Shoe craftsmanship with a promise
BY NORA MANTHEY
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)
Luxury shoemaker John Lobb dates back 150 years. The business moved from making boots for Australian gold diggers to making bespoke shoes that remain classics to this day. Since 1976, the brand belongs to Hermès group and now includes ready-to-wear shoe collections that are handmade in England.
Renaud Paul-Dauphin is at the helm of the brand since 2007. Under the leadership of the former Hermès employee, John Lobb has ventured into the ready-to-wear business and expanded internationally. Yet, its roots remain in the craft with a factory in Northampton. We meet the CEO in the members-only club Café Royal in Central London. The location suits the occasion of talking about a brand whose bespoke shoes start at a couple of thousand euros and have proven chic and duress for one and a half centuries. During our conversation, the French man proves an admirer of heritage who values the craftsmen and -women that shape every John Lobb shoe that is ever made. Yet, he is aware of the challenges the digital age promises.
Renaud, let us talk about England and its rich heritage and knowledgeable craftsmen. Is there anything on the Isles that lends itself to tradition?
There is definitely a very strong dimension of heritage brands in the UK. When I joined John Lobb back in 2007, I found that the Northampton area, where every pair is made, is a cluster dedicated to shoe making. They used to produce army boots but there is still this heritage of craftsmanship and very deeply rooted know-how today. Take the technique for welted shoes for example, which can only be found there to this level of quality. Plus, we have all the elements needed to make a pair of shoes; material, wood for the last, water.
We live in a fast-paced and often uniform world. Which values does your label stand for and what is the promise the John Lobb brand holds?
There is a concept I came up with personally. It is a parallel like the difference between fast food and slow food. In the world of luxury, you have fast fashion and you have slow luxury in the sense of true quality products. And John Lobb is very much like slow food, it is a slow luxury brand. We like to think of it as a factory, a manufacture in fact. It includes the idea of manual, as in hand made – mechanised but handmade. Even on an industrial dimension, there is this unique element of craftsmanship. John Lobb combines two things: a tradition which everyone enjoys wearing, but also innovation. Next year we will introduce light-weight, Goodyear welted shoes. A feather-light version of the more traditional shoes that tend to have a bit more substance because of their complex construction.
It takes 190 steps for a John Lobb shoe to be made. Could you kindly elaborate a little bit on this process?
The process is called a Goodyear welted, named after the American inventor Charles Goodyear. He exported the technology to the British bootmakers. The process is not industrialisation but mechanisation. These are machines working with the interference of the man’s hand, so to speak. Manual labour is extremely relevant to us. A pair of shoes goes from hand to hand, each with different skills. 190 steps of making means around five to six major skills throughout the factory, which give birth to the shoes. This whole process is housed in a beautiful heritage building. That is of tremendous value for the roots of John Lobb.
Do you believe your customers are buying into this imagery you just described as well?
The customer does not necessarily want to understand all the details but he knows what a quality product is all about, especially today. And when it is about our values, we like to think that it is a very genuine, authentic and, I dare say, very honest brand. It has a price and we are very transparent. It is a little bit like buying a new car. It is up to you whether or not you look at the engine or simply enjoy driving it. We can explain what it takes to make a pair of our shoes.
You have expanded the international presence enormously. We counted more than 35 cities in which John Lobb can be found. Yet, all ready-to-wear shoes are being handmade in the Northampton factory. Why would you not relocate to regions where labour is less expensive?
First, there is a lot of potential in Northampton. We have expanded the factory, we have recruited people, we have adapted the structure, the size and the headcount to our activity. We have a long-term strategy. Hermès helps a lot because it is not solely looking at the very immediate return on investment but primarily at the continuation of the brand in a sustainable manner. Northampton has still a lot of room to grow within our own premises. We are also working with many companies locally. So for us relocating is not a consideration. On the contrary, we are making sure we value the local making of the product, keeping in mind that the cost of the labour is important but the cost of material is also extremely important. There is no John Lobb without selected grade A leather. It is a brand that is admired because it never ever made any concession to quality. That is another reason why we do not want to relocate to other countries: John Lobb is as English by nature as Hermès is French.
John Lobb is indeed so distinctly British, yet the main bespoke studio is in Paris since Hermès first bought the French operation of the business in 1976. How does this connection influence the two houses?
From the very early days, Hermès got involved in a very personal way. It was Monsieur Hermès talking to Mr. Lobb, it was very much a gentlemen’s encounter rather than a takeover. The family of John Lobb had a Bespoke workshop in Paris from the early days of the 20th century, 1902. But then they lost their lease and as Hermès was close by, they offered to take over the distribution of John Lobb in a Hermès store and that is how the collaboration started. The family first tried to find another place for the workshop in Paris but eventually decided to seize the activity of Bespoke Paris to Hermès. The firm took the opportunity to apply the name to very high-end ready-to-wear shoes. In a way, Hermès projected John Lobb in the next 150 years already back in 1976. They anticipated the development of ready-to-wear collection but with the DNA of bespoke.
