How do you solve a problem like Grenson? That was the question when Tim Little, the current owner of the brand first came on board as their creative director. It sounds like an easy task now, but things were rather different when he joined the company. Not to paint a dystopian view of a world that was only half a decade ago, but it was a very different period for shoes. The menswear explosion hadn't happened yet and, therefore, the shoe porn explosion hadn't happened yet. All in all, it wasn't a surefire success. So what made Little come on board? "I love these brands that have a real story and heritage behind them but the people who own them can't see it."
Little had experience of brands in this position. While he still worked in advertising in the 90's, adidas became one of his clients. He worked on adidas for four years in total. "It was such a massive account that I had to get rid of all my other accounts and just work on that. It was really exciting that because at the time adidas was just being completely beaten out by Nike, and it'd just lost that place as the number one sports brand in the world."
But, like most things that are seen as deeply uncool in the mainstream, there were small pockets of people who were bringing back the brand in their own way. "Duffer, which was one little shop at the time [around 1992-93], were buying old adidas originals from America and bringing them over and putting them in the store." says Little. "And we'd go there and look at what they were doing and say 'well, where did you get these from?' and they'd say 'we buy them from America'. So we called adidas in Germany and they wouldn't make them. They said 'they're old fashioned, that's our old image' and we went to them and said 'these are so hot, these shoes, the shell toe'. These are really hot and you've gotta bring them back because this will bring the whole brand back. And eventually they did. But it took a long time."
He says that at the time, adidas was mainly associated with 'discount' shellsuits' and it was only a few people, like Duffer, who were bringing back Gazelles and shell toes from America, building an underground buzz. This was long before the internet, so trends took much longer to get noticed and companies had a tougher time of tracking such things, which was one of the reasons why adidas were so reticent. "It's often the case that people on the street rediscover the brand and they know more about what's cool about a brand than the people who run the brand."
"We'd say to adidas 'do you know what's happening?' and they'd say 'yeah but it's really worried about it because people are just gonna buy those and they're not gonna buy the new shoes. They're not gonna see us as a serious sports brand'. Little explained the popularity of the shoes that were being imported and eventually adidas agreed to do a small run of shoes with little to no fanfare. And this was how adidas Originals first launched.
So was it that challenge that led him to tackle Grenson when they came after him? "Yeah, totally. And it's exactly the same thing (as adidas). Grenson, lovely old brand, been making shoes since 1856, were in the same factory that was built in 1895 - this old Victorian factory. Made shoes for the war, made shoes for all kinds of celebrities in the past. Made shoes for Ralph Lauren when he did all the clothing for the great Gatsby film. There's lots of stories, lots of history, lots of materials, patterns. And if that's done the right way then people love heritage. People will find the right things, like Barbour jackets or whatever and love the fact that it's got some real substance to it."
Despite Little's love of the brand, it did take him a while before taking up the role. After all, he did have his namesake brand to look after. "I absolutely loves my life here" he said of the Tim Little brand. "I was designing two collections a year and also designing for other people. I did a lot of work for Tod's, Dunhill and Gieves and Hawkes. It was just a really nice life because I could control it. I thought getting involved in someone else's thing was really scary but I loved the brand and I thought it'd be great fun. but I was really worried about it"
So he worked out a deal with Grenson that gave him free reign. So he went to Grenson, which came at the detriment of his own line. "I neglected my own business a little bit" he said. "I came back and carried on doing consulting with Grenson". During that time Grenson started shopping the business, asking Little if he knew anyone who wanted to buy the business. "I said 'give me a go'. Let's see if I could work it out". They did and Little officially became the owner of Grenson.
So how did he solve a problem like Grenson? The main issue was not to change too much. "I think a lot of what we do is not very far from the traditional product anyway" he says. "It's not like we've done completely mad high fashion shoes. We're using the heritage". Bringing over a pair of 'Archie' brogues, he say that "This is based on a shoe that was in the archives for sixty years. You'll get a 20 year old wearing it with skinny jeans and you'll get an older guy wearing it because it's a traditional shoe."
