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Tim Little Interview
The Tim Little flagship store on the Kings Road in Chelsea has the feel of a townhouse sitting room rather than a shop. A place where you can go in, sit by the fire in a leather armchair and try on some of the finest styles of handmade shoes in the world. Tim Little’s eponymous brand of footwear sits breezily next to glowing pairs of Grenson’s, the shoe marque with over 150 years of cordwaining heritage which he owns. We spoke to Tim about his trade and the allure of shoes.
Tell us how you arrived at designing shoes?
I’ve always loved shoes, always wore English-made Goodyear-welted shoes, and the experience of owning them - the way they felt, getting a new pair, getting them out of the box. Just a weird details thing, little details about the shoes that were different on every pair. Why was a brogue like a brogue, why did some have four eyelets and some have five? The story behind them and the history is very enticing.
It seems that people who appreciate product design can get particularly obsessive about these qualities.
It’s something to do with detail, people often really get into the detail of one small thing and the craft of something. They like to know a lot about one thing. With a shoe it’s a relatively small object yet there is an enormous amount to know about it. There’s history, styling, design, manufacturing, materials, the way it’s made, where it’s made… So many things open up when you look into the story of it. It’s incredible that there can be so much history and substance within one object.
So when was the moment you decided to set up your own shoe business?
One day I went to the flagship store of one of England’s most prestigious footwear brands to buy a new pair of work shoes. It was a poor experience and the whole excitement I’d formed in anticipation of buying a pair of English handmade shoes didn’t meet my expectations. The shop was really drab, the box the shoes came in was tired, there were no new styles. I knew about how these shoes were made and the history and craft involved, and I didn’t think it was being given the justice it deserved.
So the motivation was suddenly there to take an amazing product and tradition and raise it up to a new level. Put some more design into it, the environment where you buy shoes, materials and the whole experience.
So can you tell us a bit about shoe craft, the traditional English way of making shoes?
Traditional English shoes are generally Goodyear-welted. So the upper is made and then stitched to the welt, a leather band all the way round the upper – which you then stick or stitch the outer sole to. It sounds like a tiny detail but it’s a completely different way of making a shoe. So, on an Italian shoe, the sole is all one piece and stitched or stuck to the upper. Just two pieces.
This extra bit, using a welt, was invented by Charles Goodyear Jr, son of the vulcanized rubber guy, and it really changes the characteristics of the shoe. Partly in looks, as it is wider and chunkier, but it means it’s also more robust and wears in beautifully.
On an Italian shoe the minute you put it on it’s comfortable, usually lighter weight, but doesn’t last as long. With English made shoes, the more you wear it the better it gets. You never want to let them go.
You refer to Italian shoes, where does the shoe expertise lie in the world these days?
Traditionally it is England and Italy. Of course, shoes are made all over the world and I think shoe making in each different country adopts the character of that country. So an Italian shoe is beautiful, fine detail, an English shoe is very sturdy, down-to-earth, with simple and straightforward design. So for instance you may have an Italian loafer for the summer or an American work boot (known for being solid and hard wearing) for winter.
So what makes a good pair of shoes?
Of course for me the first thing is design. A fantastically made, high-quality pair of shoes that look ugly is completely pointless. But of course it works vice versa. They’ve got to look good and they’ve got to be designed well. But beyond that it’s the way they are made and, most importantly, what they are made of. So the materials in shoe making are absolutely crucial.
You find a lot of the cost of a really good pair of the shoes is in the materials, in particular the upper leather. So the type of leather and the materials used, the better they last, the better they wear in. With really beautiful calf leather, for example, as you wear it in, it will develop lovely soft creases and grow in character. We have some of our best leather tanned for a whole year – using chestnut tree bark in the tanning solution.
What do Tim Little and Grenson stand for, obviously quality and materials is important?
We’ve got our own factory in Northampton (built in 1895) so we have enormous quality control. Historically Northamptonshire is where English men’s Goodyear-welted shoes are made, with 10 or 12 factories left in that area who do what we do, making classic welted shoes. Quality is really important, that’s what we’re known for.
However, I think for the last 100 years English companies have all gone on about quality so much that it’s now kind of a given that an English-made pair of brogues is going to be well made, but they’ve forgotten about design and presentation. So some have relied on quality only and forgotten about design. Investing in design is really important along with the quality. So we have enormous quality control at the factory but a big emphasis on design fluency.
You’ve suggested you like tradition with a naughty streak, is this how you approach design?
Yes, traditional products with a touch of eccentricity, classic simple products, but also being a bit quirky. It’s important to have a sense of humour and remove the pomposity, Paul smith is a good example of this. We are a little bit mad and weird over here so bringing that out a bit in the products seems appropriate. As I mentioned before, the personality of whoever makes and designs the shoes ends up defining the design.
You also use more modern materials with traditional forms?
Yes I love the idea, for example, we do a shoe marrying a classic brogue upper with a Vibram EA sole unit, a component used for hiking footwear.
How would you go about designing a new shoe?
There are multiple ways, inspiration can come from all over and begin with sketches, working on existing templates with pattern cutters. We’re very lucky to have the factory in Northampton and the ability to create prototypes and innovate daily with existing shapes and designs in our closing room, rather than waiting for prototypes to be flown in and the idea losing its vitality.
These black and white portraits behind you - what’s the story there?
This is something that relates to my own collection (Tim Little) which has no real heritage to speak of – l’ve a real love of blues music and so it was just part of my character. I love the imagery, aesthetic and lyrics of blues music. So it just became an indirect influence.
And you've made a pair of shoes for a very famous blues musician?
Yes, I offered John Lee Hooker a pair of Grenson’s and he chose some Chelsea Boots. But he didn’t find them so comfortable and asked for something different. I’d designed a penny loafer named after one of his songs – Whisky & Women – and when he received them, they fitted him nicely and, of course, he was rather pleased we’d named them after the song. Obviously I’m very proud that John Lee Hooker wears a pair of my loafers.