How a Drake's Shoe is Made
Introducing the Charles Loafer, our first Northampton-made, Goodyear welted loafer. Below we document the stages that go into making our very own shoe from scratch.
Inside a long room with high ceilings, spare wooden floorboards and arched windows that look out across a pale morning and the old workshops and shoe factories of Northampton, a man named David is slicing through a piece of smooth leather with the steady hand of a surgeon as Capital FM plays from a tinny radio.
“I was ginger two weeks ago!” He says cracking a smile and pointing to his decidedly silver thatch of hair. A cutter for more than 30 years, it’s David’s job to manipulate a sheet of top grade chrome tanned leather into the intricate and highly specific pattern that will later be turned into a shoe — one of the most essential jobs in the process. One errant nick or shaky hand can ruin hours of work. “I’ll need a drink after this,” he says with a laugh as his blade, which he crafted himself (a cutters tradition), glides smoothly through the leather.
A first for Drake’s, we’re here to see the steps that go into the making of our very own Northampton-made, Goodyear-welted shoe. Named the ‘Charles', after Charles Goodyear - the man who popularised the rubber vulcanisation method - our new penny loafer arrives in both Stead snuff suede and premium chrome tanned leather, with a Goodyear welted leather sole, rubber quarter heel and a moc-stitched toe. It is, we believe, a wear-with-anything essential. The epitome of handmade British quality and relaxed elegance.
We move through the factory and meet Caroline, who is sat at a table punctuated by a heavy sewing machine. It’s here that she and her colleagues perform the intricate art of sewing the upper and saddle of the shoe, a process reffered to in the factory as “bagging on.” Surrounded by cuts of snuff suede that may or may not have been shaped by David, the individual panels soon take shape, the flat outline of the Charles, pieced together by hand. “I’ve been doing this for a fair few years,” she says modestly, inspecting the shape of her work. “Although I was bit worried about all of this attention!”
Every element of the Charles, down to the Drake’s stamp on the insole, is pored over by a human hand. (The person stamping is named Theresa, by the way). On our walk to the closing room, where the shoe is put through its final quality control paces, we pass the mulling room, where the leather is left for up to five days to prevent any splitting, and the making room, where men work in silence, pulling the leather over the last and welting the sole. A physically demanding process. Hot and noisy. There are posters of Leicester’s 2016 Premier League winning team on the wall, beginning to wilt from the heat, and a sign for a factory-wide Scotch egg competition, which sounds like fun. In one corner a man named Russ is burnishing the toe of a shoe on a mop-like machine, flipping, twisting and polishing.
Before a shoe can begin to be made, however, it needs a last. The handmade wooden template that gives the Charles loafer its distinctive shape. A short drive from the factory we arrive at Springline, one of, if not the, most esteemed last makers in the business. We’re met by Michael James, the company’s Sales Director, whose business card refers to him as ‘Northampton’s Last Man.’ Michael’s office deserves its own article, a collector’s dream teeming with books, art, ephemera stacks of shoes and a taxidermied spider. Directly outside his office door, craftspeople in white lab coats work steadily creating the wooden lasts that will give our shoe its silhouette. We inspect the stacks of hand-annotated lasts, including ones for Freddie Flintoff, Sir Paul Smith and, most impressively, Queen Elizabeth II. Made by hand, of course, the last for the Charles loafer is sawn from a block of British beech wood in the model room beneath us.
“There are a lot of parts that go into making a shoe, aren’t there?” Says Michael as we shake hands and get ready to leave, the sun beginning to dip behind the industrial estate. “There’s still something special about a British shoe and making things by hand. I like to think we still do things the right way."