And that, in essence, is how Grenson have succeeded. Although you could argue that they happened to catch the wave of a trend at the right time, much of that is down to their price point. "What we did with ours was that it was seen as good value for what it was". He goes on to say that "Value is about what you're getting for your money. A ferrari can be good value. We're seen as a good value product so we're not taking the piss. You've got people at £200 plus and then you've got people at £120, so you've got this little gap that we fit into. And they're aren't many people doing what we do at that price point."
And, despite magazines and blogs tendency to feature the finer things in life is a major sticking point in menswear. Men usually shop by price and have a ceiling on what they're prepared to spend on any one given item. "I think some of the brands out there take the piss on price. I think when you're hot you can get away with it but, ultimately, people will know that you've taken the piss. The modern attitude now is just be fair on stuff. Men tend to invest in products, they'll say "I'll pay the extra, if I'm getting something that'll last me."
And with that price point comes overseas production. Grenson does have a factory in Northampton, but their lower priced line is made overseas. "What we do is, I design all the shoes. We make all the patterns, all the lasts, all the leather and everything. We do all our collaborations out of the factory. And then we have an overseas factory and we send two guys over from our factory and we show them how to make the shoe. We give them the leather, give them the last, give them literally everything and they put the shoes together. It works very well."
Do customers have an issue with that? "You assume that people have a problem with it. But when you do it, you see that people don't have a problem with it at all. It really isn't an issue. Very few people still have their own places of manufacture, we still do. I don't mean Northampton shoe brands, I mean brands generally. What a lot of people do is half make the product overseas, then they bring it in and finish it off and then say made in england. We either fully make it over here or do it overseas. A lot of shoes are made overseas and then they just stitch the sole on and say made in England."
That aside, the main reason "Little brings up is that of accessibility, especially seeing as men have that aforementioned price ceiling. "If you make stuff in this country and you only make it here and you don't make anything else overseas at all, you end up being an incredibly expensive luxury brand and that makes you very small, tiny and not accessible."
In Little's eyes (and in that of his consumer, obviously) the success of Grenson comes from the mixture of their real heritage and being prepared to look forward. "It's about the balance between the old and the new. There are shoes that have nothing to do with the archive. One boot is based on an old Italian infantry boot that I saw a long time ago, [it had] nothing to do with the archive. Then there's a shoe which is straight from the archive. Then there's some half and half. It's a constant mixture of what we're known for, what we've done in the past and what's new and out there. And getting that balance is what makes it work or not work.
It seems to be working. Sometimes I do stuff and worry it'll be horrible. Sometimes I take stuff from the archive and people will think it's horrible. Although half the time [my view is] tainted because I know it came from the archive and I love the story and the history and nostalgia. And I love it, the whole nostalgia from it."
Things don't go long before the issue of the black squared toe shoe is brought up. It's a point that's been beaten to death, but this is a footwear designer, so it's going to come up. "When I started here, square toes were really big. They were Patrick Cox wannabe loafers but before that it started, it was a very Prada thing - then it started to trickle down. Now square toes are what our delivery bloke would wear. It's become really old fashioned and conservative but it'll swing round again. It always comes round, but it happens so much slower in menswear."
One pertinent point Little brought up was the lack of a guiding light in men's shoes. "There's not one really powerful force that does something and everybody goes 'wow look what they'll doing we'll follow that'. In fashion generally there are a few very powerful fashion houses that people will look at to see what's happening next, but in footwear there's nothing. It just kinda evolves I guess."
While Grenson is seen as work, enjoyable though it is, Little sees his own line as a passion project. There's no wholesale and there's no set timeline. "What I do now is go to the place best for each shoe. So if I want to do a driving shoe moccasin, I'll go to Florence and get them made in Florence. If I do a brogue, I'll make it in Northampton. So with my brand, I'll do anything If I want to do it. If I wanted to do a flip flop or an espadrille, I'd go to the best place to do it. So it's a lot looser. Although it is commercial in that I still want to sell them and pay the bills but it's not run in a commercial way. I just do shoes that I like."
(Published in 2011)