world's latest must-have brand; it's for people who can make up their own minds.”

Loake’s approach to marketing does not revolve around advertising, but around people who understand the brand message. “We're not interested in selling shoes to shops that just want to shift product. Our representatives in Prague and Warsaw – Michael and Ewa – live and breathe the Loake brand. As our sales in Central and Eastern Europe grow, we will be looking for new Loake shops that will be able to stock our products – and speak with the Loake voice,” says Mr Loake. “For us, it's essential that we have the right people to sell our shoes. We don't want to rely on advertising – the money goes instead into the shoes.”  

Innovation – how does one innovate when the product is traditional, I ask. Mr Loake says: “It's about continual improvement rather than innovation. We carry on making our shoes traditionally, the old way of making shoes is good. There is no finer way to make a quality shoe. Yet if you look back at our shoes from 1980, you'll see that the current ones are a whole lot better. We owe it to ourselves to have new machinery. We go to the major industry trade fairs and look at all that's new, but we’re not interested in compromising the quality. Sometimes introducing a new machine can give better results, but this isn’t always the case.”

“The Goodyear-welted method of shoe construction is traditionally British; Italians have a reputation for moccasins. For us, a major innovation has been the introduction of rubber soles such as the Dainite sole – a harder-wearing and better-gripping alternative to the traditional leather sole that can still be made using the Goodyear-welted method. And when it comes to the uppers and the linings, we use mostly top-grade calf leather of European origin; we care continually trying to find the best, as there's not enough that's suitable for us,” says Mr Loake.

A customer for 36 years

“I bought my first pair of Loake in April 1980,” says the BPCC's Michael Dembinski. “It was for our university May Ball. Since then I've bought 16 pairs – brogues, Chelsea boots, plains. I was delighted when Loake opened a shop in Warsaw last summer – I no longer had to go back to the UK to buy decent shoes – in any case, the traditional gentlemen's outfitters in Ealing from which I'd always bought my Loake closed in December 2014.”

“As well as selling new shoes, the Warsaw shop will take old pairs of Loake and send them back to Northamptonshire for a new soles and refurbishment for 350 złotys. I've had several of my old pairs rebuilt this way. If you think about the economics of buying a high-quality pair of shoes, wearing them in rotation, taking care of them and rebuilding them as necessary, you might get two decades of life from them – and they will still look good after all those years.”

“I walk 10,000 paces a day on average – as recommended by the NHS – and Warsaw suburbs, lacking pavements, muddy, snowy, icy or dusty – can be tough on shoes. Yet Loake shoes with Dainite soles take the punishment well and still look stylish when I arrive at the office.”

“My latest pair – Loake Kalaharis – are a take on the classic desert boot style, though made with leather rather than suede, making them more practical for the Polish climate. They are supremely comfortable – even on hot days when I've walked 20 kilometres or more in them.”

Link to Loake.co.uk/history

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