Despite living in the capital city for all twenty-eight years of my life, there has not been a day where I have felt that I have completely discovered London. I put this down to the fact that London constantly reinvents itself. I still look at the underground map to tick off the stations that I haven’t been to yet (Cockfosters never fails to amuse me for obvious reasons). A while ago, during one of my many explorations, I stumbled upon a store in West London. Being an east lad myself, delving into the other side of London is a rare occurrence. The store was Tim Little, a brand that specialises in modern British footwear – and my gosh, I was pissed that I hadn’t discovered it sooner.
While this self-titled store stocks Tim’s own line, I soon found out that Tim was also the owner of the famous footwear brand Grenson. Aesthetically, Tim Little is all you would want from a British brand. His products are warm, charming and stylish all at the same time. Here, the customer service creates its own standard, and speaking to Tim Little’s store manager taught me more about shoes in one conversation than the hundreds of blog posts I have read. The shoes themselves…just have a flick through the gallery above to take a peak at some of the finest British made shoes money can buy.
After I managed to wipe the drool from my mouth, I followed my feet upstairs and had a chat with the founder himself. Here is what I learnt from the Tim Little…
Aaron Christian: How and why did you start Tim Little?
Tim Little: That’s a really tough question. Well, I was in advertising at the time for premium product clients like Porsche and Harrods, where I would advise them on how their brands should be presented, and even what products they should venture into. Through this, I got involved with Adidas, whose brief was to reinvent their brand because they were becoming very old and price-led rather than interesting. I often found that because I was so involved in branding, I was more engaged than the people that actually worked for these companies. For a lot of people, this was a job where they would eventually move onto somewhere else. For me, it was different. Quite simply, I fell in love with their brands.
As an example, Porsche cars were regarded as a complete w****** car. If I’m honest, that’s all I knew about Porsche as well. So I went to the factory, and saw how they made these cars. The hoods on the convertibles were hand stitched by women who made the most perfect products, and anything that wasn’t absolutely perfect was simply thrown away. The cars were beautiful, and made of the best quality anywhere in the world. The point is that these Porsche’s are a wonderful piece of machinery with amazing accomplishment, but all anybody ever knew about them was that only idiots who had too much money drove them.
Around this time, I was becoming really interested in English made shoes. Although there is a great amount of craftsmanship and quality in such a wonderful shoe, this was something that was dying out. The way English shoes were presented was just so boring. I remember wanting to buy myself a really fantastic pair of brogues, and was willing to pay a lot more than I could afford at the time. So I went into a shop, only to experience the most awful time. It was interesting as the actual product was amazing, but it was totally undersold. I then went into a ladies shoe shop with my partner, and there was amazing presentation, beautiful interior design, and great service for a product that was really badly made.
The men’s shoe market had misunderstood how to communicate their product and in order to change that, I started Tim Little.
AC: As you were in advertising, how did you get into the shoe industry?
TL: As soon as I started to get interested in shoes I went to a trade show where a few of the factories in North Hampton were showing. I took a card from each of the people at the stands and then arranged to visit them. Some of them wouldn’t see me because I didn’t really have anything to talk about. I just asked for half an hour and a cup of coffee.
Three or four of them did see me, and as I started visiting them more I offered to do bits and pieces for them in exchange for their time and a bit of knowledge. I started to get together a few designs of my own and asked them to make a few. This was so useful as I worked with a particular guy who would show me what I could and couldn’t do. Little things like not being able to make a type of sole in a certain factory, or not stitching a seam because it was placed in a weak spot was so useful to learn. From then on, it was easier for me to understand what was possible and what wasn’t when I was putting together my collection.
AC: How did you feel in your own space when you opened up your first store?
I did everything in the complete opposite from the norm. I felt that I had to go in right at the top from day one, otherwise it would just take too long. So instead of selling enough product to save up and buy a shop, I bought a shop first. Being able to sell to the retailers from a shop made my brand feel bigger than it was. It actually really worked because when journalists wanted to write about Tim Little, the brand had so much more substance as opposed to me with a briefcase filled with about ten pairs of shoes. People could see a three-dimensional store as well as my personality, which came through much better in a big space than it would in one shoe. Another thing is that my shoes are quite traditional – they don’t have flashing lights or studs, they are a modern version of a classic. It is difficult to put one shoe on the table and expect people to exclaim ‘God, that’s changing the world!’ Having a shop meant that customers could walk into an environment and understand the brand, instead of just a shoe.
