What does it take to transform a family business? Grit, determination, vision?
This is probably not a question that you’d instinctively associate with Crockett & Jones. Today, C&J is a veritable powerhouse in British menswear, turning out 2,500 pairs of top-quality English shoes a week from its handsome red brick factory.
Nevertheless, it’s a question that Jonathan Jones, the company’s current Managing Director and 4th generation of the Jones family, is well positioned to answer. Jones joined the company 42 years ago in 1977, and the company’s status then was a far cry from what it is today.
‘In the late 1970s, lots of Northampton’s shoemakers were on their way out, and a lot people thought that Goodyear-welted shoes were a thing of the past’, explains Jones. ‘Regardless, I knew the business; we were a Goodyear-welted shoemaker and I felt we had to stick to our guns.’
In the fraught economic climate of the 1970s and ‘80s, this was easier said than done. ‘In the late ‘70s, C&J wasn’t in a strong position,’ says Jones. ‘We’d maintained our pre-war mentality and hadn’t anticipated the way that fashions changed in the Swinging ‘60s.' Fathers wore tired English brogues and sons strutted around in Gucci loafers – there was little room in the market for solid English shoes.
‘So, I rolled up my sleeves and took on responsibility for product development, because I felt we had to go back to basics. And I got directly involved in sourcing skins and last-making too – learning the shoemaking process from the ground up. ‘I developed the first C&J own-brand line in parallel with making for Ralph Lauren. At the time, Mr Lauren was building an English line so we developed a strong relationship with the house.’
It was this dual pronged approach; growing C&J's own-brand retail business alongside long-standing wholesale accounts, that leant C&J stability and paved the way for the 13-store strong Crockett & Jones of today.
Skip forward 30 years, and the results of Jones’s labours speak for themselves. Wander through one of the factory’s workshop floors today and stand on its famous balcony overlooking the finishing room, and it’s impossible not to feel heartened by the factory’s buzzing and humming – the sights and sounds of several hundred craftspeople making a world-class product in sleepy old Northampton, England.
Above all, under Jones’s tenure, C&J has held firmly to the golden rule of building a heritage brand: it has stayed true to what it does best.
When I visit C&J, one of the things that always stands out to me is the company’s genuine obsession with raw materials; a passion shared by Jones, the management team, and its craftspeople alike. Thanks to Jones’s efforts in the 1970s and ‘80s, C&J has built unrivalled relationships with select European tanneries that produce some of the finest skins on the planet; a resource that’s getting trickier for shoemakers to find thanks to the negative impact of factory farming cattle on leather production.
Consequently, Crockett & Jones has first dibs on the best skins to enter the market, and thanks to its economies of scale, can make both Main Collection and Hand Grade shoes from superior leather, without passing huge procurement premiums onto the customer. Jones’s foresight in building these relationships over decades cannot be overstated – it’s one of the things that sets C&J apart. Jones doesn’t like to shout about it, but it does.
Above all, under Jones’s tenure, C&J has held firmly to the golden rule of building a heritage brand: it has stayed true to what it does best. Being a family business with a rich history has helped, ‘the heritage of the brand is very important because it allows you a sense of perspective’ says Jones. ‘If you know where your roots are it gives you confidence going forward.’
Today, the name Crockett & Jones synonymous with fine Goodyear Welted shoemaking, not just in the United Kingdom, but across the globe. Nothing more, nothing less. Jones is adamant that C&J is neither a fashion nor lifestyle brand.
Rather, Crockett & Jones a fine English shoemaker. Period. And that’s enough for him.