Fashion & Grooming Editor, Ross Pollard pays homage to The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers.
Fashion has a heritage that is longer and broader than many realise, lost in a fog of time, like an island spotted in the distance from a ship.
Seven hundred and forty-two years ago The Worshipful Company Of Cordwainers gained its charter and to this day has overseen the footwear industry in this country.
Originally regulators of trade, today they play a pivotal role in developing young talent through their involvement in education and helping students start their careers. Incidentally they are some of the most fun people in fashion; each event I’ve attended is not only full of passion for footwear but a really fun evening. So, who are the Cordwainers?
Who are some of the Cordwainers we may know?
We are very proud of all our members, who are a mix of professionals from the footwear trade and education, and individuals whose families have been part of the company for several generations.
They work together, combining their professional experience with a volunteering role, to support the company’s charitable aims. Some of the more well-known names are Datuk Professor Jimmy Choo OBE, L.K Bennett, Caroline Groves, Georgina Goodman, Dominic Casey, Guy West (of Jeffrey-West Shoes) Carrie Rubin and Katie Greenyer (of Pentland Brands), the Church family (formerly of Church’s, now of Cheaneys) Peter Lamble of Start-Rite…
For the benefit of our readers who may not have come across you, what is a Cordwainer?
Cordwainers are shoemakers, specifically workers in fine leather. The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers is a livery company in the City of London, where they regulated the shoe trade from the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution.
First incorporated in 1272, Cordwainers were granted the right to make shoes in the finest leather, which came from Córdoba in Spain – hence the derivation of the name.
It’s important to note that cordwainers used new leather to make new shoes – unlike the cobblers who used old leather to repair them.
One of the things I love about the Cordwainers is although the guild is nearly seven hundred and fifty years old and you’re still heavily involved in the future of the industry and supporting universities. As you look at the uncertain future ahead with Brexit and High Street struggles, what do you think will be the biggest challenge for the students you’re working with?
There was a time when being a cordwainer was a simple matter: you made shoes and people purchased them.
For footwear students, these days life is more complicated. Not only do they need to demonstrate skill, imagination and technical expertise, but they also need to sell themselves to potential employers.
On top of this we are in a period of great uncertainty and at the time of writing this we have no idea what the end result of Brexit will be. There may be challenges for international students who have studied in the UK to find jobs and remain here post-Brexit, and for designers starting their own brands, when costs may be higher and there will be more red tape around import and export.
The Cordwainers Company has been around for seven hundred and fifty years of change and we will continue to nurture new talent and help prepare footwear students for the future through our links with the footwear industry.
Do you all check out each other’s footwear at events?
At events, Cordwainers like to do good and have fun, so when we get together we are always thrilled to catch up with friends and colleagues and discuss the latest industry news and talk about our commitment to supporting young talent – but of course we also take time to look at an amazing pair of shoes. (Grayson Perry, the Chancellor of the University of the Arts London was a recent guest, and told the smartly shod men to embrace more colourful shoe choices.)Cordwainers
What makes a good shoe?
One that is exquisitely designed, expertly made and extremely comfortable.
As the fashion industry, as a whole, starts to move toward more sustainable fabrication methods, how do you think it will change footwear design and production?
Leather is a natural and sustainable choice for footwear. Nevertheless, many shoe brands are looking at the challenges of reducing the negative environmental impact of shoe manufacture, including the use of new materials and production methods.
The challenge is to develop new technical capabilities in the design and making of shoes, as well as producing eco-friendly shoes which look good and appeal to customers. The courses at the three universities supported by the Cordwainers (De Montfort University, the University of Northampton, and Cordwainers at the London College of Fashion, the University of the Arts London) all invest time in studying different material choices and use the latest technology, such as 3D printing to explore all the possibilities that will result in fabulous shoes.
Over recent years sports-luxe has established itself as a sector within clothing. We’re seeing more and more cross-overs; do you think a time will come when trainers could have a more formal version?
Trainers have been one of the biggest growing trends in the shoe industry with great increases in sneaker sales for women, whereas high heel sales are declining – but more than anything customers now seek comfort.
Therefore, if the demand for more formal shoes becomes the trend in the future then the consumer would want them to be as comfortable as trainers.
Is there anything cooler than a Cordwainer being namechecked in a rap track as Jimmy Choo has been? Fetty Wap made a whole song about him.
We are thrilled to connect with the younger generation and inspire them into the shoe industry, so if this is a way of reaching them it is great! We are very hip and happening at the Cordwainers – follow us on Instagram: @worshipfulcordwainers
How do you feel about Velcro on shoes; does it have a place alongside slip-ons and laced shoes?
The closure of a shoe is a very important part of the design process and there is a growing trend of using Velcro on shoes both for high street and high end. Traditionally Velcro was featured only on children’s shoes, but today’s customer also likes the ease of use that Velcro offers. There is always a place for different options for different customers.
Charity work is a huge part of what the guild does; rather than just industry charities, what’s made you support the other charities?
The Cordwainers’ Company, like all of the livery companies in the City of London, is proud of its long history of supporting good causes through charitable giving.
The focus of this charitable giving is a number of organisations with whom we have established strong links, our principal charities. These are charities which we fund according to the wishes of our original benefactors, those which are related to our trade or those with which we have historic links.
We support the Royal Free, for example, because it was founded by Dr William Marsden, who was a Cordwainer. The Company is associated with three charitable funds: the Cordwainers Educational and Training Charitable Trust Company; the Harben Armoury Trust; and the Royal Free Hospital Nurses Home of Rest Trust.
Each year the Master of the Company selects a charity to support during his year of office and our events committee arranges fundraising events. This year, we have swum the Serpentine, walked around London and will be cycling from coast to coast in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society.
Thank you for your time, one last question, can you recommend someone to make me silver brogues for fashion week?
Thank you, Ross, it has been a pleasure to answer your questions and we can definitely introduce you to some brands who could create the brogues and we will look forward to seeing you in them at the next Cordwainers National Footwear Student of the Year Awards.