BQ Newsletter

Sweeney shod

Monday 18 July 2011 6:00

‘Proper’ footwear doesn’t have to be dull, brown and boring – it can also be ‘quirky with a twist’ as Chris Porter discovers on easing himself into a pair of Oliver Sweeney shoes.

“It’s not a guilty pleasure at all,” says Tim Cooper. “I think trainers are fantastic, especially in terms of their styling, and I think more and more people are fascinated by them.

If I’m deciding what to wear in the morning it would normally have been between a 20-year-old pair of Edward Green brogues that I adore, or a pair of Tiger Onitsuka trainers. I’ve got about 20 pairs.” That Cooper should be such a fan of the soft and sporty is surprising given his job.

Since 2009 he has been managing director and co-owner of Oliver Sweeney, one of the UK’s more established contemporary brands of “proper” shoes – English-made brogues and Italian-made loafers, with the gamut of other styles made in Spain and the Far East.

Easy sneakers these are not. Indeed, if fashion is seeing an appreciation for the heavy, Goodyear-welted shoe – a shock to the feet of generations that have grown up in instantly comfortable if short-lived sneakers – then the company might claim to have been ahead of its time.

When, aged 15, the company’s eponymous founder walked into Alan McAffe’s, a bespoke shoemakers in London, and asked for a job, eventually launching his own line of solid men’s footwear in 1989, the trainer craze was becoming a phenomenon.

But perhaps Sweeney spotted that there was a demand among men for shoes that would have been recognised as such by their grandfathers, but that their grandfathers would have considered too modern to wear.

Cleverly, Sweeney – who sold up to Cooper and left the business two years ago – did not ignore the comfort factor either.

He had devised his own signature and trademarked Anatomical Last, better mimicking the foot’s actual shape, sculpted to support the arch and reduce rolling to the outside of the foot.

A combination of this ease of wear and a British quirkiness in styling: “A bit less conventional, the old idea of classic with a twist,” has, Cooper suggests, given the brand a loyal following that has allowed it to survive downturns, historic management problems and administration, but also to retain great potential.

Indeed, since 2009, Oliver Sweeney has seen like-for-like retail sales increase 38%, and rapid expansion into other products, with this summer alone seeing the launch of sunglasses, blazers, sports jackets and an extended range of bags and small leather goods.

A selection of outerwear has already been launched and more products are likely to slowly follow.

Could Oliver Sweeney have the makings of a more comprehensive menswear label? “Shoes will always be the core of what we do,” says Cooper, himself a third generation shoemaker, with management experience at the likes of Bata when it was the world’s biggest shoe manufacturer.

“And I think men are becoming more and more interested in shoes, if not to the slightly obsessive extent that women often are.

Not only are they more interested in shoes, but in less traditional ones too – as the male wardrobe has broadened beyond the suit, men have looked for footwear to go with it.

It’s a product of media, celebrity and a general increase in style-awareness.

But Oliver Sweeney is becoming more a men’s lifestyle brand now.

I very much admire Paul Smith’s business – and would certainly like one like that...” Perhaps in readiness, the diversity of the footwear that Oliver Sweeney sells –from international accounts, six stores across the UK and, increasingly, on-line – has grown over the last two years, giving it a broad customer base, albeit one focused around the affluent 30- to 50-somethings happy to spend as much as £350 on a pair.

Goodyear-welted brogues, tassel loafers, whole-cuts (made seamlessly from a single piece of leather), Chelsea boots and biker boots – often with a signature sweeping, streamlined shape – sit next to crocodile-print and even deep red eel-skin sneakers.

This latter shoe, with its unexpected choice of materials and colour a typical Sweeney creation, is a revisiting of the brand’s more creative heyday a decade ago, when in 2003, Sweeney designed his Chelsea shoe, a square-toed, monk lace-up on a squarebacked heel, one of the company’s best-sellers and certainly the one that put its name on the map.

Other distinctive but wearable styles followed, often in limited editions – a shoe in stingray, for example; the Venice, with its elongatedshape and two seams running to the toe, or – suggesting that the company does not take the naming of its styles too seriously – the Ravioli, a pointy-toed loafer that any Italian hipster might well appreciate.

Some shoes have simply been show-stoppers.

There have been, for example, the cricket ball-inspired shoes – in the same red leather, with the same heavy contrast stitching, and complete with the signatures of the 2005 Ashes-winning England team etched into the uppers – which the company launched to raise money for the Everyman male cancer charity.

And in 2007 Sweeney produced Londinium, a style released in strict limited edition, if only because the heel block contained wood from the first London Bridge, dating to 63AD.

For those who want a shoe more unusual still, the company still runs its custom service, through which a customer can select from a range of colours and skins – including 24 exotic skins in gold, green and baby blue, to cite just three of the bolder shades – and then pick details from piping to lining and lacing in order to make a Sweeney style more their own.

It is a long way from Cooper’s love for a good sneaker.

“Of course, mostly what I wear these days are Oliver Sweeney shoes,” he adds quickly. “That’s because, like many of our customers, I really appreciate the British style of our shoes, the solidity of them, and a quality in British designed-products that is harder to define.

We may make all over the world, but British design is what we’re about. Our designers are British and the company’s roots are very much here. Oliver Sweeney’s is a British sensibility.”