Northampton has the biggest concentration of high-end shoemaking in the world, but you wouldn’t know it to walk down its streets. The factories are old and a part of the fabric of the town. They are often indistinguishable from the terraced houses on either side, the only giveaway being a single doorway and tall, serried windows.
Gaziano & Girling’s new factory, which opened in October, is one such building. It is slightly out of town, where the houses are a little more suburban, and the only thing betraying its purpose is a loading bay and its new, black signage. Except this site is significant: it is the first (welted) shoemaking factory to open in Northampton for over 100 years.
In today’s sartorial climate, men are prepared to invest a considerable sum in a good pair of shoes. Gaziano & Girling’s ready-to-wear line ranges from £740 to £1,360 (examples first picture, from top: Harrow, St Ives, and Kent, all £740), while bespoke starts from £3,480 (alligator Oxford, £5,760, second picture). This is neither high street nor high fashion – it is luxury, handmade footwear, appreciated by only the most discerning customer and valued for its exclusivity, classic styling and quality.
On the eve of the new factory opening, I travelled up to Northampton to see Tony Gaziano and Dean Girling. They are both long-time friends, and I’ve watched their business grow from the darling of online shoe forums (there are such things, and my, they are obsessive) to a significant force in the industry. In February, they will take their next big step and open a store on Savile Row.
Do they think men’s attitude to shoes is changing? “Yes, men are happier to invest in shoes than they were a few years ago,” says Tony, cup of tea in hand. “But they also have a natural curiosity about the way things are made; they appreciate the engineering and the skill that go into creating a great piece of footwear.”
Tony is sitting in the tiny office that he and Dean share at their old facility – more a large shed than a factory. The room is dominated by an antique wooden desk at which they work, one on either side. “Once you have piqued a man’s interest, he can become hooked, and then budget can go out the window,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “Some save up for months, while those with a bigger wallet might buy several styles, or go for bespoke.”
Other English brands have also felt the benefits of this enthusiastic market. GJ Cleverley, a bespoke shoemaker in London’s Royal Arcade, has seen an explosion in business, with waiting times for shoes pushed up to 18 months. It has launched a high-end ready-to-wear business called Anthony Cleverley (styles from £995), using makers around Northampton. Old Northampton maker Edward Green, meanwhile, recently reinstated its luxury line, Top Drawer, which starts at £1,350.
But in my mind, Gaziano & Girling makes one of the best English shoes on the market. Tony, a bespoke craftsman himself, puts down his cup of tea and gesticulates with his hands to better illustrate his point. “The beauty of a shoe is about improving dozens of different things, from an elegant toe shape to the construction of the waist [the middle of the sole]. It all takes time, skill and a rigorous nature, but the result is a work of grace.”
The waist is something most consumers will notice. It is cut by hand, around a special wooden support under the arch, leading to a sleek line that more closely follows the shape of the foot. The use of the technique on bespoke shoes is the reason every Golden Age film star, from Cary Grant to Fred Astaire, looked so elegant – even dainty – in their footwear.
Gaziano & Girling is still relatively unknown. Its production is small and public awareness minimal. But when it opens on Savile Row, that could all change. You heard it here first.