Please offer us a few insights into John Lobb’s Bespoke offering. Does the customer select from existing designs or could one become part of the creation?
In our history there are about 140 years of bespoke only. That explains why we focus and why we preserve and why we continue the bespoke business. It is like haute couture that gave birth to ready-to-wear. Bespoke means “spoken for”. It means you will walk into the workshop; in Paris it is called a salon sur mesure or bespoke studio. There you find two main stakeholders, the craftsman and the salesman. Bespoke is about the encounter, it is very personal. The customer takes off his shoes, he is almost barefoot and then the dialogue starts. The lastmaker would take the client’s measurements when standing and sitting because the foot expands half a size when you stand. Then the questions come: for what occasions will you wear them, what heels etc. In bespoke, it is the customer who is the creator of his own style. Yet, the craftsman makes sure it remains within the boundaries of a John Lobb. Finally, it always ends up being a perfect John Lobb because of the proportions and certain secrets we keep and apply. I think it is a piece of art.
And the measurements are still taken traditionally, not digitally?
To be honest, in the bespoke niche market, digital does not really help. The strategy we are following is one of quality and value rather than volume. Nothing replaces the meter and dialogue.
Yet the website looks very modern. Is there maybe some semi-bespoke in the future, where to add one’s own measurements to the ready-to-wear collection?
I am glad you bring this up as it is something we are elaborating at the moment. We call it By Request, which is in fact Made To Order (MTO). There is no measurement taken but you can customise the sole, colour or leather. We refer to it as entry level bespoke. A pair of ready-to-wear shoes is between 800 and a 1,000 pounds, a pair of bespoke ones would be in the region of 5,000 pounds. Our By Request offering is priced like ready-to-wear with a small surcharge. It allows access to a world of customisation that everyone wants today. We like it personal, so it happens in a store.
Paula Gerbase joined as Artistic Director in 2014. Her role was created specifically and she reports directly to you. What has qualified her for becoming part of John Lobb?
She brings herself, her expertise and her talent. That she happens to be a woman for a men’s brand is not actually the point. The fact that she was trained at Central St. Martin’s college, that she worked for Saville Row brands and her in-depth understanding of craftsmanship is more important. Paula has this genius of translating craft into design. She is not simply a designer but an artistic director who instructs the colleagues in Northampton, and this relationship is extremely important. Everything comes from the craftsmen: the way they stitch, the way they cut, the way they assemble. If you look at the latest collections, they are extremely daring and different, and that is how the brand should evolve.
This way of working resembles haute couture. Do you see that this translates to young people, this idea of apprenticeship and to become a shoemaker instead of a fashion designer?
There are two elements to this question. There is the design element which attracts more people because there is more design in everything nowadays. But where your question is extremely meaningful to me in particular is about developing a community who continues to enjoy and see the benefit of working for a company like John Lobb in Northampton or in Paris. In England our factory employs 100 people. It is significant in terms of size alone. But of course it is important that we give some perspective to the younger generation, men and women. We carry an added value with our name and because we are a part of Hermès. Today there are 4,000 craftsmen working for Hermès in France. John Lobb is small in comparison but I see people wanting to know more and to learn the craft, and we speak about it in a transparent way.
John Lobb celebrates its 150th birthday this year. You have been with the brand for almost a decade. If you look back, what has been the greatest challenge you have resolved so far?
The greatest challenge is to put the company on the right track to get ready for the next 100 years, and to be timekeepers of this fabulous heritage. With the relocation of the Bespoke workshop in central Paris, I have managed to value the craftsmanship. Also, I have made Northampton more resilient and even more structured. In a way, I have stepped into the shoes of a bootmaker myself by being open to our people as much as being a sales maker.
My particular contribution is the network of stores. We have expanded in many places and doubled the sales in just a few years, opened stores, set up partnerships with mrporter.com, Harrods and Isetan in Japan, all of them are key players. We are not only a retail operation but we also have very strong collaborations with wholesalers. It is a good thing to have this confrontation to remain open.
What would you like to see within the coming ten years from an entrepreneur’s point of view?
There is one very simple mission, which is also the most difficult, and that is to attract the new audience. The purpose is not to be young at every corner but to attract younger customers. The world is changing, everything is digital and you need to be in the digital game. John Lobb has made a lot of progress and put a lot of effort into developing the website, and has a very strong presence in social media like Instagram, Facebook and WeChat in China. Renewal is the key objective.
Picture credits © Ben Benoliel for John Lobb