“Finishing” is the dirtiest word in high-end footwear. As shoe companies have exported their production to China or Bangladesh or any other country where the production practices are as questionable as the quality of the shoes, many English, Italian, and American brands have begun to exploit a convenient loophole when it comes to marking the country of origin. A shoe might be almost entirely produced overseas, but if it is “finished” in England then that company is free to tack on a “Made in England” label.
What exactly is finishing? Well in some cases it means that the shoe is completed in England – pieces are stitched together, the sole is affixed, etc. but in some cases it means that the shoe was finished and little more than the laces were added in England. Of course, countries have now begun to crack down on this, and it’s not exactly clear how many companies have taken advantage of these loose guidelines, but it’s enough to make savvy shoe-buyers weary. As a result, that “Made in England” tag no longer holds as much weight as it once did. Customers now want greater clarity on the exist origin of their footwear, which has narrowed the scope of “Made in England,” down to one area in particular: Northampton.
What Naples is for soft-shouldered sportcoats, Northampton is for leather dress shoes. Located seventy miles north of London, Northampton has been the cradle of brogued wingtips and cap-toed boots since as early as the 1200’s when King John supposedly ordered a pair of boots from a local cobbler. Location has always been the key for Northampton – it’s situated near the River Nene, surrounded by oak-wood forests which aid in the tanning process and provide easy access to thick timbers which are perfect for those hardy British soles. It was this positioning which helped to build Northampton up as the heart of England’s high-end dress shoe industry, but it was also what lead to the town’s downfall in the 1980’s.
As companies realized that their customers cared less about quality and more about frugality, they began to ship their shoe production overseas and so many of Northampton’s once busy factories were put out of business. Those that did weather this rocky period have found success on the other side, as customers from around the world not only value that “Made in England” tag, but have also taken a vested interest in the careful cobbling and high-quality materials that distinguish a Northampton made shoe. Northampton might not have as many shoe manufacturers today as it once did, but those that remain are as busy as ever. Here’s seven of Northampton’s finest – those that maintain the town’s legacy, and carve out its future so that men will never have to settle for shoes that are merely “finished” in England.