AC: What were your biggest learning points when you first started?
TL: The toughest thing to start with is actually getting things manufactured. When you are not established, and have small orders, getting the products made is hard because manufacturers are not really interested. You are generally moved to the back of the queue, meaning that everything you need made is late, and you also get charged more, leaving little room for negotiation.
The next test is selling to a store, which surprisingly, I didn’t find difficult.
The first account I sold to was Barneys in New York, and then I secured Selfridges in London. I believe that if the product is exciting enough, the buyer will be interested.
After that, your product then sits on a shelf next to say, Prada, where even if my shoe is nicer, eighty per cent of consumers will go to Prada. We all lock onto brands. If a customer is going to buy my shoe, they have to really love the product because it is not cheap, it is a brand they don’t know, and quite plainly, it is a big leap to spend £300 on a pair of unheard shoes. Achieving initial sales was the most difficult aspect and significant learning point for me.
AC: What defines the Tim Little brand?
TL: When I first started, I made up the phrase, ‘English shoes without the cobwebs.’ The most overused phrase is ‘classic with a twist,’ but Tim Little is just that. I thought that there are really great bits of the English personality, but really awful bits too. The awful bits are the stereotypes of snobbishness, being stuck up and pompous. I felt as though a lot of the English shoe brands were just about what to wear for Ascot. The more attractive side of being English is our quirkiness, humour and fun. This is the aspect of Englishness that I wanted to bring out in the Tim Little brand, having a bit more fun and loosening it all up.
Another unique aspect to Tim Little is that there is something incredibly rare about having one shop with one group of products that are all done by the guy who’s sitting upstairs. The best restaurants in London are the ones where the guy who established it is there and he is either the cook or the maître d’. I think that this concept is really rare in the fashion industry. Having one store makes our service very personal.
My manager has been here from day one and he knows every customer. He is a real character and a fantastic guy.
The intimacy of the brand also runs through our product, as if you buy a pair of shoes from us, probably only twenty have ever been made. It’s just a very old fashion thing really, a little shoemaker on Kings Road that hasn’t changed for fifteen years. The only thing that has changed is the shoe. They constantly change and hopefully they are unique and different every time.
AC: what is an essential piece of footwear for any mans wardrobe?
TL: Everybody should have a pair of properly welted shoes. It could be a pair of really slick, gorgeous black shoes for a suit, or a chunky English brogue in tan with a big sole, or even an outdoor walking boot. I say this as in terms of individual style certain things suit certain people. I have customers who will only ever buy a monk shoe or a loafer. Within that, I would say that every individual should own an English style shoe. Otherwise, I think that Italian moccasins are made well, are so comfy, and can look really cool.
AC: What is the one tip you would give in terms of maintaining footwear?
TL: If the shoe is leather, the single most important thing is that if they get wet, put shoetrees or newspapers in them to let them dry in their proper shape. Do not wear the shoes for at least forty-eight hours. A shoe that is wet will misshape and wear out twice as quickly as a dry one. All the shoes that we get back for repair are ones that tend to have had a wet sole. Even after daily wear, your perspiration leaves the shoe moist. To put shoetrees in them and let them dry naturally will make them last twice as long.
AC: I don’t know if you have seen our Sins of Style feature, but what is your worst faux pas? For me, it is guys wearing sunglasses at night. There is NO reason why!
TL: Well as a shoe man, I absolutely hate seeing somebody beautifully dressed, but finished with a bad, cheap pair of shoes. Sometimes you see a really good suit, a really good shirt, but a cheap pair of shoes and it just completely ruins it. It just doesn’t work.
You can wear a pair of jeans and a fantastic pair of shoes and people will say you are beautifully dressed, but it doesn’t work the other way round.
AC: Is there a particular style of shoe you don’t like? My personal shoe crime is massive square-toe shoes. Is there something that’s just an absolute no-no in your wardrobe?
TL: The one shoe I absolutely detest and I cannot bear is this new thing for men – they call them shandals. Its some kind of sports sandal, and its like everybody wears them. If you go out in the summer every man has got a pair of these damn things on and they just look awful! While we are on the subject, any kind of sandal or flip-flop when you have bad feet is just horrible. You have got to have good feet if you’re going to get them out.
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